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In Disney Channel's 'Zombies' musical, Montco native found medium to send a message

Cheltenham High grad David Light says the teleplay he cowrote about a cheerleader with a secret and the zombie football player who falls for her is about "humanity and openheartedness."

Milo Manheim (foreground) stars as a zombie named Zed who longs to play football in the Disney Channel movie “Zombies,” co-written by Cheltenham native David Light
Milo Manheim (foreground) stars as a zombie named Zed who longs to play football in the Disney Channel movie “Zombies,” co-written by Cheltenham native David LightRead moreJohn Medland/Disney Channel

If you know kids in the Disney Channel's target audience, you may already be familiar with Zombies, the High School Musical-meets-iZombie movie that's premiering Friday.

The network's been promoting it for months, and thanks to an online music video that already has more than 2.8 million views, a dragging leg could be part of the next big dance craze, at least among middle-schoolers.

For Cheltenham High School grad David Light, who cowrote the teleplay about Addison (Meg Donnelly, American Housewife), a cheerleader with a secret, and Zed (Milo Manheim), the zombie football player who falls for her, the tale of two young people bucking society's prejudices against a group of people whose hair appears to be dyed Eagles green is even more familiar. He and writing partner Joseph Raso explored the zombie-cheerleader dynamic several years ago in an aptly titled Disney pilot, Zombies and Cheerleaders, that never made it to series.

"It tested OK, [but] there was a sense that maybe it wasn't the right time," Light said in a phone interview last week.

But maybe the moment has arrived for a musical allegory about overcoming prejudice: Making "a monster musical … in a way it allowed  us the freedom to talk about humanity and openheartedness," he said.

"I feel like in this time … being fiercely openhearted, being generous and kind, and true to yourself, you know, your authentic self, your true voice, that those are really important messages. And those messages feel countercultural right now," Light said.

"We're in a moment of polarization," he said. "And so a message of decency, I think, really resonates."

Zombies, set in a town called Seabrook, opens 50 years after a power plant accident turned a portion of the population into brain-eaters. Technology has since allowed the zombies to live unthreatening lives, but the bias against them lingers, and when the local high school is forced to admit students from the other side of the fence, it places them in a basement room overseen not by a teacher, but by the school janitor.

Zed, played by the teenage son of actress Camryn Manheim, is determined to truly integrate the school, starting with its football team, the losing Mighty Shrimps. Addison, who wears a wig to hide an adorable head of hair whose color doesn't happen to conform to Seabrook social standards, risks ostracism by her peers when she befriends the boy from Zombietown.

The idea to throw zombies and cheerleaders together originally came from Disney, Light said, which, after he and Raso had written a musical at Nickeodeon "that didn't get made but garnered some attention," gave them the title Zombies and Cheerleaders, and the two writers "built out a world" to go with it.

In writing this musical, which was scored by George S. Clinton, choreographed by Christopher Scott and Jeffrey Hornaday, and includes original songs by a number of songwriters, "we actually wrote out the script and then went back in and found moments for the music. And a lot of scenes got compressed and became crystallized in musical numbers," Light said.

Zombies is already a hit with Light's "personal focus group" — he and his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, have two daughters, 14 and 11, and a son, 9 — who are "mimicking moves and singing the lyrics," he said. "They can't get enough of the dynamic between Zed and Addison. Milo and Meg just did such a great job of bringing those characters to life."

Maybe his kids also appreciated the tint in Zed's hair. "I'm raising Eagles fans out in Los Angeles," Light said. "Before the big game, I sort of sat them all down and said, 'Listen, the fact that the Eagles are in the Super Bowl is an achievement itself,' sort of preparing them, you know, that being a Philly fan means struggling with disappointment. And we lost our voices cheering and screaming. I was crying. You know, the city really needed a win."

Light, who graduated from Columbia University, where he attended film school, began his entertainment career as an assistant animator on 1997's Cats Don't Dance before moving to the development side of animation at Nickelodeon and MTV. His interest in storytelling, though, goes back to his days in Cheltenham, when he was a finalist in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights competition.

"I wrote a one-act play. I got to work with a director and stage it, and [work with] a dramaturge as well. It was just a great experience for me as a very, very young storyteller, and that's one of the moments when I just got bitten by writing and wanting to tell stories," he said.

Zombies. 8 p.m. Friday, Disney Channel.