I have never refused an offer to go to the movies. My daughters wanted to see “High School Musical 3” last weekend, so I took them without protest.
Anyway, I thought it would be a good reward, not to say antidote, to their morning labors at their Suzuki violin and cello classes. The mythic Dr. Suzuki, who died in 1998 at nearly one hundred years old and whose method of string playing has been followed by millions, believed that all children could learn to play the violin, that instrument of unmatched prestige and frustration. The Suzuki folks like to quote their founder. “Man is the son of his environment,” said Suzuki. These would be depressing words to ponder when heading into a multiplex, so I didn’t ponder them. The whole point of the movies is to transport you out of your environment. In the perpetual contest between nature versus nurture, I opt for pure escapism.
We joined the mothers and their daughters and groups of adolescent girls in the ticket line. The High School Musical franchise is a predominantly female phenomenon, and a big one at that. Over its opening weekend at the end of October it brought in $42 million, obliterating the previous record for a movie musical set by “Mamma Mia!” last summer.
“High School Musical 3” is purported to be the series’ final installment, though with these kind of box office numbers one suspects otherwise. Though we have come to senior year, the movie’s final song, “It Will Never End,” strikes an ominous note.
As I paid for the tickets, I noted on the electronic display that the simulcast of the Saturday matinee of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Doctor Atomic, the opera about Robert Oppenheimer with music by John Adams and libretto by Peter Sellars, was just beginning. Last year the broadcast performances in high definition went to movie theaters. Apparently it was a success. Now a full season awaits those who’d jump at the chance take in an opera ensconced in festival seating and with a 32-ounce Coke in the drink-holder.
As my daughters and I staggered towards Cinema 6 with our five-gallon bucket of popcorn alarmingly categorized as a “medium,” I plotted some multiplex channel-surfing.
I admit that the mix of super-saccharine love songs and lavish production numbers offered up by the first two parts of the HSM trilogy of teen self-discovery is a hard one to resist. But if anything can pull me away from Albuquerque’s singing and dancing, basketball-playing, musical-making East High Wildcats it’s a quick trip to the Met.
High School Musical begins to joyous gasps and giggles from the audience. What we have learned in the previous films from basketball star and karaoke savant Troy and the assiduous, intelligent and melodically gifted Gabrielle, an only child living with a hard-working single mother in a 4,000 square-foot arts-and-crafts super-bungalow on a leafy Albuquerque street, is this: that the high school rivalries between “Brainiacs” “Nerds” and “Jocks” can be overcome when we accept others and ourselves for who they and we really are. In this world Chad can lead his team to basketball glory and also star in the high school “musicale”; and after graduation he can and does get a basketball and theater scholarship to UC Berkeley to be near his high school sweetheart Gabrielle, who has a scholarship to Stanford.
The endless stores of popcorn and a campy homage to Busby seem to have the attention of my charges. I excuse myself. The only way out is right in front of the screen, but the Met beckons. I grit my teeth and make my exit, a silhouetted figure intent on escape.
I scuttle from Cinema 6 and Albuquerque to Cinema 12 and Los Alamos, where the overwrought Oppenheimer wracks his conscience to Adam’s nervous music, uttering his lines — much of the text is taken from declassified documents — in fretful bursts of dialog set to jagged shards of melody. Edward Teller and General Leslie Groves hector away, as the members of the chorus loom above the stage, each member in his or her own office-block cubicles, isolated by impotence and fear. Never has a New Mexico June been so dark, nor music simultaneously so busy and foreboding. Sufficiently irradiated by a ten-minute dose of dangerous energy, I hurry back to East High, caught again in the projector’s light as Chad and Gabrielle contemplate their love, their life, their future …
I got a lot of things
I have to do.
All these distractions.
Our futures coming soon
We’re being pulled a hundred different directions
But whatever happens I know I’ve got you.
Director/choreographer Kenny Ortega is no Busby Berkeley, but he puts together a good show, with ingenious dance combinations and a spoofy sense of fun. Already in possession of DVDs of the first two movies, my daughters like dancing around as they watch, mimicking the choreography and hamming up the songs. They like the movie and the characters and the tunes and the dances. They like getting embarrassed by the puppy love scenes, and the slights and romances of oncoming adolescence. The movie bastes the primal confrontation with sex, even the gyrating hips in the dance routines, with an anodyne glaze.
After ten more minutes of harmless musical antics, that man leaves the theater again.
Back in Los Alamos they’ve come to the end of Act I. Oppenheimer, pulled apart by moral qualms, is left alone on stage and sings an extended aria to Donne’s sonnet
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
It is searing music, direct and profound, and the performance of Gerald Finley, who created the role in the San Francisco production of 2005, is so honest and filled with a raw beauty that I am devastated. I never thought I’d discover something that would change my life in the middle of High School Musical Three.
The act ends to a smattering of applause from the theatre. I head back to Albuquerque.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org