It’s hard to believe High School Musical hit our screens 15 years ago this year, its release giving rise to the career of one Mr Zac Efron. A career that has seen more than a few surprise hits and several disastrous misses (let’s not even talk about Baywatch!). So, we thought we would get our head in the game and explore Zac Efron’s first three major films in celebration of this momentous occasion. In this Spotlight Classic Special, we look back at Zac’s journey from East High to Orson Wells.
High School Musical (2006)
While Zac’s career began long before High School Musical in minor TV roles, East High launched his international career. High School Musical remains the ultimate guilty pleasure for many people; it’s red, white and blue framed Americana full of optimism. Its music and performances as comforting as a slice of homemade apple pie and cream. However, would you believe me if I told you that High School Musical also changed the landscape of film and TV? Well, it’s true; in fact, many would argue that the ever reducing gap between cinema and TV started here. But let me explain.
By the 1990s, the classic live-action musical had fallen out of favour on the big screen. Disney’s own 1992 movie musical Newsies suffering nothing short of a humiliating box office defeat at the hands of a public interested in thrillers, action-adventure, and slapstick comedy. However, in the world of animation the musical was finding a new voice, with The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin striking gold. The toe-tapping hits they introduced laced with soft yet complex stories of family, love, identity and belonging.
However, in 2001 director Baz Luhrmann would light the fuse under a sleeping giant. His reinvention of the live-action musical carrying the title Moulin Rouge. Here, Lurhmann took the classic movie musical into new territory. Its loud, energetic and glitter-covered cinematography coupled with a score of pop classics. The result of which ensured the movie musical found a whole new audience. But, despite its success, Moulin Rouge remained an adult affair, with younger teens left in the cold of the musical renaissance. That was until a small Disney Channel original made it cool once more for young teens to love theatre, musicals and live-action song and dance. The idea behind this was simple; mix the feel-good music and innocence of Disney animation with the pop culture pizazz of Moulin Rouge. In turn, creating a Grease hybrid aimed at a younger teenage audience.
“There will never be another experience like that for me. I’m happy I had it so young.”
Zac Efron talking to BBC Radio One
The man charged with making this a reality was Kenny Ortega, who had brought us Newsies and Hocus Pocus, neither of which had struck box office gold. However, Ortega was also the choreographer behind Dirty Dancing and a whole host of well-known music videos. And when his talent for dance and direction met a vibrant young cast, great score, and colourful backdrop, High School Musical sprung into life. Its small budget and speedy recording schedule only adding to its vibrant sense of energy.
Without High School Musical, the live-action family movie musical may have never made a defiant come back. Meanwhile, TV shows like Glee would have never found a voice on mainstream channels like Fox. However, maybe its biggest claim to fame is its global success as a TV movie. Kenny Ortega’s film proved that TV could rival cinema, foreshadowing the arrival of streaming juggernauts like Netflix, Prime and Disney +. And love it or loathe it, the sheer impact of High School Movie surrounds our modern landscape of teenage musicals, tv shows and high school drama. Its place in musical film history just as important as the film that inspired its creators, Grease.
High School Musical would go on to spawn two sequels before the cast moved on to new pastures. However, for Zac, offers were already coming in thick and fast. His rise to stardom instant, life-changing and challenging. However, while giving Zac opportunities beyond his wildest dreams, escaping the image of Troy Bolton would prove far more challenging in the film choices available. Efron’s first non-disney roles proving crucial in building a career away from East High.
Watch now on Disney +
How do you follow the success of High School Musical while carving out a career in broader cinema? This was the challenge facing Zac Efron in 2007 and 2008. However, Efron rose to that challenge with two inspired choices of films; sealing his place as a future leading man. In 2007 Efron would appear in a musical, followed in 2008 by a heartfelt romantic drama. But let us start with the musical.
Originally based on the edgy John Waters 1988 movie, the 2007 film version of the stage show Hairspray buzzes with energy, humour and joy. Its impressive cast surrounded by rich and colourful cinematography. Here, Zac Efron inhabits the role of Link Larkin, a slightly narcissistic dancer and singer on The Corny Collins Show. However, on meeting the vibrant Tracy Turnblad, Link finds love and a moral compass in the most unlikely of places. Efron not only owned the role of Link but importantly managed to highlight a love of comedy, a genre he would return to more than once in his career. At the same time permanently carving his place as a master of the on-screen musical.
Hairspray allowed Zac to work alongside a host of Hollywood royalty, from John Travolta to Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken. And while he may not have held top billing, with the director initially nervous about casting him. Hairspray announced Efron’s arrival in Hollywood. While at the same time demonstrating his willingness to play roles where he shared the screen with others on an equal level. This is important for several reasons. One, he could have moved straight into leading man roles but opted not to. And two, this choice demonstrated a willingness to work as part of an ensemble of talent. Something Efron has maintained throughout his career.
Adam Shankman’s Hairspray remains a movie of pure fun and joy. Its core messages on race, belonging and difference layered in bright colours, beauty and a stunning score. This is a film that will have you singing along, smiling and dancing around your living room before the final credits roll. And in many ways, it’s only right that Zac Efron held a lead role; after all, would there have been a Hairspray movie without High School Musical? The answer is yes, but would it have been as successful at the box office? Here, the answer is undoubtedly no. Hairspray remains one of the best movie musicals of the 00s and one of the most loved by audiences. But it also remains the point at which a young Zac Efron truly arrived on the big screen.
Watch now on Amazon Prime
Me and Orson Wells (2008)
As mentioned above, Zac Efron opted to follow Hairspray with a very different historical romantic drama, enabling him to stretch his wings on screen. His choice would prove career-defining in allowing him to step from the shadow of Troy Bolton. Here, Efron would work alongside the legendary director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood). The superb and highly underrated film that followed rooted in the smoke and mirrors of theatre and the defiant bullish creativity of a legend. That legend was none other than Orson Welles portrayed here in the years leading up to his famous radio broadcasts.
Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel ‘Me and Orson Welles’, Linklater tells the story of the famous Welles stage production of Ceaser in 1937. Here, the play’s journey from rehearsals to opening night is viewed through the eyes of a 17-year-old aspiring actor Richard Samuels (Efron). A young man who finds himself thrust into the limelight after a chance encounter with Orson Welles outside his New York Mercury theatre. The brash, bold and highly creative Welles (Christian McKay) taking Richard under his wing while equally using him to fulfil his own needs in bringing his bold anti-fascist vision of Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser to the stage.
Me and Orson Welles is wrapped in the artistry and emotion of theatre production. Each scene a love letter to the power of live performance in challenging social norms and ideas. Meanwhile, the ambition, bustle and force of 1930s New York are brought to life on screen through a host of surprising locations, including London and the Isle of Mann. The resulting film earning rave reviews on its release; however, it remains one of the least talked about Efron pictures. Some of the reasons for this are clear in the reviews attached to its release. First, many of these reviews single out the film’s brilliance as being rooted in Christian McKay’s sublime performance as Welles. At the same time, others talk about their surprise in realising that Zac Efron could act.
These critical views highlight the challenge for any young actor in moving beyond teen idol status. Here, young heartthrobs often find their performance sidelined, with critics often favouring the senior actors around them while sarcastically debating the young star’s talent. In turn, creating a no-win situation for many young stars born from a dedicated fan base as they try to expand and develop.
In truth, while McKay’s performance is stunning, complex and engaging, Efron’s is equally as assured. Here, while Zac maintains a teenage swagger and swoon, his characters slow realisation that theatre holds a cutthroat atmosphere disguised under a soft blanket is superb. And even more impressive, he holds his own against McKay’s formidable Welles. His performance once again highlighting his passion for performing alongside an excellent ensemble cast.
Despite some of the backhanded yet positive critical reviews, Me and Orson Welles remains a defining film in Zac’s early career. In a movie that proved he could take on drama alongside comedy and musicals. His next movie, the underrated 17 Again, would see him further build his comedic skills. In just three years, Efron had proved his diversity, talent and ability, not putting a foot wrong in leaving High School Musical behind. His place in film assured for many years to come by the choices he made.
Watch now on Amazon Prime
Pick n Mix returns next Friday.