By Kristi Casey Sanders

For Theater of the Stars (TOTS) President Nick Manos, it all begins with family. His father, legendary producer and TOTS founder Christopher B. Manos convinced him to leave the corporate world of employee benefits to join the family business, where he enjoys producing family friendly musicals, including the “official” version of Disney’s High School Musical. The success of that production resulted in a valuable partnership with Disney that gives TOTS the right to adapt High School Musical’s sequels. But the initial idea to tackle the show, Manos says, came from an evening he spent with his daughter.

“My daughter wanted to watch the original when it [aired] on Jan. 20, 2006, on the Disney Channel, and she asked me to watch it with her,” Manos remembers. “I did, and I got more interested immediately. The movie struck a nerve with the kids, obviously, but it also struck a nerve with me, because it was an opportunity to have a fun show with a lot of positive messages.”

It’s difficult finding movies that would make good stage musicals, Manos says, especially if you’re geared towards entertaining multiple generations. Most movies are not family friendly, and when they are, they tend to be animated. What Manos found so promising about Disney’s High School Musical was that it was a live action movie, starring teenagers, that sent kids the message that it’s OK to be who you are and take risks to achieve your dreams.

“Those are messages that hit home with a lot of people and … [it had] the kind of storylines and messages we like to portray in the shows we do,” Manos says.

Disney had made the decision to allow theater groups to produce musical versions of the movie, but on an amateur, not professional, basis. “They thought it was more geared towards that style of show: casting real teenagers and doing it in high schools and middle schools,” Manos says. “[TOTS] and a couple of other professional theaters pushed very hard to expand that to include professional theaters.”

TOTS was one of six professional theaters committed to developing a musical version, and the first to get a fully mounted production up and running. “We put our heart and soul into producing it,” Manos remembers. “We hired a great creative team and made a few tweaks to make it shorter, faster and funnier. It was a big success artistically, financially and otherwise.”

The Disney executives who came to see the show agreed. “They ended up thinking the show was now not only suitable for schools, amateurs and a few professional licenses, but that it could tour around the country,” Manos says. “They picked it up and started touring it in summer 2007 and finished the tour [this] August. The same production has played in throughout the United Kingdom and Italy; it’s playing this fall in Australia, and it’s our production.”

The success of the original deepened the partnership between TOTS and Disney, who already had a good working relationship. Disney not only gave TOTS the right to produce subsequent musical versions of the lucrative franchise, they also gave them the green light to produce an original musical version of the movie Tarzan, playing the Fox Jan. 16-25.

Disney’s High School Musical 2 plays Nov. 6-16 at The Fabulous Fox Theatre.