Summer lovin', sabra style

A backstage look at the sizzling teenie-bop crowd pleaser, 'High School Musical,' set to steam up stages.

Maya Shoef 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maya Shoef 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Can teen sweethearts Troy and Gabriella find true love, and can they do it in Hebrew? Thousands of pre-pubescent Israeli kids are asking that first question, and the second query is what's occupying the producers of the most hotly anticipated musical production of the summer - the Hebrew stage version of High School Musical, which debuts on August 11 in Tel Aviv. If those names don't sound familiar, it's possible that you were one of the few people who haven't seen the 2006 blockbuster about innocent teen love at an American high school that develops between Troy, a hunky but sensitive jock who likes to sing karaoke, and Gabriella, a shy, but gorgeous "brainiac" who wins his heart. The pair find themselves torn between their respective basketball and academic tournaments, which conflict with auditions for the school play. Despite its emphatically American setting and concepts, the "feel good" back-to-basics musical and instantly appealing song and dance numbers and "be yourself" message captured the hearts of young people - and the young at heart - in more than 100 countries, making it one of the top-selling DVDs of all time. Close to home, despite having to wrap their tongues around characters' names like "Chad" and "Sharpay," local young people bought the romance and action hook line and sinker, making High School Musical the most viewed offering on HOT VOD. Now the producers of the stage version are banking on the likelihood that translating it into Hebrew will also translate into lots of dollars - er, shekels. A blast of bubbly pop music and teen voices wafts from an open window of a rambling building on the banks of the Yarkon River in North Tel Aviv. But the multitudes of joggers, bikers and strollers taking advantage of a beautiful July morning are oblivious to the fact that just up the staircase of the Tel Aviv Boating Club, intensive rehearsals are deep in movement. The cast - 18 youngsters between 17 and 21 - look just like the kids you see hanging around the malls, at the parks and the pools, in their tank tops, shorts and Crocs... because they are those kids. The only difference is that these lucky 18 amateur performers just happen to have their faces plastered around every bus advertisement, billboard and TV promo in the country. Well, maybe not just lucky. This cream of the talent crop went through a rigorous audition process before being handpicked for stardom among hundreds of applicants for the chance to become the Israeli versions of Troy and Gabriella. And they are attractive. Really attractive. They don't sweat, they glisten. Inside the rehearsal hall, with its parquet floors and wall-length mirrors, the vibe is a combination of light-hearted fun and serious work ethic. As the soundtrack blares, some of the performers sing along to their already-recorded voices, others make notes in their scripts and consult with each other in a mix of Hebrew and English. It could be the scene of a real high-school musical, except for the presence of some professional heavyweight guidance - Israeli-British director Steven Dexter, the veteran of more than 60 shows including West End productions, his assistant director Amir Fay Guttman, the one-time boys band Hi-Five alumnus who has graduated to theater, and choreographer Claude Dadia of Dancing with the Stars fame. The cast is working on the choreography of a song that was written specifically for the stage production and didn't appear in the film, in which Troy and Gabriella's friends are trying to persuade them not to be in the musical that the school is producing. It's an involved piece with lots of intricate moves, performers jumping on school tables as props, and calls and responses between the main singers and the backups. Dadia spends about 20 minutes taking the cast through the final 20 seconds of the song - each move and gesture inspected and dissected. The actors take their places and run through the song a half dozen times, each time with Dadia weaving among them giving tips, taking over roles and showing them how it should be done. STEVEN DEXTER takes a break from the day-long rehearsal, sitting on a bench outside the boat club, watching kayakers glide past on the Yarkon. He was the first one who, after seeing the High School Musical film, realized it would make a great stage adaptation for this country. He was born in Cape Town and made aliya as a child with his parents in 1975. After graduating high school and doing three years of national service instead of the IDF, Dexter left to study theater in London, where he's stayed ever since. In addition to his British theater work, he's also regularly returned to direct a number of productions, including Song and Dance for the Haifa Theater, HONK!, and The Full Monty, Shirley Valentine, and the multi-award-winning Mary Lou (based on the music of Svika Pick) for Habimah Theater. But High School Musical is his first attempt at a youth-oriented show, and he's jazzed about it. "That's the best thing about this show! It's a lovely challenge for me to direct something that has no sex in it - just clean good old fashioned entertainment. There's a bit of Grease in it, Singing in the Rain, like the good old fashioned MGM musicals, with the dancing on tables - all the stuff you used to see in the musicals," he says with excitement in his voice. But Dexter sees the film's phenomenal success - and the subsequent accolades awarded stage shows in the US and England which have been the forebears of the Israeli version - as its ability to infuse those traditional theater musical elements with a contemporary flavor and message. "I think the sum idea of what HSM accomplished was actually saying musicals are cool 'musi-cool,' if you will. It's showing kids that you can be a basketball player and you can still sing, and you can learn ballet, or whatever - it's giving the kids the freedom to be who they want to be and not be embarrassed about it. I wish it had been around when I was growing up 20 years ago and loving musicals. There was nobody coming up and going to me 'musicals are great,'" he says. Dexter certainly thought that High School Musical was great when he saw the film two years ago. "My first reaction was 'God, I wish I'd thought of that.' It's classic Romeo and Juliet - or West Side Story, the girl who's the brain and the guy from the different side of the track who you know should be together," he says. "And just listen to the music - the music is the most contemporary that's been written for a musical in a long time." With a light bulb in his head, Dexter immediately got in touch with Disney to see if the stage rights for Israel had been sold, and when he found out they were available, he grabbed them. He brought the DVD with him on his next trip to Israel and tried to interest some potential producers and backers in taking on the show, but the film was still generally an unknown entity here. Still, Dexter wasn't discouraged. "I knew that sometimes it just takes a while for things to catch on in Israel, and I just knew that with this phenomenal hit that High School Musical's been in the US and the UK, that it was just a matter of time before it caught on. And sure enough, two years later, here we are," he says. In the end, what Dexter calls "an incredible conglomeration of partners" joined together to produce the show, including Yediot Aharonot and HOT, which has resulted in an avalanche of free publicity, as well as reduced ticket price options. "It was a clever thing the producers did to bring in partners like them. If you're a HOT subscriber, you can get a ticket for NIS 60 - there's no way you can go to the theater for that in the West End. Israelis will not pay beyond a certain price for tickets, and I think the producers have done enormously well in making this affordable." According to Dexter, the High School Musical stage production that Disney made available for licensing was created to be performed in any high school - no special effects, elaborate staging or extravagant costumes. "Around the time of Lion King, Disney realized they had a big problem. These were big shows that a high-school production with a modest budget couldn't put on. High School Musical was created as a stage show for any high school in the US to be able to put on. They never actually thought there would be professional productions of it," he says. They were proved wrong, however, as both the American production and two identical productions currently touring the UK and performing for the summer season in the West End have received rave reviews. From the onset, there was no doubt in Dexter's mind that his High School Musical was going to stick to the American trappings it celebrates, and not attempt to sabra-ize the plot or the setting. "I just don't think it could work as Haim and Rahel," he says. "We kept the names because the kids in Israel know all the names now, and they know the songs in English." So, how do you take a quintessentially American product and translate it into Hebrew without diluting the results into a cross-cultural mess? If you're Dexter, you go to the best - and here, it's Smadar Shir. 'IT'S VERY obvious if you do something like this in Israel, you go to Smadar Shir," explains assistant director Fay Guttman. "Because she knows the language of the youth." "That's one way of putting it. I have six children - from 24 to eight. So I know how to talk to the young," Shir says with a laugh, as she and Fay-Guttman sit in a side room of the boating club. In addition to translating versions of Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and the stories of Mark Twain into Hebrew, Shir has written children's books and songs, put out children's videotapes and DVDs, and along the way has become an expert at making the Hebrew language flow and sing. Translating High School Musical has become a career highlight for her however, because she totally identifies with its sentiments. "My husband and I moved to Minnesota after getting married, for his university work. But just before my oldest daughter was going to start first grade, back in 1991, we moved back to Israel. I didn't want to send her to an American school," she says. "The irony is that if High School Musical had existed then, I probably wouldn't have minded staying there and having my kids go to school there. Sure it's fantasy, it's Disney, but it brings out the best aspects of American youth culture." According to Shir, the objective in her work is to make the translation invisible. "Nobody should be thinking that it's a translation. And even with all the American elements, the audience needs to feel or imagine that it could take place here. And there's no reason why that shouldn't happen. Ten years ago, for instance, that might not have been the case. Concepts like water coolers and lockers weren't so widespread - now most of the high schools in Israel have them," she says. Shir's method of translating begins with immersing herself in the dialogue and the soundtrack, focusing on the songs. "The songs are the focus. I put on the CD in the car, on my Walkman when I'm jogging; for about three weeks, all the family is hearing is only that. I start to sing to myself and words and phrases begin to come together." As the songs and dialogue take shape, Shir still has to resolve some thorny Hebrew issues like gender, especially for lyrics sung by the whole cast or by a boy and girl together. But Shir said she developed some nifty solutions to snaggy conundrums. "I can't have them singing 'I love you - ani ohev otcha,' if the whole chorus is singing it. So usually, you have to go passive. For example, in English, Troy and Gabriella sing together, "I see in your eyes." In Hebrew, that's become 'rak ha'einayim ro'ot - only the eyes see.'" The other issue that the team had to deal with was when to leave in English lyrics, phrases and words. Some cases were no-brainers, explains Fay Guttman. "Most of the American concepts are really universal - a rebound is a rebound everywhere," he says. "But there were instances when something was a little too American. We could keep mentions of Madonna and Bill and Hillary Clinton, they're icons. But someone like Martha Stewart isn't really known to kids, so we had to change it - to J.K. Rowling." "I think Smadar's translation is great," says Dexter. "If anything, we've improved the lyrics, and in doing so, have improved the show." Even clever translations, however, might not be able to help a young local audience understand the underlying class structures in American high school. Troy's a jock, and Gabriella's a nerdy "brainiac," albeit one who looks like a hot model. According to the show's Troy, recent high-school graduate 17-year-old Idan Ashkenazi, the local setup is not that different. "Sure, it's different groups of people, but the show works here too," he says. "Here, the divisions are a little different - you've got the arsim and frechot, the m'kubalim [cool] and the lo m'kubalim [nerds]. So I think audiences here can still relate to it." Tel Avivian Ashkenazi is the youngest of the amateur actors who nabbed roles in the musical. And it's easy to see why. Looking a little like a young Tom Cruise, Ashkenazi oozes unrefined charm. He stars opposite Amit Farkash, 19, from Caesarea, who's perfect for the role of Gabriella - cute and wholesome, but with moxie. The other main roles are rounded out by Ethiopian immigrant Nitzanet Mekonen, 19, and Born to Dance 2 contestant Shoko, 21, playing the couple's best friends Taylor and Chad, and Maya Shoef, 20, and Liran Notik, 21, playing the "evil" twin protagonists Sharpay and Ryan. "We auditioned a ton of people to arrive at this group. We're talking about a young group. I really wanted to capture that kind of innocence," says Dexter. "The oldest person is 21, just out of the army. Here, the kids go into the army and by the time they get out, they're men and women. They're not kids anymore. And I didn't want to cast a 28-year-old pretending to be a teenager. It's far more charming to have the real deal. Out of the whole 18, I think that six are still pre-army." Jerusalem resident Daphna Shaham, 21, one of the singer/dancers in the cast, decided to try out for the show at the last minute. A veteran of high-school choirs, opera and stage productions, the daughter of American immigrants first saw the film while serving as a drama counselor at a summer camp near Buffalo two years ago. "The campers begged me to put on the show for their final presentation at the camp, so I had to go watch it to see what all the fuss was about. All the kids knew the songs, the moves and the dances," she recalls. "I liked it, it was very colorful and very musical, not that it's realistic, or anything comparable to our reality here. But I could identify with the flow, the happiness, the rhythm." DESPITE THE cast's being untested in the world of professional musicals, Dexter, Fay Guttman and Gaday are adamant about treating them like professionals, including insisting that they sing their parts live. "When I do a musical, I like the people to sing and dance in it. I don't like the Israeli tradition of playbacks and everyone mimes along. It takes away from the show," says Dexter. According to Fay Guttman, the producers wanted to use playbacks but he and Dexter stood up to them. "They didn't even want to record the kids for the playbacks; they just wanted to bring in some professional singers like Milli Vanilli," he says. "But I said I never had worked with full playbacks, and took on the role of working with each of the kids on their singing." That's not all he's working on the performers with, because Fay Guttman should know something about growing up in public. As a member of boys' pop group Hi-Five and later of Hamsa, he was privy to all the attention - both positive and negative - that sudden stardom can attract. But unlike many child stars, Fay Guttman graduated to a successful career both on the stage and behind the scenes. A star of Dexter's production of Mary Lou, which entailed more than 400 performances, Fay Guttman is determined to guide the young actors of High School Musical through the maze of celebrity that the hoopla surrounding the show has thrust them into and to ensure that their roles don't become one-stop detours on the way to obscurity. "I've been lucky enough to develop my craft over a long period of time, until I finally understand the stage. It's the opposite of what happens today with all the reality shows - after four or six months of fame, you know they're going to disappear," he says. "To be onstage, it's much more than to just come, be beautiful and sing your lines. You have to be devoted. I just started in the last week to put through a training program, exercise, running outside. Because to sing and dance, you have to be in great shape. When we started rehearsals and they started to sing, you could hear the heavy breathing after two songs." Fay Guttman recounted how when he was picked for Hi-Five, the group didn't even perform once in public or have their names splashed across a newspaper for a full year. "Every day for 11 months, we'd spend the morning with a trainer, swimming, doing aerobics. Then in the afternoon, we'd learn dance and voice. "This is what we have to do to be good. And today because of American Idol, and all the reality shows, you can come in, sing a song that someone wrote years ago and two or three songs later, you're a superstar. And for 90 percent of them after the show ends, they're never heard from again." The seasoned adults in the crew - Dexter, Fay Guttman, Shir and choreographer Dadia - aren't just dealing with the cast's talent and getting them physically ready for their big breakout. They're also helping them cope emotionally with the rigors of both rehearsal and fame mind games. "Through my experiences, I have an idea what these kids are going through," says Fay Guttman. "I know the psychology behind what's going on, how it's affecting young people, the stuff they're doing and saying and what's behind it. As teenagers and new performers, as new people who just are becoming celebrities, it's very confusing." "Two months ago, nobody had heard of these kids," adds Shir. "And today, you can't walk down the street without seeing their faces and pictures. I like to come to the rehearsals and give them some unconditional support, give them the feeling that they're human beings - it's very easy to get caught up in it all." And at the beginning, you sign up and your dream is realized, you don't think about it too much," says Amit Farkash a.k.a. Gabriella. "But when you're inside, you start to see how much responsibility you take on and sometimes it's scary. There's fears and suspicions that you're not good enough. And you're afraid to fail because people are counting on you. And it's not just any people - it's a huge production, it's not a school play." The show's director, Dexter, however, is confident that his protégés will stand up to the task at hand and is confident that the production is on schedule for a triumphant debut. "We're in a process - what you see today is the beginning of that process. We're still teaching the show to them very technically. I'm having to be patient with them in terms of how to teach them. I find myself sometimes telling them something, and realizing this is how I would talk to a professional. I tell myself, 'Ah, let me explain to them so they'll understand it.' But they're very quick - they learn very fast. I can already see massive growth in all of them," he says. "It's the time of their life," adds Shir. "When they come out of here, they'll really have a good basis of what this world is like. There's something I like to see when I come to rehearsal and open the door. I've been to too many rehearsals where you come into the room and there's no sweat. When I come here, I smell the sweat." BACK TO rehearsals, the performers continue to refine the song they're working on. In between takes, the even-tempered Dexter, dressed casually in shorts and T-shirt, offers some advice. "You need to react. You can't say, 'I'm on the side, nobody will see me.'" They try the song again, with the performers singing along to their pre-recorded voices on the refrain, "This won't end up good." But it does seem to be ending up good. After a couple of hours, they go through the moves one last time in one seamless motion and there's a boundless energy and spark that rises from the parquet floor. Dexter and Fay Guttman smile with satisfaction. The cast concludes the rehearsal by going over the section that includes the show's signature tune which, in a way, exemplifies its starry-eyed optimism. Shir chose to keep these lyrics in English, because so many Israeli kids already know them by heart, and two young nine-year-old guests sitting in the corner of the rehearsal room confirm that view by singing along to themselves while staring in opened-mouth awe. "It's the start of something new, it feels so right to be here with you, now we can reach the sky. I felt in my heart that it's the start of something new..." For the young cast of High School Musical, those sentiments are ringing truer with every line.