High School Musical Comes to the Ice

Articles, Articles by Barry Mittan

Feld Entertainment’s latest ice spectacular, Disney’s High School Musical: The Ice Tour, opened in Florida in early September for an initial nine-month run. The show, also produced by Kenny Ortega, is expected to visit over 100 cities with three touring companies. Two companies, which both did their debut shows in Florida, will cover North America including Canada and Mexico as well as the United States. The third company, which opened in Santiago, Chile, will tour South America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

The show combines the storylines from the two popular Disney movies, High School Musical and High School Musical 2 into a single ice show featuring the music and stories from both movies. High School Musical has become an international phenomenon since it first began as a Disney Channel movie starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Anne Hudgens. The Emmy winning hit spawned a book, stage shows, thousands of high school stage re-enactments, theme shows at Disney parks and of course, the second movie. Both the soundtrack and the movie’s DVD were number one for 2006. The High School Musical 2 soundtrack has topped the Billboard 200 charts becoming the first album to claim the top spot for four weeks straight since March 2005.

The first half of the ice show recreates the plot of High School Musical with and East High basketball star Troy and science nerd Gabriella falling in love and battling with budding diva Sharpay and her brother Ryan. As long as Troy sticks to sports and Gabriella to science, things are fine but when the two decide to try out for the high school musical parts that Sharpay and Ryan believe should be theirs, complications arise. Eventually all the conflicts are worked out as the East High teams win in basketball and the brain bowl and Troy and Gabriella sing a duet in the musical.

In the second half of the show based on High School Musical 2, the students spend the summer vacation at the local country club where Sharpay and Ryan’s parents are members. Hoping to lure Troy away from Gabriella, Sharpay gets Troy hired to work at the club. But he convinces the manager to hire Gabriella and the rest of his and Gabriella’s East High friends. As she works harder to pry Troy away from Gabriella, Sharpay tries to get the other students fired, so she can perform with Troy in a talent show. But Ryan befriends the other teens and helps them develop their own act. Sharpay gets the club to ban the students from the show but is forced to relent when Troy refuses to work with her unless the others can perform. Finally Gabriella and Troy get back together.

The show was produced by Emmy award winner Kenny Ortega, who produced both High School Musical movies. It is directed by Jeff Calhoun, who also directed Theatre of the Stars production of High School Musical on stage in Atlanta. Emmy award winner Charles “Chucky” Klapow, who choreographed the two movies, choreographed the show with well-known skating choreographer Cindy Stuart.

The international tour company features Mexico’s Gladys Orozco as Gabriella, New York’s Victor Ehre as Troy, and Swedish Olympian Helena Grundberg as Sharpay. One of the North American companies stars three U.S. skaters in the lead roles: Lane Walker as Gabriella, Jordan Brauninger as Troy, and Sandy Rucker as Sharpay. Brauninger was the bronze medallist at the 2004 World Junior Figure Skating Championships and finished as high as tenth in seniors at U. S. Nationals. Rucker was the 2006 U.S. Junior Ladies national champion.

The other North American company features Canada’s Amanda Billings as Gabriella, Australia’s Brad Santer as Troy, and U. S. skater Kristen Treni as Sharpay. Among the ensemble members in that tour are Canada’s Matt McEwan, who is an understudy for Troy, and U. S. ice dancer Kimmerly Lauten. Billings finished fourth at Canadian Nationals in senior ladies in 2005, while Santer is a two-time Australian senior men’s champion and three-time Worlds competitor. Treni, who finished as high as 12th in seniors at U. S. Nationals, was the winner of the reality television show “Skating’s Next Star”.

Billings, Santer and McEwan talked with Skate Today after their first week of shows in Florida and described their experiences with the production in comparison to skating competitively. Although Billings and McEwan are new to show skating, this is Santer’s second year as a professional. He turned pro after the 2006 Olympics and scored a principal role as Prince Philip touring with Disney’s Princess Classics in Europe last season.

“That was pretty cool but I was looking for something different and more challenging,” Santer stated. “When I heard about High School Musical, I talked to Judy Thomas about it and went to Las Vegas for the audition. I really wanted the role of Troy because it really suited me. I can relate to the character from my own life when I was torn between school and skating. I could understand the pressure it put on him.”

Although the role calls for Santer to act like he is playing basketball and golf on skates, he never really played those sports in Australia. “I was into rugby and cricket,” he said. “I don’t think American audiences could relate to them very much.” In a role reversal, his co-star, Amanda Billings, was more of an athlete, competing in track and field in school in addition to playing golf.

Show skating wasn’t a new goal for the 20-year-old Billings. In a 2004 interview, she stated, “I have always dreamed of being on skating shows and I definitely want to pursue a career in professional skating for several years.” After nearly making the podium at Canadians and placing 11th at Junior Worlds in 2005, injuries had hampered Billings and she slipped to seventh at Canadians in 2007.

She was at a point in her career where she felt she had to change focus. “I wasn’t enjoying skating singles any more and I wanted to make a change,” she said. “I was trying to decide whether to train pairs or go pro. I tried pairs for a while and it was fun but not really what I was looking for. So I started to shop around for something else.”

One of her coaches, Scott Davis, a former U. S. national champion, had skated in Disney’s Grease before going into coaching. “He told me I should try out with Disney but I didn’t want to be in anything as an animated character,” she stated. “Then Judy Thomas told me about High School Musical. I saw the movie and thought that it would be really fun to do on ice. I decided really late in May and I didn’t know if I could get on the show, but I sent them a videotape. Fortunately, Judy had seen me skate at Nationals and I got the part without having a tryout.” It didn’t hurt that her choreographer was Cindy Stuart, who was well familiar with Billings’ skills.

Except for the need to don a black wig to hide her long blonde hair, Billings was a natural for the part of Gabriella. Cute and perky, she actually was a science whiz in high school. Biology, chemistry and mathematics were her best subjects and she graduated with an A average. “And I like to sing,” she added.

Except for the character of Kelsi, none of the skaters can be heard singing during the show. Instead, the original cast recordings from the two movies are used. But that doesn’t mean the skaters aren’t singing. “We all sing along,” Billings said. “The songs are peppy. Two other girls from my club are in the show and we got the soundtrack and played it over and over before we came.” “We know all the songs,” Santer added. “We hear them over and over again in rehearsals so we hear them in our dreams.”

In addition to hearing the soundtrack and seeing the original movie, the skaters also got an advance screening of High School Musical 2 before they started rehearsals. They practiced for five weeks in Lakeland, Florida before their first show. Each day, they would work an hour off ice with choreographers Cindy Stuart, Doug Webster and Chucky Klapow to learn the choreography before taking it on the ice for an hour, then repeat the process. Klapow actually learned to skate himself so he could go on the ice with the performers.

“We had an amazing creative team,” Santer said. “It was special to see it go from the floor to the ice. You can really get the feel of the show more on the ice then in the other media. The show is really unlike anything else in the pros or amateur skating. It’s so special, so much fun, just straight funk. Partly it’s because the musical is such a phenomenon. All the kids and their parents are singing along and dancing in the aisles.”

“It’s different from any other skating show because it’s hip hop skating,” McEwan noted. “You don’t see that in competitive skating.” That was a challenge for Billings, well known for her classical skating. “Chucky had a lot of fun imitating my balletic hip hop,” she said. “I’d taken a few hip hop classes, but never skated to anything like it. The music and the dancing and the costumes are exactly the same as in the movies, except for the added skating flavor.”

“We’ll actually be the first to perform High School Musical 2 outside the movie,” Santer said. “There have been thousands of shows of High School Musical but no others of High School Musical 2 yet. That’s so exciting.” “I think of all three media, the ice show will be the biggest hit because it has the biggest canvas,” Billings added.

“One of the biggest transitions was learning to work with all the other skaters,” Santer said. “I had never skated in an ensemble before,” McEwan added. “That took a lot of practice.” The skaters also had to learn pairs moves in addition to their singles skating. “I had done a fair bit of pairs in the other Disney show,” Santer noted. “We got a lot of help from some of the other pairs working for Disney and got to work with Toby Paul.”

“I loved learning the pairs stuff,” Billings said. “We’re working on sit lifts and drapes and trying to add new lifts and carries. Right now we have side-by-side double axels and we’re working on side-by-side triple toe and triple lutz. In our solos, we got to incorporate a lot of elements which would get points under the code of points like my change edge spiral. I get to do a few jumps and a lot of spins. The combination spin is my favorite.”

“One of my solos is like my Olympic short program,” Santer noted. “I have a level four step sequence, a double axel and a triple toe. I’m also doing a triple flip and a triple lutz in some of my solos.” McEwan, who must learn to skate Santer’s role in his job as the understudy, noted, “I’m hoping to brush up on my triple lutz to use in the show.”

Unlike competitive skating, practice time is limited for the skaters once the tour begins but on ice time increases. “The principals only have a half hour of ice time on show days,” Santer explained, “but we have open ice before and after shows that you can sign up for. I’ve become an expert at time management. It’s quite surprising to be able to fit into a half hour what I used to do in an hour and a half.” “We also have rehearsals once a week, more if we have to learn a certain number,” Billings added. “And there’s a class for all the skaters to do edge work.”

During the shows, the principals are on ice for almost an hour in each half, except for costume changes. Although there are a few slow sections where the East High students are sitting around, most of that time is spent skating. That’s a lot more than the four minutes for a long program. “We always work every show,” Santer said, “unless there’s an injury. Even when there’s an understudy taking over the principal role, we skate the roles they would normally skate. And we watch them and help them out.”

Otherwise, the skaters weren’t fazed by the demands of show skating. “I had to get used to no warm-ups and the lights,” Billings said. “When you go off ice, you’re blind because there’s no light backstage. You have to be careful not to fall over things.” I don’t get nervous going on the ice for the show,” McEwan added. “I just get excited.”

So will audiences as they view the show.

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