‘High School Musical’ writer bopped right to the top

Fame: “It’s weird going into stores and seeing dolls with my name on them,” says Gabriella Barsocchini. Her father, Peter, named the female lead character after her.
(Ken Hively / LAT)
Special to The Times

Peter Barsocchini is a screenwriter who a few years ago took what he thought was a small assignment to write a kids’ TV musical so he could entertain his preteen daughter, Gabriella, even naming the female lead after her. That small assignment for Disney Channel turned into “High School Musical,” and more recently “High School Musical 2,” which became a global entertainment phenomenon -- and one of the most lucrative payouts a Hollywood writer has ever received for a single property.

“Bop to the Top” -- one of “HSM’s” big musical numbers -- may as well be his personal theme song.

Before “HSM,” Barsocchini was a largely unknown writer whose only previous feature credit was on the Wesley Snipes-Gary Busey actioner “Drop Zone,” in 1994. Post-"HSM,” he’s a crazily in-demand film and TV writer with half a dozen projects on his plate, including the screenplay for the bigger-budget “High School Musical 3,” which Disney plans to release theatrically next fall.

“It’s just one of those projects where the planets sort of lined up from day one,” Barsocchini says.

Though the filmmakers began talking about a third installment as early as late last year, a few months before filming on the second even started, Barsocchini’s deal didn’t close until three weeks ago because of the complexity of the property’s reach. But given the success of the first one -- 4.1 million copies of its soundtrack sold, along with 8 million DVDs -- Barsocchini was able to negotiate even better terms than he had on the second.

This is because the “HSM” juggernaut is apparently unstoppable. At this point, the films’ permutations are multiplying faster than a room full of third-graders taking a math test.

The Disney-produced stage version is on tour across the United States for the next 18 months and will open in Britain in January. There are performances at several of the Magic Kingdom’s theme parks, as well as thousands of high schools across the country. More than 200 million unique viewers have watched some form of “High School Musical.”

“I knew it was big when I went to the second premiere and actually saw all the people that really were into it,” says Gabriella, who’s about to start eighth grade. “That’s when it kind of hit me like, I guess this is a really big deal. . . . Then all the fans tried to pull [star] Zac [Efron] over the fence.”

That “rabid mania,” as Michael Healy, senior vice president of Disney Channel Original Movies, jokingly describes it, is still spreading. Four international remakes have been greenlighted -- in Mexico, Argentina, Spain and India -- with several more in the pipeline. The open casting call in Buenos Aires for the lead Gabriella and Troy roles drew 29,000 hopeful kids. The novelization has sold 1.2 million copies. Broadway rights are still being negotiated, but “Disney’s High School Musical: The Ice Tour” launches at Madison Square Garden in late September (it moves to Staples Center on Oct. 4 and 5).

“For the next two years, there’ll be a performance of ‘High School Musical’ somewhere in the world every day,” Barsocchini says.

And Barsocchini (pronounced bar-soh-KEE-nee), who writes the screenplays straight and turns them over to director Kenny Ortega and a variety of songwriters who break out musical numbers, gets a piece of all of it. He even sees a percentage of sales from the 300 merchandising products jamming toy stores, though some of it freaks Gabriella out a bit.

“It’s weird going into stores and seeing dolls with my name on them,” she says.

All told, over the life of the franchise, Barsocchini said he stands to make between $5 million and $20 million.

He could never have seen any of this coming, though his early years were as full of sports and music as his protagonists’. “Growing up, my life was rock ‘n’ roll and basketball,” Barsocchini says.

In the early ‘70s, when he was just a teenager, he started writing rock journalism for the San Mateo Times and Rolling Stone. “I was like Cameron Crowe, except he’s a better writer,” cracks Barsocchini, who once drove an “out-there” Janis Joplin from San Francisco to L.A. at age 15, before he had a driver’s license. “It was the greatest job in history because I was in high school with tickets to every event. If I had to valet park my car, I was in trouble, but I had great seats.”

His music background led to a stint as talent coordinator and, later, producer for “The Merv Griffin Show,” where he won two Daytime Emmys. He spent much of the ‘80s doing development work for Griffin, but by the ‘90s Barsocchini was a working screenwriter, though nothing much took off until he hooked up with producer Bill Borden on “HSM.”

At the time, he was writing a one-hour drama pilot for Lifetime called “The Look.”

“It was about models and sex and rock ‘n’ roll in New York City,” Barsocchini says. “I thought that was the surefire can’t-miss of the century. And at the same time I’m writing this fun little movie for my daughter, Gabriella, who was then 10. I thought it would be sweet to have something that she could watch. . . . Little did we know that ‘The Look’ [wouldn’t] get picked up, and ‘High School Musical’ went on to become the most successful cable property in history.”

He started getting calls the day after the first “HSM” aired in January 2006, and now he fields more offers than he has time to write. Current projects include a musical he’s writing with Mariah Carey for HBO based on her album “All I Want for Christmas,” an independent feature based on Pico Iyer’s novel “Cuba and the Night” that he’s been developing since 1994, an adaptation of a young-adult novel called “Define ‘Normal’ ” for Lifetime, and a “Hard Day’s Night"-style romp starring Oreskaband, a real-life ska band made up of six teenage Japanese girls.

He’s writing an original feature for DreamWorks producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who came looking for him after their daughter’s classmates burst into a spontaneous rendition of “HSM’s” “We’re All in This Together” during their graduation ceremony. And there’s a DreamWorks Animation project on the table too.

Despite Hollywood’s notorious fixation on youth, if someone now wants to make a film that appeals to music-minded teens, apparently fiftysomething Peter Barsocchini looks like the one most likely to succeed.