There Is Always Redemption At East High: The True Fantasy of High School Musical

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A wise woman once said that there are few things more well-suited to quarantine than rewatching the entire High School Musical Trilogy. That woman was my mother, and that’s what my family has been doing for the past week. 

The trilogy, starting with the first film released on the Disney Channel in 2006, was a generation-defining series, with each movie containing many instantly iconic moments. It was a huge hit for Disney, and it remains a nostalgic favorite for many, including myself. 

Rewatching the series, I was struck with several revelations. First, is that the series genuinely holds up. There are some dated elements, sure, particularly when it comes to early 2000’s fashion, but the series remains a refreshingly sweet teen story about growing up, first love, challenging the status quo, teamwork, and being proud of who you are and where you’re from

Beyond the messages, musical numbers, and the star-making performances though, the High School Musical trilogy embodies multiple fantasies, which is the real reason the series is universally appealing. 

Some of these fantasies are obvious. Troy and Gabriella’s relationship is a romantic fantasy. Being super talented at two things, like Troy is at basketball and music (getting a scholarship for basketball and being considered for a scholarship at Julliard?!), that’s another fantasy. Actually having a great high school experience? Fantasy. The fantasy of being able to run around your unlocked high school in the dead of night to scream out your emotions. These, and so many more, are the core appeal of the series. 

But one of the fantasies of High School Musical that I think flies under the radar has to do with the antagonist, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale). Sharpay has gotten a sort of posthumous pardon in the past few years with a compelling “Sharpay was the real victim” discourse emerging on social media. This is fun in its own right, but let’s focus on Sharpay’s intended depiction in the series. 

Sharpay Evans is seen, in the viewpoint of the movie, to be a spoiled, ambitious, hard-working, but conniving and controlling theatre kid. She has worked her whole life to be in musicals, which is impressive, but she doesn’t have the sweet summer child innocence of first-timers Gabriella and Troy. In each of the three films, she is poised to be the star of whatever musical production is being put on, but Troy and Gabriella are picked instead, so Sharpay tries to get back into the spotlight. Her efforts to do so range from convincing the drama teacher to change the date of the callbacks all the way to having Troy kidnapped in the dead of night

But at the end of each movie, without fail, Sharpay’s plan is somehow foiled, Troy and Gabriella are restored back to the spotlight, and Sharpay realizes the error of her ways. And when the whole cast sings the final triumphant number, Sharpay is invited to sing with them and is welcomed back into the fold, where she becomes counted among our protagonists. Our protagonists never hold her failings against her. 

Your first thought might be that this is formulaic, that Sharpray having the exact same character arc each movie, never progressing in a linear fashion over the course of all three movies, is poor writing. I, too, thought this originally. But with more contemplation, I realized that this is not the case. In fact, the cyclical nature of Sharpay is actually quite profound. Everyone struggles with bad habits and destructive behaviors. In real life, we rarely progress linearly or in an efficient manner. We all have strongholds that keep us in vicious cycles. In this way, High School Musical continues to be very profound and observant about human nature. 

Even deeper, though, the ending Sharpay gets in each movie speaks to one of our deepest desires as humans. We all want to be forgiven unconditionally. We want our mistakes and failings and vices to be forgiven and forgotten about. We want our friends to continually receive us with open arms and always be ready to sing with us again. We want to be redeemed. We want salvation. 

That is the fantasy of High School Musical, because, in our daily lives, our relationships are full of bitterness and grudges and unforgiveness and anger. We do not ask for, or receive, forgiveness from everyone. We are not given unconditional love. We ruin our friendships and are not let back into the fold. We do not act as redeemed people. 

Oh, but this Easter, let us remember that this doesn’t have to be a fantasy! When we celebrate Easter, we remember that we have been given unconditional love and continual grace. We can live as Sharpay Evans does- in full confidence that no matter what we do, we can be forgiven, redeemed, and enter back into covenant fellowship. Over and over and over again.

Sharpay may want it all, but she should realize that the unearned mercy and reconciliation she’s been given by her peers is what is truly fabulous.

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