Zach Efron High School Musical

Zac Efron – The Journey from East High to Orson Welles


It’s hard to believe High School Musical hit our screens fifteen years ago this year, its arrival on the Disney Channel a defining point in the career of a young Zac Efron. Since High School Musical, Efron’s career has delivered several surprise hits and disastrous misses (Baywatch!). So, let’s get our head in the game and explore Zac Efron’s first three films and his journey from East High to Orson Welles.

Zac’s career began long before High School Musical with a series of minor TV roles, but East High would launch him into the stratosphere. High School Musical remains the ultimate guilty pleasure for many people, its view of wholesome Americana full of optimism and toe-tapping numbers. Its music and performances are as comforting as a slice of homemade apple pie and cream. However, High School Musical also changed the landscape of film and TV.

By the 1990s, the classic live-action musical had fallen out of favour; even Disney’s 1992 musical Newsies would suffer a humiliating box office defeat from a filmgoing public interested in thrillers and action adventure. However, just as all hope seemed lost, the musical would find its rebirth in the world of animation through The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before Baz Luhrmann lit the fuse under the sleeping giant of the live-action musical with Moulin Rouge. Luhrmann’s movie took the classic colour, dance and feel-good vibes of the MGM movie musical and gave them a fresh coat of paint with a brash, bold, loud and energetic mash-up of pop classics. Moulin Rouge would fire the starting gun for a whole new batch of musicals on screen, but nobody expected a Disney Channel movie to be one of them.

The man charged with bringing High School Musical to the small screen was Kenny Ortega, who had brought us the box office flop Newsies and Hocus Pocus. Ortega had been the choreographer behind Dirty Dancing and many famous music videos and, therefore, knew the ingredients that would attract teens to his perfect and colourful world of High School dance, love and song, an attractive and vibrant young cast.

Love it or loathe it, High School Musical reignited the near-extinguished fire of the teen-driven musical, just like Grease had done in 1978. Without this Disney Channel gem, TV shows like Glee may have never found a voice on mainstream channels like Fox. At the same time, Kenny Ortega’s film proved that TV could rival cinema in audience pull, especially among young viewers who were beginning to change their viewing habits in an emerging online world.

But if you are a young guy suddenly thrown into fame beyond your wildest dreams, how do you follow a TV movie like High School Musical? For Zac, escaping the shadow of Troy Bolton would lie in the film choices he was about to make.

Based on John Waters’ 1988 movie, Marc Shaiman’s musical Hairspray opened on Broadway in 2002 and instantly became a global hit. Therefore, expectations were high for the 2007 film version of the stage show, and thankfully, audiences weren’t disappointed. Adam Shankman’s Hairspray was packed with energy, humour, joy, and an incredibly impressive cast. Zac Efron almost seemed born to play the character of Link Larkin, a smooth dancer and singer on The Corny Collins Show who falls head over heels in love with the effervescent Tracy Turnblad. Link Larkin offered Efron the opportunity to build upon his High School Musical image while embracing a comedy-driven role for the first time, a genre he would return to many times in his career.

Hairspray allowed Zac to work alongside a host of Hollywood royalty, from John Travolta to Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken. While he may not have held top billing, Hairspray formally announced Efron’s arrival in Hollywood. But it also demonstrated that Efron was willing to play roles where he shared the screen; this is important for several reasons. After all, following High School Musical, he could have attempted to move straight into a leading man role due to his popularity, but he didn’t. Instead, Efron would opt to take roles as part of an ensemble, allowing him to learn his craft with others. In many ways, Zac has maintained this rule throughout his career. Link Larkin was the perfect bridge character for Zac, allowing him to play to the teen idol sex appeal High School Musical had offered while spreading his cinematic wings through song, dance and comedy. But it was his next movie that would genuinely announce his dramatic arrival.

Following the success of High School Musical and Hairspray, most people expected Zac to take up another swooning musical role, but he smartly opted for something very different: a low-budget romantic drama. Efron would work alongside the legendary director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) in a movie that paid homage to the smoke and mirrors of theatre and the defiantly bullish creativity of Orson Welles. Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel Me and Orson Welles, Linklater’s movie tells the story of Welles’ infamous stage production of Ceaser in 1937 through the eyes of a fictional 17-year-old aspiring actor, Richard Samuels (Efron).

Samuels finds himself thrust into the limelight after a chance encounter with Orson Welles outside the Mercury Theatre, New York, with the brash and bold Welles (Christian McKay) taking him under his wing. However, Welles’ motives are far from charitable as he uses Richard’s youth and beauty to further his own romantic desires while developing his famed anti-fascist adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Me and Orson Welles beautifully explores the artistry and emotion of theatre and the ambition of an ever-growing 1930s New York art scene.

Despite Zac’s first significant foray into drama sinking at the box office, it remains a defining film in his early cinematic journey. Me and Orson Welles proved that Efron could step outside the musical while maintaining his teen idol status. Following Me and Orson Welles, Efron would move back into comedy with the underrated 17 Again, where he once again returned to the Troy Bolton style of character, but in just three years, he had proved his talent and earned his place in Hollywood for many years to come.


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