Writing teen-oriented pop is a fairly specialized talent. Writing for a musical is an even more rarified art. Combining the two—and introducing the musical-theater art form to an entire generation that previously had little use for the stuff—is some kind of pop triple-lutz, a strange sort of accomplishment.
Two songwriters behind Disney’s High School Musical series, Matthew Gerrard and Robbie Nevil, acknowledge the strangeness, or at least uncanniness, of their feat. I recorded a conversation with them a few weeks ago, about a month after the third chapter in the series—its cinematic debut, after two high-rated made-for-TV movies—debuted atop the box office list with the highest-ever debut gross for a musical. The two writer-performers sounded both gratified and mildly dumbfounded by their good fortune, even as it represents to them the culmination of a couple of decades of happy toil in the pop-music trenches.
Nevil had a half-decade career as a hit recording artist, starting in 1986 with the Top 10 hits “C’est La Vie” and “Wot’s It To Ya.” After retiring as a pop frontman in the ’90s, Nevil began writing for other acts; by the turn of the century he’d turned in a decidedly young-pop direction, writing tracks by such hit acts as 702 and Vitamin C. That’s around when he hooked up with Gerrard, a multi-instrumentalist who’d become a teen-pop song guru. A Toronto native, Gerrard went on to cowrite radio smashes like Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” while taking on more work with Disney’s stable of carefully groomed pop acts—and increasingly teaming up with Nevil.
The two finally landed the assignment of writing the bulk of the tunes for director-choreographer Kenny Ortega’s modest TV-movie project, High School Musical, just before it dropped in early 2006 and upended pop culture. To a certain breed of millennial kids, exuberant, plot-establishing Gerrard/Nevil compositions like “The Start of Something New,” “We’re All in This Together” or “I Don’t Dance” are standards.
The soundtracks have succeeded apart from their movies, and HSM is enjoying its third Christmas as a go-to stocking stuffer for CD-shopping parents. Although the soundtrack to High School Musical 3 got off to a somewhat slower start than its predecessors, it’s also been notably consistent since its late-October debut, selling six-figure weekly sums even after the film has exited theaters.
Gerrard and Nevil can’t tell you what happens next to the franchise, the plots, or the aging characters. But they’re happily ensconced in Disney’s idol-making machine and ready to deploy their skills as the zeitgeist—or Kenny Ortega—demands.
What were you guys working on before you hooked up with Disney, and how was the idea of High School Musical first pitched to you? You guys both did work for Disney before HSM, right?
Nevil: Actually, Matt was the one that brought me into that fold. I had not really worked for Disney at all. I mean, years ago, I had some music in a Disney film, but that wasn’t like working in…
Nevil: Yeah, as it were. [Laughs]
Gerrard: Before I was at Disney, I had done stuff with Hilary Duff and Jesse McCartney to start the whole Disney, sort of, teen-pop thing when it took off. And that was before Miley, before High School. But before that…I moved from Toronto about eight years ago, and the first thing I did here was this Popstars thing, I did a song called “Get Over Yourself.”
Was that the Eden’s Crush song?
Gerrard: Yeah, Eden’s Crush—it was the lead-singer girl that eventually joined…what’s the band. Robbie?
Nevil: Pussycat thing…
Gerrard: Right! Pussycat Dolls. So I mean, we’ve done tons of different things prior to Disney, and even as the Disney stuff goes on, we still do a lot of other stuff.
And now, you’re both doing lots of Disney stuff, particularly, Robbie, I’ve seen you’ve done quite a bit of Disney stuff since then, right?
Nevil: Yeah, I mean…I’ve always looked at Matt being at the forefront of that whole thing, ’cuz at the time it wasn’t necessarily that well-known, and no one really thought it was going to do what it did. And I happened to meet Matt [who was] already working in that system, but it sort of seemed like, all of a sudden, the Hannahs and the High Schools [came along]. So it was cool that we hooked up when we did. We did a whole project, another act before that, too, and there we figured out our dynamic. And then when that stuff started coming in, it felt like—we still look back and go, “Man, talk about, right place, right time, doing the right music.”
Gerrard: Yeah, we were actually working on Smash Mouth just before that. That’s the first project Robbie and I did together…that was, like, six years ago.
Did you anticipate the wide success of the first High School Musical while you were working on the project?
Gerrard: I believed in the concept of it. I had worked on another musical that never quite got off the ground, never got green-lit, but I did believe that the timing was right for sort of a pop musical—you know, not with old-fashioned Broadway songs, but with hints of that [plus] more contemporary music for all ages and kids to like. But, did we know that that would blow up like that? No! [chuckles] We didn’t really believe it—at least, I didn’t really believe it, until, like, a year after, when we were working on the second one, and I’m like, “Oh, I guess it did do well.”
Nevil: I mean, I remember watching the movie with a friend—we saw a screening when it first came out—and we both walked away going, “That was really cute.” “Yeah, that was really good.” And that was sort of it! But beyond that? … I mean, when we saw the dailies, Matt and I got more excited by the whole thing, from the first song—what was that one, Matt…?
Gerrard: It’s “Start of Something New”—but I think [the first one] we saw was “We’re All in This Together,” the big ending number.
Nevil: Yeah—and I remember watching it, going like, “Wow, that’s exactly the way Kenny described it.” Kenny would do stuff, like, he called Matt when they were [shooting] “We’re All in This Together,” telling Matt, “The kids are going nuts!” It was almost like there was some sort of weird energy about the thing that we were feeling, but then when we saw it, we were like, “Wow, this is really good.” But yeah—as far as it turning into…like, the Grease of now, or something? I don’t think anybody, including the people at Disney, could’ve foreseen that.
So what’s your collaboration like? Matthew, I know you’ve been writing teen-leaning pop songs for years, and Robbie, obviously we know about your long history as a singer-songwriter. Do you guys come from a similar place or do you have different sensibilities?
Gerrard: Pretty similar, in that we’re musicians that can play all styles, and we’ve listened to all styles, from heavy rock to dance to jazz. We do have a sort of shorthand as far as, like, chords and melodies and harmonies and theory and all that. I mean, I think Robbie has a stronger forte in lyrics, although I do some lyrics. We both cover a lot of the same ground, but I think it works well. What do you think, Robbie?
Nevil: I’d have to say it’s the best collaborative relationship I’ve ever had. I mean, I’ve worked with tons of people, but there is this sort of ease—which is not to say that we don’t, every so often, go back and forth on a certain thing, but there’s a trust we have that’s just sort of been innate since the first time we wrote together, and it’s almost like we had done it before. I walked in with titles, and Matt loved to work with titles; I didn’t know that he did like to work like that. At the start, literally the first day we wrote, we sort of came up with a song, and the whole thing felt really…natural. And yeah, being able to pull from and love a lot of different styles—normally people are sort of like, ‘I’m into R&B, this guy’s into rock,’ but Matt and I really both love it all. And collectively it’s almost like, we love the challenge of taking on literally any kind of music.
As I listen to the music, Robbie, I’m tempted to credit some of the catchy, gently funky influences I hear on stuff like “I Don’t Dance” or “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to you, whereas Matthew, the big, bright millennial teenpop sounds like you. Is that an oversimplification, or…?
Nevil: Yeah, that’s definitely an oversimplification. Because we, literally, both do both. That’s why I think it’s one of the best collaborations—sometimes, we laugh because out of the blue, I’ll pull out a reference to some semi-obscure pop, and Matt always knows it…People sometimes think, because I’m doing lyrics, I’m doing the hooks, but Matt’s just as much of a hook guy. I mean, I’ll give him a title, and within about 10 seconds, he’s already hearing a hook. And together, we sort find a way to finish things off.
Gerrard: Yeah, my background is as an R&B/funk bass player. And our style is, usually, having a concept first, or a title, as Robbie said, and then he’ll bring something in, and usually, I’ll sit there quietly and then, sing a chorus or sing a verse…In fact, it’s never happened—maybe once—where I have an idea beforehand, or he has a [full] idea. It’s very rare we come in saying, “Hey, listen to this.” It’s more like, we come in, we talk about what it should be about, talk about some cool titles, and then it kind of goes from there.
Nevil: Believe it or not—and Matt probably wouldn’t mention it, but—he’s done everything from being a total hard-rocker to being, like, a Jaco Pastorius fusion player. We both wanted to be studio players—or have been studio players, for a big part of our lives—so it’s a strange amalgamation, but it really does make us [work together in] a strangely peculiar and wonderful way. Literally, there’s no place we could get called where we can’t go. Well, I don’t know how much opera Matt does, but I might give it a shot. [Both laugh]
Do you guys like writing the big-group singalongs like “What Time Is It” or “We’re All in This Together,” or are they harder—like, with more moving parts, as it were?
Gerrard: Well, in some ways, they’re harder. But we’ve definitely done all of those! I mean, sometimes, they’re like three, four songs in one—you know, it’s not just like a simple song with a verse, pre-chorus, chorus. So, yeah, but we like doing it—it’s a challenge in its enormity, but otherwise it’s like any other song.
Are there characters you particularly like writing for? I would think Sharpay must be fun to write for.
Nevil: You know, to me what’s always made the project so much fun is that Kenny walks in, and he’s so incredibly excited and animated about all of it. So there’s never been a song where you go, “Aw, not another one”—it’s never been that. He has such a picture, and such enthusiasm, that literally, you can’t take notes fast enough when he’s starting to explain things. I think that’s where it comes from—and so all the characters are fun to write for. I mean, we really had a chance on this movie to do the Sharpay–Ryan one, which was a lot of fun.
Gerrard: More comedic.
Nevil: Yeah—that was a blast. But I can’t think of a song where it was like, not fun to write for the characters, because of Kenny: he’s amazing, and he’s enthusiastic, and you just get on board. You’re like, “I’m in!” He’s very compelling.
How do you stay current with what tweens or teens are listening to—do you do any research of any sort?
Gerrard: We have different people [we work with], and so we’re at the forefront. I mean, for example, we’ve got the new David Archuleta song—the new single coming out. So I mean, we’re current because we write that stuff all the time—we hear the stuff, and those artists are in my studio, and we hear what they say, and we hear what the A&R guys want.
Nevil: I’d add that we both are fans of music in general, and one of the things that’s kept us in the game, as long as we’ve been doing this, is that there’s never a time when we’re not listening. Whether or not we’re, y’know, studying every single aspect of this exact record to try to [dissect] it—we don’t do that. We don’t want to feel like we’re coming from that sort of place of emulating or copying anything, but we’re all inspired by everything around us. Some cats I’ve known over the years, they sort of grow to a point, peak, and then don’t even want to listen, almost to what’s going on, and they seem to blanket-stereotype—like, “Oh, that’s all this.” And my attitude is, there’s something [worthwhile] about everything. Matt will pull out a rap record for me and say, “Check out the groove on this.” You know, there’s a sense of always wanting to know what’s going on.
Gerrard: We love pop, you know? I’ve always been a pop guy, even through all the different style that I’ve done. No matter what style it is, it always ends up having a strong hook, because I always love pop music. I mean, on the top 100, there’s always going to be a few songs, like Robbie says, that we’ll love the groove of or like the melody of.
How do you guys put yourselves in the characters’ heads—or is that Kenny? I mean, is Kenny sort of giving you the picture, and you take it from there, or is there a mind-meld you have to do with the characters?
Gerrard: Well, I mean, Kenny sort of describes and gets us in the zone. But we definitely have to come from the place of the characters, absolutely—and sort of live out what they’re doing in the song. Kenny sort of gives us a starting spot and an ending spot, and then we kind of just create in between.
Nevil: Yeah, I mean, whenever I’m writing, whether it’s a lyric or what have you, in my mind, I’m always playing out a video. And all we have up-front is a rough outline, which generally changes as the movie gets made—and so it sort of becomes like we’re working together at that level. Because he’ll give us something, and we take the ball, run with it, turn it into the next thing, which then gives him a visual. But the whole time, in my mind, I’m playing out the movie clip that I think he’s going to shoot, and then of course it morphs afterwards. But in my mind, at least, I have a sense—especially as you get to know the movies; I know each movie and the characters pretty intimately at this point, and it’s not hard to fill out at least parts of it, anyway.
Gerrard: Yeah, and with a musical, it becomes a sort of script, it replaces the script. So every time we deliver a song, the scriptwriter has to go back and take out things, probably lots of things—they can [move] the story forward visually or by script, or, in this case, by song lyric. So they all kind of work together.
You guys say you’re both fans of virtually everything. Were you fans of musicals, particularly, prior to this?
Gerrard: That’s interesting, because I hadn’t listened to or loved a lot of musicals. Because the few that I had seen, I thought a lot of the stuff sounded ’70s to me—you know, sounded old and dated, and especially production-wise. Most musicals, production-wise, sound like it’s a bunch of really good musicians going in and recording, but not a lot of extra thought put into production—no modern, hip-hop grooves and stuff. So, I think that’s what we brought that’s different.
Nevil: Yeah, I mean, I know that there are musicals out there that probably have delved into modern sounds—maybe some that we don’t know of that are quite wonderful. But one of the fun things that we prided ourselves on this one was that there were two songs in particular, “I Want It All” and “A Night to Remember,” where it was almost like, okay, it’s not just a song but it’s also almost like a bit of the script—scripting the characters. Which hearkens back to more of a straight-ahead musical approach, deliberately pushing the story, but then we prided ourselves on saying, let’s try to encase that in something that would be a little more modern, sonically. And honestly, when you think back on it, back in the way-back days, whether it’s Guys and Dolls or what-have-you, those musicals, they were the singles on the radio a lot of the time. And then somewhere along the line it seemed to switch into two different worlds. But…personally, those are some of my favorites—and I feel like we sort of knocked on two doors at once. I’m really proud of that.
That’s actually a great segue into my next question: When the first movie was being written, in the mid-2000s, did you feel at all like High School Musical was going to fill some kind of void that was being ignored by what was dominating Top 40 radio at the time? You know, there was a prevailing hip-hop/emo-rock duopoly about three, four years ago. Did you guys think, okay, there’s a void here, and we’re going to fill it? Or was it just serendipity?
Gerrard: I don’t think we were thinking of a void to fill. ’Cause I mean, the feeling of High School Musical was what it was, and we did music to work with that—we didn’t intentionally go, “Hey, let’s make this kind of music for this musical because there’s a void.”
Nevil: Yeah, I felt it was total serendipity. I mean, sure, there is a bit of that [intention]: Kenny comes to you and say, “We want this,” but then it’s our job to say, “How can we encase that in something that feels relevant, funky?” All that kind of stuff. I mean, I know what you’re saying, looking back, you think, “Oh, yeah, we figured it out! Therefore, we filled the void.” But…
It’s easy, with 20/20 hindsight, to say, “Hey, these guys filled a niche!”
Nevil: Right, I mean, I’m looking at it just like any objective person, and it seemed like it did fill that void, just incredibly, but I never would’ve thought…When I think of the void, I’m thinking not so much sonics as the sweetness of it. But I didn’t see that coming. I mean, I was as happy as anyone could even imagine!
Gerrard: I think what happens is, everything plays out at radio after a while. Like, you know, if there’s grunge for a while, then people are down with depressing, serious, minor-key songs for a while. Then it went to the Backstreet Boys and Britney, the happier pop for a while, then to rap for a while. I think everything plays out—mainly, radio locks into a thing and then overplays it for a few years, and people go, “I need something fresh.”
So now we’ve got the third movie in theaters. Have you noticed any difference in the way the music is received between the TV and movie editions? And was writing for a big-screen musical any different from writing for TV?
Gerrard: The process, for us, was the same in writing it. In terms of the way it’s perceived? Robbie, you said you noticed something.
Nevil: I don’t even know if this is real or just my imagination, but it almost seems like, the way people perceive it…I’ve gotten all kinds of calls, like, “Oh, High School 3 is doing really, really, really well,” and this and that—people that don’t normally call me. It’s almost as if, when something’s at the theaters, the perception is so different. I mean, Matt was right, when we wrote it, no matter what we do, we go at it with the same attitude, wanting it to be as great as it can. But it is interesting, the idea that something is in theaters, versus TV…
Gerrard: I think the reason, now that I think about it, is it was originally Disney Channel, which is definitely a young kids’ network. And it kind of spread from that, where parents and others, even teenagers, started liking it—but it was originating from a kids’ channel. So once it’s in theaters, everybody’s seeing the ads for it, and it feels like it’s made for the general public.
Maybe it’s just me, but listening to “Now or Never”—you guys have had the big singalongs in all the movies, and maybe it’s my perception, because it’s in a theater now, but this one had a bigger sound. But you weren’t thinking that when you were writing, right? Like, this is going to be on a big screen, therefore we have to make it bigger.
Gerrard: You know, the size of it—“We’re All in This Together” is huge, as well. I mean, how they film it and stuff is how big we make it. You know, there’s certain other technicalities when it’s on the big screen: you see more detail, and it’s mixed for 5.1, and stuff like that.
Nevil: Maybe subconsciously, on some level, it is there. Because, with Kenny, when we first had our sitdown to talk about High School 3, he’s like, “Okay, you guys—remember where the last movie ended off, with the cannons and all that? Okay, this one, you have to start there!” And we’re like, ooh, boy. So maybe, subconsciously, in some sense, it was bigger, because Kenny, that’s what he wanted.
So, dare I ask: Are you working on High School Musical 4?
Gerrard: Not now! I mean, I’m not totally clued into what the plans are for 4, or 5, or who, or what, or when.
Nevil: Yeah, we don’t know too much about it. [Sheepish chuckle]
Too soon, got it. Do you anticipate any shifts, assuming it goes forward, in the musical style of the project, given the shift in the cast? Could you see it going in a different direction?
Gerrard: I guess it could. I mean, it depends on what the plot is, but I don’t think they’ve ever let the characters define the musical style. [For example] we do a hip-hop sort of track and backbeat for “Now or Never,” and it’s Zach Efron singing—so we combine one vocal style with a different style of music. So, I don’t think the characters would define it. I mean, if one of the new characters is a better rock singer than R&B singer, I think we’d still do R&B anyway, if that’s what was required for the new character. But we have no idea what the new script is, or where it would take place—those are the things that would more define it. Like, if he was the leader of a rock band, or something like that.
And if he were the leader of a rock band, like you’ve been saying, you’d roll with that, and there would be rock songs.
Gerrard: Correct, yeah.
What else is next for you? I also see that you guys have some of the music for the stars of High School Musical that have gone on to other projects, right?
Gerrard: Yeah, we did a couple of things for Corbin, and Vanessa.
Nevil: When it comes to the Disney stuff, all that stuff I do, I do with Matt.
And what about for other artists?
Gerrard: Well, the biggest, most important thing we’re working on now, speaking of rock, is a rock band called KSM, that signed to Disney. That’s sort of our priority at the moment.
Nevil: They’re wonderful—it’s an all-girl rock band, I guess they range in age from about 15 to 17, but they all play and it’s wonderful, we’re really happy with them. The girl Shelby, who’s the main lead singer, she brings such a fresh vibe to the whole thing. So we’re really excited about that.