In case your ears aren't capable of picking up the high-pitched caterwauling of girls (and, well, yes, some boys too) between the ages of 8 and 18, let me tell you something. High School Musical 3: Senior Year is step-ball-changing into movie theaters next week. It's the first of the series to be splashed up on the big screen, as the first two aired to tremendous success (255 million viewers worldwide, so far) on the Disney Channel. HSM-related product sales have reached upwards of $500 million, and its stars, or at least lead heartthrob Zac Efron, have been vaunted into the paparazzi-stalked realm of superstarletdom. Now advance ticket sales for the third (and final for most of the original cast) movie are huuuuge. It's going to be big, people. So what, dear tweendom neophyte, is all the fuss about? I'll try to explain it after the jump.

I mean, really, it's not exactly a new idea. As a pathetically dedicated connoisseur of all things teenagery, I've seen bits of the whole in a million different movies and TV shows. Kids like to gawp at good looking other kids, they like music, they like dancing, they like romance, and they like more than anything else—desperately, arms pulled close to their chests, eyes tearing—to see something of themselves reflected back at them. And the first High School Musical, when it leapt onto the airwaves in the spring of 2006, combined all of those things in one sugary 90 minute sitting. (As for that last bit, I'm not saying that the denizens of East High with their bright colors and general niceness are at all real, but all kids at one point or another feel alienated and different and many, if not all, secretly want to be a surprise star. Right?) It was a bit of alchemy that is laughable in its obviousness. Why didn't anyone think of this before?

I guess someone sort of did with Grease in the 70's, which, when money is tinkered with and adjusted for inflation, is one of the most successful movies of all time. But Grease featured showtunes where HSM features pop songs. Grease had sex jokes and pregnancy scares while HSM is prêt-à-porter for Evangelical America (the romantic leads don't even kiss in the first one!) The melding of dancing, acting, and singing has made being a triple threat practically necessary in order for a dreamer to become a hero to these bebopping youngs (Generation Z?) Sure Zac Efron, who plays hunky basketball star turned, um, high school musical star Troy Bolton, didn't actually, you know, sing in the first one. But he does now! And he did in Hairspray! You've Kenny Ortega, the film's director (also directed Newsies, swoon) and company to thank for the likes of we-do-it-all! up and comers Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and Miranda Cosgrove. (Ask your nieces and nephews to whom I'm referring.)

Oh! Hah! So what's the plot? Well the first one, like I said above, is about Troy Bolton, a doe-eyed young b-ball jock who ends up singing a romantic, upbeat poppy karaoke duet with a mysterious chica at a teen New Year's Eve party held at the ski resort where they're both staying over winter break. Then, back in Albuquerque of all places, gasp! There's the girl. Her name is Gabriella Montez and she is a transfer math and science geek. Troy has his sports, Gaby has her nerd stuff and never the twain shall meet. Except there's that nagging memory of singing among snowy peaks... Eventually they both muster up the gumption to audition for the school's spring musicale, much to the displeasure of resident star Sharpay Evans and her twinky (like they seriously go as far to make him gay as they can without having him make out with a dude) brother Ryan. The status quo is rocked—how can a jock sing and dance? how can a nerd sing, dance, and land the hottest boy in school??—and the kids sing a song about breaking out of prescribed high school molds. And, you know, in the end there's romance and everyone gets a part in the musical and whee! Happy! The second one takes place during summer vacation, and they all work at a country club. There's double crossing and a talent show and it's all deeply, deeply silly and not really worth describing other than to say that at one point Zac wanders the desert and sings a plaintive ballad. I'm still sort of laughing and shivering about that one. The third installment, well who knows! It's got a bigger budget and like 10! new! songs! And it's sure to be a huge hit. You don't have to see it by any means, but I think it's something you should know about lest you become one of those stuffy grownups who forgets how to have mindless fun (other than like getting shitfaced and stuff which is mindless fun but not really all that wholesome. If you watch the movies while getting shitfaced, well you're just about the coolest person ever then, aren't you?) Purists be damned who say that this isn't a real musical because it's just music videos crammed into a thin plot. The success of these bubblegum fantasias allows actual pop and rock-tinged pieces of Art like recent theatrical critical darlings In The Heights and the masterful Passing Strange to find audiences where they might not have before. So enjoy it or don't, but know that it's not going away without an elaborately-choreographed pop-and-lock dancefight. Nobody puts baby Rent in a corner. Nobody.