True confession: I had more fun at the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus Concert Tour than I've had in a long time at the movie theater. I think it's safe to say that we're seeing the beginning of a new wave in movie theaters; bringing concerts to fans in 3-D in the comfort of a movie theater, for a fraction of the ticket prices of a live concert, is going to be the Next Big Thing -- so long as it's done as well as Disney has pulled off the Hannah Montana concert.
Here's the backstory, in case you haven't heard. Hannah Montana is the Disney Channel's huge hit show among the tween set. It's more than a show, it's a phenomena, spawning everything from Hannah Montana dolls to Hannah wigs and dress-up clothes to a sing-and-dance-along video game that teaches girls (and boys, let's not be gender-specific here) all Hannah's cool moves. Part of the enormous appeal of Hannah Montana is the show's central conceit: Hannah Montana, a famous pop star, is the secret superstar identity of Miley Stewart, an ordinary, dorky girl struggling to get through her freshman year of high school. By day, Miley and her best friend Lilly (Emily Osment) fight all the battles every girl fights in her teen years -- the agony of an untimely pimple, the torment of the snobby popular girls, who forever have Miley and Lilly on their "loser" list, the homework, the sleepovers and fights and makeups that characterize the lives of teen girls. By night, Miley dons a platinum Cher wig, puts on her cool clothes, and becomes Hannah Montana, the ultimate cool girl and envy of the very girls who make her life as Miley a challenge in the halls of her high school.
Why not just tell everyone she's Hannah and reap the benefits? Because Miley wants to experience life as a normal girl, too, and she knows that if everyone knows she's Hannah, normal life will come screeching to a halt and all her days and nights will be spent dealing with people who only want to be her friend because of who she is onstage, without caring about the real girl beneath the glitz. The show's popular theme song, "Best of Both Worlds," is all about Miley's double life.
It's a pretty brilliant idea for a television show, but the key reason for its popularity is its young star, Miley Cyrus, whose father, Billy Ray "Achy-Breaky Heart" Cyrus, plays her father and manager (and also, in a bit of clever self-mockery, an aging rock star himself) on the show. Hannah Montana, the television show, is surprisingly funny and warm-hearted, and it's a big hit with both the tween girls in its target market and with parents, who appreciate the way the show deftly handles the issues their daughters face in the hallways of their own schools. Miley and Lilly navigate through all the normal social issues with humor and grace, and the two young actresses have grown to have an excellent sense of Lucy-and-Ethel-esque comedic timing as it gets harder and harder to keep Hannah's real identity concealed.
When I first heard some time ago that Disney was planning to launch a Hannah Montana concert tour, I was mildly surprised; after all, the target market knows that Hannah Montana is a stage persona, not a real person -- would they turn out in droves to see a fictional pop star perform? But Disney had a plan to carry the theme of the show over to the stage. First, they launched the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus Best of Both Worlds CD, in which they introduced the show's fans to the idea that Miley is a solid singer and performer in her own identity as well. Half the songs on the CD are "Hannah" songs made popular from the show; the rest are Miley's original songs (many of which she wrote herself) and have a distinctly different feel from Hannah's music. It's a smart way to pave the way for young Cyrus to have a musical career that carries on once Hannah's popularlity has come and gone.
Thus was the concert spawned, and tickets were sold faster than you could say "pop star." The Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus Best of Both Worlds sold out huge arenas from coast-to-coast in record time, thanks largely to ticket brokers who bought the show out in droves and then resold the tickets to desperate parents for gargantuan markups. And of course, many a parent could not afford the tickets, and many a girl (including my own) was left broken-hearted at missing her chance to see the show. Disney couldn't control the ticket scalpers, but someone at the Mouse House quickly got a smart idea -- to record one of the concerts live, in 3-D, and put it in theaters to give Hannah fans a front-row seat to her concert without the sky-high ticket prices. Disney makes more money, Hannah fans are happy, everyone wins.
So there's the background; how was the actual concert? Everything it should be. There was a palpable air of excitement at the theater as droves of Hannah fans queued up for the show (screenings are selling out all over the place; here where I live, every show this weekend has been sold out for weeks -- I bought ours back in December -- and tickets are going fast for the remaining shows in the concert's one-week engagement). Once we were seated, with our groovy 3-D glasses in hand, the theater manager came in and told the excited crowd that "this is a concert, not a regular movie, and we want you to enjoy it like a concert -- get up on your feet, sing along, clap, dance -- have fun!" That was all the encouragement the packed house needed to let loose and have a ball.
Disney very smartly makes great use of the 3-D technology to make you feel like you're really at the concert, and, quite honestly, you get a much better view of the whole thing this way than you would have from paying $300 for a nosebleed seat to see it live. The show is produced and choreographed by Kenny Ortega, who also does High School Musical, and say what you will about both High School Musical and Hannah Montana, the man knows what he's doing. The flashy concert segments are interspersed with some behind-the-scenes footage as well, giving Hannah fans a taste of just how much work goes into putting together a show like this: the band, the dancers, the complex choreography, the pyrotechnics. We also see the real-girl side of Miley -- dropped on stage during a complex lift one night, she's scared to attempt the stunt again, and it takes both her mother and Ortega -- and several practice runs with the newly-added spotters to ensure her safety -- to convince her to do it.
The show itself is fun to watch, even if the songs are a little bubblegum. The moviehouse crowd clapped, danced in the aisles, and sang along with the all the songs. One of the highlights of the show is when Disney powerhouse trio the Jonas Brothers join their friend onstage. I think I lost an eardrum to the screams and high-pitched squealing that ensued for the duration of the boys' set -- they sing one song with Hannah, then perform on their own to give Hannah time to transform into Miley for the second half of the show. Whether you like the music or not, you can't fault Miley -- this young lady works her petite fanny off performing for her fans, and she seems to be having a great time doing it, even though it has to be absolutely exhausting turning it on to that level night after night. When the Jonas boys come out, one of them whispers something to her while hugging her, and you can see her mouth back, "I'm so tired!" and then laugh. And if her voice cracks a bit under the strain of all that singing and dancing, at least you can tell she's really singing and not just lip-syncing the words.
The 3-D is used to great effect -- the drumstick, tossed in the air, seems like it might hit you in the face, the confetti feels like it's streaming into the auditorium, and Miley, when she reaches her hand to her fans, feels like she's right there. I took three of my own kids, ages 10, 8 and 6, to the show with a friend, and they were utterly entranced from beginning to end. My son enjoyed the show as much as his sisters (and closeups of the crowd at the live show, by the way, reveal a surprising proportion of teenage boys in the crowd; I guess it's not too shocking, really, because Miley is a lovely young girl who looks great in her plethora of trend-inspiring costumes.
If the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour is any indication, concerts in movie theaters can and will be a huge hit. At Sundance, one of the hottest tickets was U2-3D; all things considered, I'd say we're looking at the future of concerts here. It really is the "best of both worlds" -- live shows you can go to if you want to shell out the big bucks for them, and theater recreations of the shows you can go to if you don't. Given the popularity of the Hannah Montana show, don't be surprised if the show's one-week engagement gets "held over" -- as we were walking out of the theater past the crowd cued up for the next show, squealy girls all around me were making plans to score tickets to another screening to watch it again. Oh, and those Jonas Brothers? Look for them to have their own concert in a theater near you real soon.