Troy and Gabriella seem to care little about musical theater yet they steal the spotlight.
Sharpay and Ryan's passion is ridiculed but Troy and Gabriella's foray into musicals is celebrated.
The movies send the message that passionately working hard doesn't matter as much as popularity.
It's been over 15 years since "High School Musical" (2006) made its debut — and I still can't get past its underlying message that working hard for something doesn't matter nearly as much as popularity.
In the first film, we follow Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) as they audition for the high school's winter musical, fall in love, and deal with their judgemental friends who don't love theater.
We're meant to root for protagonists Troy and Gabriella at every turn while condemning Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) and her brother, Ryan (Lucas Grabeel), the antagonists who intend to keep Troy and Gabriella in check so they can pursue their own long-term dreams of stardom.
Although viewers may have trusted that Sharpay and Ryan were a force to be defeated when we were younger, it's clear that Gabriella and Troy were always the real villains.
Sharpay and Ryan are skilled performers, and Troy and Gabriella have sung one karaoke song
Neither Troy nor Gabriella have any experience in singing, dancing, acting, or performing in musical theater when we are first introduced to them. In fact, both of them categorically state that they have no interest in singing — it's not what they "do."
Troy and Gabriella poke fun at signing up for the musical at first and, eventually, Troy auditions because he likes Gabriella, not because he has a genuine interest in performing arts.
Comparatively, Ryan and Sharpay have worked for several years to hone their talent and craft in musical theater. They have also acted in 17 school productions, and understand the importance of accurate choreography, blocking, harmonies, and call times — something that Troy and Gabriella clearly don't know or care to learn about.
There's nothing wrong with pursuing new interests later on in one's high-school career — which "Stick to the Status Quo" tries to highlight — but for Troy and Gabriella to expect to land lead roles when they are complete beginners just isn't likely.
Sharpay implies as much when she encourages Gabriella and Troy to sign up for supporting roles in the musical. Although Sharpay's "advice" could have been delivered more kindly, it seems like common sense that theater novices would start with a minor part.
Troy and Gabriella don't even seem all that committed to musical theater, which is everything to Sharpay and Ryan
For their audition, Ryan and Sharpay prepare their own arrangement for the song "What I've Been Looking For." They do their audition with full choreography, something that is not expected of most actors but definitely sets them apart as dedicated performers.
Troy and Gabriella are late to the audition but don't actually face any negative consequences.
Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed) hands them a free pass and a callback when she overhears their late performance, which they didn't prepare for at all.
This is an added slap in the face as we see fellow Wildcats poke fun at musical theater and Sharpay's love of it throughout the film.
Chad (Corbin Bleu) says that the music in the show isn't "anything essential to culture," and talks about show tunes with a grimace on his face. Taylor (Monique Coleman) also tries to explain to Gabriella why her budding relationships with both Troy and musical theater is somewhat pointless compared to a focus on academics.
And out of fear of being ridiculed, Troy initially hides his desire to pursue musical theater with Gabriella from his teammates.
Gabriella isn't fully committed to musical theater (angering Sharpay) nor the academic decathlon (angering Taylor) — she is committed only to Troy and their potential relationship that's budding through this musical audition.
The school comes together to help Troy and Gabriella get the leads while Sharpay and Ryan are actually working on their callback performance
Sharpay eventually forces Troy and Gabriella to confront where their true priorities lie.
She convinces Ms. Darbus to change the date of the callbacks, making it conflict with Gabriella and Troy's other after-school activities: the academic decathlon and an important basketball game.
But the light criticism Gabriella and Troy face for auditioning for a musical quickly ends and soon almost the entire school (sans Sharpay and Ryan) orchestrate a plan to help the lovebirds score a leading role.
Composer Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), the Wildcats, and Taylor's academic team work together to hack the scoreboard during the game and cause an explosion in the academic decathlon so that Gabriella and Troy can make it to the callback.
Meanwhile, they mock and never support Sharpay and Ryan's desire to achieve the same roles.
Troy and Gabriella are late to the callbacks because of their other commitments, and Ms. Darbus makes a point when she tells them that "the theater waits for no one" and "rules are rules."
Still, perhaps enamored by the sudden support of the musical-theater program by athletes and A-plus students, Ms. Darbus hears their callback audition and gives Troy and Gabriella the starring roles.
Troy and Gabriella fall in love with each other, not musical theater
By the time "High School Musical 3" (2008) rolls around, Sharpay is still branded a villain for wanting to perform and do whatever it takes to pursue her dream career in musical theater.
In the third film, the East High gang prepares a musical to celebrate their graduation and the stakes are high because Sharpay, Ryan, Kelsi, and Troy are competing for a Julliard scholarship.
Troy didn't even apply to Julliard — Ms. Darbus sent in his application.
But Gabriella and Troy bail on the musical halfway through and go to Stanford to work on their relationship and dance in the rain, or whatever. It proves what Sharpay knew all along: They don't prioritize theater the same way she does.
As Sharpay focuses her heart and soul on theater, Gabriella and Troy view it with a wavering commitment.
Sharpay even steps up to fill Gabriella's role while still dealing with her fellow Wildcats' lack of support. But Troy and Gabriella are hailed as the heroes of the school (again!) by doing the bare minimum — showing up last minute to perform a duet during act two of the musical.
Our beloved protagonists go forth to study law and basketball (with a sprinkle of theater). Sharpay is gracious as she loses the Julliard scholarship to Ryan, and her hard work in musical theater lands her elsewhere, as seen in "Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure" (2011).
But by the end of the trilogy, Sharpay still carries a soured reputation and Gabriella and Troy are never called out or penalized for their hypocritical, fickle commitment to theater.
Above all, Sharpay was never the villain she's painted to be. She was just a high schooler with a passion for the arts, trying to stop her dream from being derailed by two lovebirds who just discovered they can sing and actually kinda like it.
You can stream all of the "High School Musical" movies and "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" on Disney+:
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