Hollywood Flashback: 'High School Musical' Became an Instant Smash in 2006

High School Musical Still - Photofest - H 2019
Courtesy of Photofest

The TV movie, which launched the career of then-18-year-old Zac Efron and drew 7.7 million viewers, "nailed what kids were feeling at the time," says then-Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney.

On Jan. 20, 2006, the Disney Channel aired what might have been the most financially successful TV movie ever made.

Besides launching then-18-year-old Zac Efron's career and drawing 7.7 million viewers, High School Musical set in motion two sequels (the second, made on an $11 million budget, had a theatrical release that grossed $253 million worldwide); a 2011 spinoff TV movie called Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure; a soundtrack that became the best-selling album of 2006 with 7 million copies sold; spinoff movies for the Chinese, Argentine, Mexican and Brazilian markets; a concert tour with the original cast; two stage musicals; a reality TV series about tryouts for the show; and, premiering Nov. 8 on Disney+, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.

All this from a telefilm The Hollywood Reporter said "has about as much personality as the stale air that tries to inflate it and pump up its volumes."

THR summarized the plot as "two shy teens meet, fight for a dream despite their shyness and learn at the end of it all that it's what inside of us that counts."

Maybe that leaves out a few details, but it's the foundation of a billion-dollar franchise.

"High School Musical nailed what kids were feeling at the time," says then-Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney. "They wanted to sing or dance or play basketball. That was the genius of High School Musical. It gave kids permission to be whoever they are."

(Fun fact: It was filmed at Salt Lake City's East High School — where Roseanne Barr, later fired by Disney-owned ABC over a racist tweet, was a student in the 1960s.)

"The film spoke to a generation that didn't want to stick to the status quo if it meant they couldn't follow their dreams," says Disney Channels Worldwide senior vp Jennifer Rogers Doyle, who was involved with Musical from its inception. "Though the film might have felt cheesy to critics, the story felt very real to the kids."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.