How ‘High School Musical’ Broke Records & Boundaries: ‘It Felt Like an Opportunity to Change Culture’

Before GleePitch Perfect and even Hannah Montana, Disney helped bring musicals to the mainstream with a made-for-TV movie called High School Musical. The story of classmates from different backgrounds coming together to create a school production captivated young people — and plenty of adults — around the world, resulting in two sequels, 19 Billboard Hot 100 hits and album sales of nearly 10 million copies for the entire series.

But those figures and milestones (along with the dolls, blankets and aisles of other merchandise the series spawned) were just part of what made High School Musicala phenomenon. The twists on usual teen stereotypes — a star basketball player who sings, a skateboarder who plays the cello — broke boundaries as much as the series broke records, its stars say.

In honor of the third film’s 10-year anniversary, Lucas Grabeel, who played the flamboyant and musical-savvy Ryan Evans, and Monique Coleman, who played the whip-smart valedictorian Taylor McKessie, tell Billboard about the show’s legacy, what their characters represent to the LGBTQ and black communities and how they still keep in touch with their castmates.

Once you started filming the first movie, did you have a sense of what High School Musical would become?

Coleman: I was excited. I was like, “If I’m going to play 16 again, I want it to at least be a swan song to 16.” I didn’t understand or realize on what scale that would be — we had no way of knowing that it was going to become a sensation, that was going to really stand the test of time. But it felt like it was special. There hadn’t been an original musical in so long, and [it was] something that represented so many different people. It felt like an opportunity to change culture.

Grabeel: I was definitely the skeptic in the group. Kenny has such a beautiful way of inspiring people on set. He would say things like, “Guys, we’re in this together. This is going on film forever … We know the choreography. Forget about the dance moves — dance with your heart and try to reach through the camera and touch the hearts of children, families and people.” It was things like that that made us ready to do it.

Coleman: We were filming “[Stick to the] Status Quo,” and I sitting behind Kenny looking at the monitor — it felt watching Fame for the first time. It was giving me all the feels. I walked up to everyone like “You guys, you have no idea. You’re really creating magic. I’m sure you’re exhausted and your bodies probably hurt, but this is the moment to give it everything you have.”

Grabeel: We knew it was cool and special, we didn’t think it was 1 billion dollars special. We were like, “It’ll be a really successful movie, and we hope to like the music.” After the movie came out it was like “Oh, it’s doing even better. Oh, we’re going to the Today show. Oh, we’re at the top of iTunes.” Every day was a new thing. It was funny because, I lived in a moldy, nasty apartment, and I’d tell my friends hanging out in my dingy apartment: “I guess I’m doing this segment on Good Morning America.” It was a big change for us.

Monique, you worked closely with Corbin Bleu, as your characters dated. Lucas, you and Ashley Tisdale played siblings. What were your first impressions of your costars?

Coleman: We were nine years apart in real life — he was 15 — so he was a kid to me. He was this cute little nugget. But we had chemistry immediately. It’s not an illusion. I just thought he was such a sweet person, and he still is. Of all of the people in High School Musical, if there’s a question, “Who is the nicest?” It’s Corbin.

Grabeel: I remember auditioning with Ashley and hating her because she wanted to rehearse a lot. I was like, “Look, I don’t want to socialize much, I just want to work on my own thing, I came prepared.” But we ran through the scene together outside, and she gave me notes in true Sharpay fashion. I was like, “Who is this girl telling me how to do my own audition?”

[At the audition] she was like, “My mom drives me everywhere,” and I was like “I’m from a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere and was doing my family’s laundry at 7 years old, so I drove out here by myself.” The juxtaposition [between us] was pretty crazy — learning all of that just kinda put everything in perspective for me. But after doing three movies, two tours, countless international travels, parties, interviews and roundtables, Ashley is a sister to me. I love her. We are like family. We are a lot like Ryan and Sharpay.

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