Lucas Grabeel: Musical youth

This article originally appeared in the September 6, 2007 issue of **The Stage**

**As one of the stars of dazzling Disney success story, High School Musical, Lucas Grabeel is finally enjoying the Hollywood high life. In The Stage’s second instalment examining the growing musical franchise, he talks to Scott Matthewman about his shaky start in LA and how he got his break**

“The greatest part about working on High School Musical,” Lucas Grabeel says with a grin, “was the first couple of days.”

He clearly says this not to imply it was all downhill from there, rather that director and choreographer Kenny Ortega’s mode of working appealed to him from the outset.

“Normally, when you show up to rehearsals on the first day, the choreographer has got every step ready to go, written down in their notebook before they’ve even seen anyone do the dance. They’d choreograph all of it themselves.”

Instead, Grabeel, 22, and co-star Ashley Tisdale, who were to put on a deliberately exaggerated, uptempo pastiche version of the romantic leads’ big ballad, What I’ve Been Looking For, found themselves with an unusual request from their director.

“Kenny said, ‘Alright, put on the song’, and told us to just dance. And we were like, ‘What are we supposed to do?’, but he told us to just do the number.

“And so we did whatever we wanted to do, and Kenny said, ‘I like that, that and that, everything else throw away, and do it again’. So I put in as many jazz squares as I could, until he finally said, ‘The jazz squares are funny, let’s keep them’. Things like that wouldn’t have been in the movie, but now I get so many people coming up to me and saying, ‘Everybody loves a good jazz square’. If we’d had everything choreographed from the beginning, that joke would never have been in there.”

The first film depicted Grabeel and Tisdale’s characters, Ryan and Sharpay Evans, as over the top musical theatre performers.

“The number one thing that we said was that these kids have been performing on stage, or doing beauty pageants or talent shows, from out of the womb. The thing that was great for me was I thought of all the horrible, repetitious, easy choreography that people do in [bad] theatre – the jazz squares, the step-touches, and the jazz hands.

“Every time you go to a high school musical, no matter where you are in the States, you’ll see those sorts of moves.”

And Grabeel has plenty of experience to draw on from that field, having been involved in school musicals from an early age.

“I always wanted to be a performer. I would just dance, or do some crazy, juvenile impersonations. When I was 12, I did a musical called The Secret Garden. On the first night, after I came off stage, I went home with my mom and said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life’.

“From then on, I really got into theatre hard core. I was always in a show. And then, when I graduated from high school when I was 18, I packed up my car and drove to LA.”

His move to Hollywood was not an impetuous one, though. A year previously, he visited the city to scope it out. “I was sceptical of Los Angeles,” he explains.

“Originally I wanted to move to New York and do theatre. I just wanted to be on stage my whole life. But I came out to LA, and while I really, really liked the city, I was trying to make connections with people and nothing was working out. It was so much bigger and spread out than New York.”

Demoralised and dejected, he was about to leave when a chance meeting changed everything: “I was standing in line for a smoothie, and a guy came up to me and asked how old I was. I told him I was 18, and he said, ‘Well, you look like you’re 14’. I get that a lot! He told me he’d been in the film industry for 35 years, knew what people were looking for, that I had a look and had I given any thought to being an actor?

“And I was like, ‘That’s why I’m here’. So he gave me his card, said ‘Let’s have lunch’, and from then on he was my manager, and he’s my manager to this day.”

After roles in other Disney Channel movies, including its supernatural Halloweentown series, Grabeel was cast as Ryan Evans. In the latest instalment of the franchise, Ryan probably has the largest dramatic arc of all the characters, as he steps out from his twin sister’s shadow to win his own place as a respected member of the East High Wildcats.

For Grabeel, the journey is one that is especially important to him.

“The great thing about High School Musical is all the hidden lessons within it,” he says. “I try to bring some of that to my portrayal of Ryan. Kids change all the way through high school. It’s great to show someone like Ryan coming out of his shell. It really gives kids something to connect to, and lets them know that being into drama and dance is okay, and it’s not weird. I’ve spoken to lots of drama teachers, and where they used to get the same people turning up to auditions, now they’re getting a lot more.”

In Grabeel’s future is the planned High School Musical 3, destined for a cinematic release rather than a TV movie (although, like the rest of the cast, he has yet to commit to the project). Beyond that, he sees his future branching out in new directions.

“I’d love to do some improv again,” he says. “I did some recently for the first time in six years, and it was a blast. And I’d love to do musical theatre on Broadway. There’s such a sense of discipline in musical theatre, a work ethic that’s amazing to be around.”

Although he is not locked into any long-term contract with Disney, the company is doing its best to ensure the young stars of High School Musical have every opportunity to develop within the organisation’s many offshoots. The company’s executives are keen to support Grabeel in any direction he chooses to take. For him, that may extending to a professional life behind the camera. As well as setting up his own production company, he scripted and filmed two short films during the production of High School Musical 2 with the help of other cast members.

“They’re doing the rounds of a few festivals, so they’re being seen by tens of people,” he says. “I definitely want to carry on directing and writing. But not at the same time as acting – at least, not in the same project. That may be a little too much.”

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.