I recently discovered a Youtube channel called Musical Theater Mash which uploaded a video entitled “The High School Musical Conspiracy” whose thesis was that the High School Musical franchise, love it or hate it, made musical theater “cool” and brought it to a younger audience. I myself am a perfect example of the phenomenon that Musical Theater Mash illustrates. High School Musical came out when I was in elementary school, so I was the perfect age for it. This was around the time when I was getting interested in Broadway musicals and High School Musical was probably how a lot of kids my age became theater fans. We would move onto shows like Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables which are the gateway drugs of the theater world.
Each age has its edgy and transgressive theater. The turn-of-the-center had Puccini’s La Boheme. The 1950s had Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and the 60s and 70s had Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. The theater kids who were slightly older than me had Rent and Avenue Q. When the High School Musical age bracket hit their teens, the big shows were Next to Normal and America Idiot. We had just about missed Spring Awakening (which would make a brief resurgence in 2015 due to it short-lived revival) and a few holdovers from our predecessors, such as Rent and Wicked were still around along with perennial theater kid staples like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. The theater kid scene during my adolescence, roughly 2007-2014, was a time between times. It was after things like Rent, Avenue Q, and Spring Awakening, which we liked in spite of, perhaps because of, the fact that we were told that they were too adult for us, and before smash hits like Hamilton, and Dear Evan Hansen, a large portion of whose fan bases are made up of teens and young adults.
The conclusion of “The High School Musical Conspiracy” is that the most noteworthy musicals of the past several decades, such as Rent and Hamilton have been geared towards younger audiences and have themes like rebellion and dissatisfaction with society which resonate with adolescents and young adults and use a more contemporary style of music. I was fortunate enough to a part of the Itunes/Youtube generation and live a world where one can have access to the cast recording of shows they might otherwise never get to experience. It is much easier to search up bootlegs on Youtube than spend several hundred dollars on theater tickets. This has lead to the rise of cult hits like Bonnie and Clyde (which famously closed after a month) and Heathers (which never made it past off-Broadway). Most of their fanbases never got to see them live and only know about them through bootlegs and original cast recordings. Bootlegs are controversial in the theater world but it is strangely appropriate that these tales of youthful criminality be experienced through a technically illegal activity.
Heathers and Spring Awakening are musicals that I experienced in similar ways. I started off by listening to a few of the songs before finally getting to see a bootleg several years later. They both have a dark tone and deal with the uglier side of being a teen. Spring Awakening is a melodramatic cautionary tale while Heathers finds sardonic humor in even its most messed up moments.
Both musicals take place in the past (Spring Awakening is set in 1891 while Heathers is set in 1989) and are very much stories of their time yet speak to timeless issues that young people (Spring Awakening specifically focuses on burgeoning sexuality and overly strict parenting while Heathers is about clique and popularity culture and how psychologically damaging it can be). Veronica Sawyer and Melchior Gabor, the snarky, diary writing protagonists respectively, each directly or indirectly cause the deaths of several characters (Veronica and her boyfriend J.D. manage to off Heather Chandler, the head of the Heathers, and jerk jocks Ram and Kurt while Melchior is unable, despite his best efforts, to prevent his best friend Moritz’s suicide and gets his lover Wendla pregnant, leading to her death from a botched abortion). The two stories also share a theme of teenage suicide (Moritz commits suicide and Veronica and J.D.’s m.o is making the deaths of their victims look like suicides).
The characters of Heathers are fortunate enough to live in a more permissive time (the late 1980s where premarital sex and booze and drug-fueled parties are facts of high school life) than the characters of Spring Awakening (the straight-laced, buttoned-up 1890s where such debauchery would have been unthinkable). But adults in both eras appear to be equally out of touch and hypocritical: the adults in Spring Awakening are cruel (the teachers) or at least overbearing (Frau Bergmann, Wendla’s mother, and Herr Stiefel, Moritz’s father) while their counterparts in Heathers are either abusive (Big Bud, J.D.’s father), self-serving (Miss Fleming, the flaky hippie English teacher), or absent (Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Kelly, Ram and Kurt’s fathers). The few positive parental figures (Frau Gabor, Melchior’s mother, and the Sawyers, Veronica’s parents) are unable to prevent the tragedies which befall their children.
Both musicals follow High School Musical’s lead: a story about teenagers set in a high school about the pressure to conform to society’s expectations feature recognizable teenage types and un-understanding parents. High School Musical, as insufferable as it is another over the age of twelve, may have contributed something positive to the world: the rise of musicals like Spring Awakening, American Idiot, Heathers, and Dear Evan Hansen.