In Hamlet 2, there is something wonderfully crazy about Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), a dead-end high school drama teacher, rallying his comatose class to band together and put on a musical sequel to Shakespeare's tragedy. But the tradition of high schools serving as a backdrop for movie musicals is as old as movie musicals themselves. For at least eight decades, kids have sung and dance on school stages, and, in the process, have defined each era's attitudes towards adolescence, rebellion, ambition, and the role of popular culture in our everyday lives.
The 1930s and '40s: Let's Put on a Show
High school drama departments, adolescent energy and budding romance first combusted into the genre of the high school musical in the 1939 Babes in Arms. Based on a Rogers and Hart Broadway hit, the movie version was drastically reworked and astutely captured the anxieties of its time. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney are the irrepressible duo who push to put on a show even as the welfare administrators try to keep them in school. The show, staged not in a school but in a local barn, is being put on by Garland and Rooney's characters to raise money for their destitute vaudevillian parents, a nod to both the aftereffects of the Great Depression as well as the declining fortunes of vaudeville performers in the age of the movies. The film ends with a big, patriotic musical number, "In God's Country," which nervously looks forward to the Second World War ravaging at that time the nations of Europe.
The success of the film launched a MGM franchise. In Strike Up the Band (1940), the same pair put on another show, but this time it is for less humanitarian reasons. They simply need to pay their way to a band competition. The next films in the series – Babes on Broadway (1941) and Girl Crazy (1943) – created similar scenarios that were primarily powered by the couple's star power. Meanwhile in the Andy Hardy films, Mickey Rooney played the hapless, zealous teen who can't help falling in love, sometimes ending up in a high school musical as well. In the 1939 Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, the young whippersnapper falls for his high school drama teacher, going so far as writing and starring in his own musical to impress the older woman.
In the 1930s and '40s cinema had yet to discover the angsty interior life of teenagers or the social pressures of high schools. Accordingly, when they appeared, high schools were often comedic environments. For example, in the 1943 Best Foot Forward Lucille Ball plays herself visiting an all-male military prep school, where hormones get the better of the student body.
The 1950s and '60s: Get Ready to Rock
While the Rooney and Garland musical series provided MGM a vehicle to show off their young stars, the concept of high school as a significant rite of passage for the American teen was not well established at this point – either in the movies or in real life. High school remained primarily the domain of college-bound students and was considered a privilege rather than a punishment. But all that changed in the 1950s, a time in which many social historians have placed the birth of youth culture itself.
During these Cold War years, two essential characteristics of youth culture – its sense of rebellion and its definition of the teenager as an autonomous consumer – were first defined. Appropriately, then, it was in the 1950s that high school musicals returned – with a twist. Although many of these films were simply marketing devices dreamt up by DJ extraordinaire Alan Freed to showcase his latest groups, they nonetheless solidified for teens their sense of their own independent culture. One example is the 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock, which is ostensibly about Tuesday Weld trying to scrounge together money for the high school prom. The real action, however, occurs when musical acts like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and Chuck Berry show up to strut their stuff. A few years later, this spectacle of rock celebrity and teen culture would be sent up by George Sidney's 1963 adaptation of the Broadway hit Bye, Bye, Birdie. Here the musical (in the form of the faux-Elvis, Conrad Birdie) doesn't bring the community together, but rather splits it asunder.
But by the time we reached the early-to-mid '60s, with hippie rebellion on the horizon, teenage musicals stepped away from high school as a setting. There is a school in the 1965 hit Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello musical Beach Blanket Bingo, but it's a skydiving one in which the teacher is a typically acerbic Don Rickles.
The 1970s: Yearning for Happier Days
After years of draft-dodging, psychedelic drugs and the Vietnam war, it seemed the best way to view youth culture at the movies was through the rear-view mirror. The 1978 Grease, adapted from the hit stage show, made John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John '50s teenagers whose only concerns were hair grease, car wax, and summer love. Of course, Grease was not the first film to look back on the late '50s and early '60s culture through the sentimental prism of rock music. George Lucas' seminal 1973 teen-hop picture American Graffiti was perhaps the first film to conceive of American adolescence as a string of Top 40 songs. The TV series Happy Days followed suit. But just as Hollywood was romanticizing 1950s teen culture, independent producers were spoofing it. The 1979 Roger Corman-produced Rock 'n' Roll High School satirized the '50s high school musical by making pioneering punk band The Ramones the musical center of its story.
The 1980s and '90s : Breaking Out
By the '70s and '80s, high school had become less a place for teen spirit or common dreams as a state-mandated holding pen. In his essay "How Did We Get Here and Where Should We Be Going" for the collection The New American High School, historian Mark S. Tucker observes, "By the close of the 1970s, our high schools had become warehouses for young people..." And in the films, the key to unlocking such prisons inevitably involved song.
In films that were not technically musicals, soundtracks served as internal monologues, giving a voice of defiance and revolt to characters locked up in high schools. Indeed, in films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Risky Business, and Dazed and Confused, the soundtracks defined the films as much as, if not more than, the actors or stories. In other cases, characters who can't sing themselves use electronic devices, like stereos, mixtapes and even radio stations, to express the emotions that either society, high school authorities or their own vocal chords won't allow them. Is there any doubt that John Cusack's boombox belting out Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" in Say Anything or Christian Slater's pirate radio station sending out Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" in Pump Up The Volume are really the characters in disguise? And in other high school hits, like 1984's Midwest dance drama Footloose or 1987's fairy tale in the Catskills Dirty Dancing, moving to the music is the revolutionary act. Even in a film like 1980's Fame, where the high school is duty bound to teach music and dance, the question of teen identity rests on whose music and whose style of dance.
Colluding in this wholesale reinterpretation of the teen music movie was the launch in 1981 of MTV. With the debut of the 24-hour music channel, which, back in the day, actually did broadcast music videos, the emotional reality of adolescence was scored to a non-stop playlist of pop anthems. During these years the movie musicals listed above, everyday teen life, and the latest pop songs formed a feedback loop that can be seen as the beginning of our current cinema's fixation on the teen audience.
Today's Musicals: Back to Putting on a Show
By the new millennium, the poignancy of Fame had turned into pure competition as a series of dance films began to be less about acts of defiance and more about expressions of social inclusion. In the 2000 sleeper, Bring It On, cheerleading, the most uniform (and uniformed) of school social institutions, turns out to be an agent of social change and individual fulfillment. Soon a number of dance films, from the 2001 Save the Last Dance to the 2006 Take the Lead to the 2007 Step Up, played out the same scenario of music and dance as an arena for social distinction. Partially fueled by such competition reality shows as American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, these new films turned teen angst into teen ambition.
At the same time, the high school musical had begun to return to its Rooney and Garland roots as it resurrected the story of a bunch of kids getting together to put on a show. In recent films like Get Over It and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, the musicals within the movie only come together when the kids put away their differences for the sake of the show. In Tommy O'Haver's Get Over It, for example, Martin Short hopes to stage his musical version of A Midsummer's Night Dream, which turns out to be a terrifying concoction of Broadway sap and '70s disco. Only when the kids take it over does the film sing, much like in Vincente Minnelli's Bandwagon, where the real show arrives only when the cast overthrows the director's demonic dream of setting Faust to music.
But the greatest endorsement of the "let's put on a show" spirit came with the phenomenal success of High School Musical, which is now on its second sequel. The story of a high school basketball star wanting to join the drama class production appears at first to expose the division between jocks and drama geeks. But by the end, when the entire school gathers in the auditorium to sing "We're All in This Together," it's clear high school is no longer the enemy but the stage on which those crazy kids find themselves.