‘High School Musical’ films, ranked

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Quarantine has made me reminisce a lot. Especially as I’ve realized how time flies, my shortened college experience has made me increasingly nervous about how I spend my time. As much of a throwback as it may seem, this pressure to enjoy my time in school while it lasts reminds me of “High School Musical,” most notably the third film. In the interest of returning back to these films with a matured perspective on their themes, I will be ranking each of the installments in Kenny Ortega’s iconic trilogy below. 

And, yes, before you say anything: I agree, the “High School Musical” films are works of art. Why should you trust these rankings? Firstly, I love “High School Musical.” If that isn’t enough, I owned a sweater, a T-shirt and the DVD board game. Most importantly, though, I memorized the lyrics to the songs. These films stand out because they’re emotional rides that speak to us through song — that’s the beauty of musicals. 

I will rank the films in the following categories: plot, acting, dance numbers, music and sets/props. The films will receive points based on their standing in each category. The film with the most points will be crowned the victor.

Plot

  1. “High School Musical 2” (+2 points)

I like this plot because although it’s not focused on school, it demonstrates how high school-esque summer vacations in high school can be. Troy’s struggle with compromising his values and relationships for self-gain creates a meaningful message. The sequel earns the top spot in this category because it provides a new lens on the teenage experience that is outside of high school hallways.

  1. “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” (+1 point)

Watching the characters end their high school careers is nostalgic. The challenges shared by Troy and Gabriella add to the complexity of the film. Although the premise for this film is solid, the addition of characters like Donny, Rocketman and Tiara (Sharpay’s assistant) dilute the seriousness of the film. I have to put this film’s plot in second place for this reason.

  1. “High School Musical”  (+0 points)

This plot is also intriguing but isn’t as complicated as the others. Essentially, basketball nut Troy Bolton and studious Gabriella Montez meet — your classic nerd and jock story. The motif of the status quo is prevalent and well-executed throughout the film.

Acting

  1. “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” (+2 points)

This acting is the best and feels the most mature. It feels like the actors are at their most comfortable level with their characters. Efron and Hudgens’s chemistry really brings out the complexity of the plot and adds to the seriousness of the series’ finale.

  1. “High School Musical 2” (+1 point)

In this film, the actors “broke into” their characters a little more. The on-screen chemistry among the six main characters seems to have progressed. 

  1. “High School Musical” (+0 points)

The acting is not bad, but there are parts that give off corny feels. The actors’ underdeveloped craft was noticeable throughout the film.

Dance Numbers

Choreographer Charles Klapow is just …wow. Impressively, his work in “High School Musical” won an Emmy for Outstanding Choreography. The sequel would later earn a nomination in the same category.

  1. “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” (+2 points)

The dances are of varied styles, from disco to waltz. Choreographer Charles Klapow outdid the amazing numbers of the second film. “I Want It All” and “A Night To Remember” stand out. Don’t even get me started on the closing number “High School Musical.”

  1. “High School Musical 2” (+1 point)

Although these dances are more complicated than those in the first, they are not as extreme as the third’s.

  1. “High School Musical” (+0 point)

Still very solid. The closing number is loud. The other films have more dances than this film.

Music

  1. “High School Musical 2” (+2 points)

Bop after bop. Most of these songs feel upbeat, but even slower ballads like “Gotta Go My Own Way” are good tunes.

  1. “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”  (+1 point)

Songs here are strong, but they’re not as catchy as the ones in the second film.

  1. “High School Musical” (+0 points)

These songs are also good, but Zac Efron did not sing in this film, so HSM gets last place by default. Efron’s voice is an asset. Props to Drew Seely for his behind the scenes work though. 

Sets/Props

  1. “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”  (+2 points)

Props are so elaborate in this film! Sets for numbers like Ryan and Sharpay’s “I Want It All” and the group performance of “A Night To Remember” are amazing. 

  1. “High School Musical” (+1 point)

This film made good use of typical high school places like the cafeteria and gym. “Stick to the Status Quo” is a prime example.

  1. “High School Musical 2” (+0 points)

Most of this movie is filmed at a country club. It was nice to see how creative the producers got with using the club for numbers like “Fabulous,” “Work It Out” and “All For One.” However, props were not used as much as they were in the third film.

Results:

First Place: “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” – 8 points

Second Place: “High School Musical 2” – 6 points

Third Place: “High School Musical” – 1 point

I was bamboozled by “High School Musical” — high school is (sadly) NOT like this. No, I totally did not want to be Gabriella someday … that would be a little silly (haha). (I do go to Stanford, though hehe (+1).) While some believe the films push the high school cliche too far, I disagree. I don’t believe these films were ever meant to be taken seriously. In spite of its illusions, the “High School Musical” trilogy captured our hearts because it covered valuable lessons like going after what we want and not abiding by prescribed notions with beautiful songs. The coming-of-age story definitely resonates across the films. Director Kenny Ortega, cast and crew — well done.

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Rosana is an Arts & Life Contributing Writer and a News Staff Writer from La Puente, CA. She enjoys a good hike and is her dog’s biggest fan. The SoCal native misses playing the alto saxophone and looks forward to someday watching the Dodgers (in-person) win another World Series game. Contact her at rmaris 'at' stanforddaily.com.