May 27, 2008 -- Bringing "High School Musical" to the Middle East shouldn't have been this hard.
The DVD sensation converted into musical theater by Disney, ABC's parent company, has been staged in dozens of cities including London, Taiwan and Buenos Aires — always with the same story of song, dance and teenage romance, often using the same English-language script.
But "High School Musical's" Lebanon edition was different. After months of practicing and preparation, it was time for opening night just as Beirut fell into a political crisis, with violence that chilled the capital.
They could have canceled the show, but they pushed forward, soldiered on, hoping their audience would brave the roadblocks and armed checkpoints across the city. While other Lebanese their age were picking up guns, the cast of "HSM" was busy bringing East High School to life.
"I live in the West Beirut area, which has been rough over the past few days," said Marya Abdelrahman, who played the role of East High School drama teacher Miss Darbis. "But thinking of the stage made me focused.
"I just hope my family can make it to the show from that side of town," she added.
"I was sitting at home, crying and waiting," said Rania Ayash, who plays one of the lead roles as Sharpay Evans. "['High School Musical'] is my life. I stopped everything. I stopped university, I stopped my social life, I stopped my parents, just for this play."
While the cast waited at home for gunfire to subside, they practiced their lines by phone and through Internet chat rooms, perfecting their parts. They all watched the DVD for inspiration, though some of them had to learn American English and its high school slang.
Ayash, who spent her childhood in Houston, could just focus on getting in character.
"I practiced my lines with my 96-year-old grandmother," said Ayash. "I had to practice being a witch with a capital "B," which was hard because I'm not usually that mean."
Bernard Khalil, the Lebanese incarnation of basketball jock Chad Danforth, fits the part with his big, curly brown mane.
"My hair was always been like this, even before the play," said Khalil, who sought tutoring to shake off his native French accent for the show. The results are mixed, but charming as he banters on stage with a Lebanese Troy Bolton played by Joseph Fadel.
On opening night, the house was full, despite the lingering threat of violence. The curtain went up at 5 p.m. sharp.
At the same time, in another part of town, the Arab League spoke before a crowd of reporters on a possible peace deal for Lebanon.
By the time "High School Musical" got to its big number — the song, "We're All in this Together" — it was clear Lebanon's fighting factions would go to Doha for talks to end the conflict.
Weathering the political turmoil outside, the cast turned "High School Musical" into a pep rally for Lebanon.
"Why can't they take us as an example?" said Rania Ayash, Lebanon's Sharpay Evans, of the bickering politicians. "We are all different sects, religions, and backgrounds. We are Druze, Shiite, Christian, Sunni, everything … and we're one big happy family."