East High — the real East High — opened its doors on Friday for a sneak peek of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, just days ahead of its official Nov. 12 launch on Disney+.
Picking up on the first day of a new school year, the premiere introduces us to Ricky (Joshua Bassett), an emotionally clueless junior who’s crushed to discover that his ex-girlfriend Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) has moved on with a new guy she met at theater camp — even though it was his idea to take a break from their relationship over the summer. (On behalf of all boys, I’m sorry. I don’t know why we’re like this.) And Nini didn’t just move on with any ol’ guy; she’s now dating E.J. (Matt Cornett), a real-life Troy Bolton with the voice of an angel and the jawline of a Disney prince.
When East High’s new theater director — a delightful ball of insanity named Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) — announces that the school’s next production will be High School Musical… The Musical, Ricky seizes his opportunity to win Nini back. His audition gets off to a rough start, but when he picks up his guitar and the words start flowing, you could hear a pin drop in that auditorium. (As an added emotional gut punch, he auditions with the song Nini once wrote to express how she felt about him. So he’s not totally hopeless.)
Gasps abound when the cast list is posted, and rightfully so. Not only does Nini beat out new-girl Gina (Sofia Wylie) for the role of Gabriella, but Ricky also manages to land the part of Troy, much to the dismay of E.J., who’s forced to serve as Ricky’s understudy. As the show’s stage manager puts its so eloquently, “Buckle up, Wildcats. S–t’s about to get real.”
TVLine spoke with executive producer Tim Federle about bringing HSM:TM:TS to life, as well as what we can expect from the rest of the first season… and beyond:
TVLINE | When I first heard that this show was being done as a mockumentary, I had my doubts. But now that I’ve seen it, I feel like it couldn’t have been done any other way.
The other way would have been a straight-up reboot, or a fourth movie. And while I get the fantasy of all that, I don’t know the real world [possibility] of getting them all those actors back together. I’m a Broadway guy, and I have a language for taking original material and doing it in a new way. That’s just how theater treats stuff. And I love the original songs. They’re still bops. But it’s fun to hear them reimagined in new ways. It’s also an opportunity to get a whole bunch of new songs out there. So it’s been a blast.
TVLINE | The original movie also takes itself so seriously. Thirteen years later, I’m not sure that same tone would have worked.
Yes, and we took the mockumentary approach — because I grew up with Waiting for Guffman and The Office, which are such cultural touchstones — so that we could look at the camera and say, “We know this is a little ridiculous,” which felt important.
TVLINE | That said, the musical numbers, at least in the premiere, are pretty earnest. Did you specifically want them to feel separate from the rest of the show, stylistically?
We do a variety of different musical conceits. Later in the season, we have a full fantasy number, which features a cameo from an original cast member. But we also have super grounded songs. We’ve got these actors — like Joshua and Olivia — who play their own instruments and sing the songs live without autotune. I hope that level of authenticity reaches an audience that’s so used to Tik Tok-ing their own lives, and that they’ll know the real thing when they see it.
TVLINE | Are you predicting that fans will take sides between Ricky and E.J.?
I think there will be some Team Ricky and Team E.J. But beyond the premiere, E.J. does some really stupid, high school boy things that feel a little irredeemable. Team Ricky is the obvious one, but I think a number of people will tune in for E.J., too.
TVLINE | Given that this show is about musical theater, I appreciated the level of LGBT representation, from Nini’s moms to characters like Carlos and Seb. A lot was suggested, but will any characters actually talk about being gay as the show progresses?
If you stick with the series long enough, you’ll see [Carlos and Seb’s] relationship grow into something that I think is both highly relatable and maybe a little bit new for Disney. With the Disney+ of it all, there was a sense of “Let’s swing big and take risks.” At no point did anyone [from Disney Channel or Disney+] tell me, “Please cut this joke that makes fun of Disney or Zac Efron.” Or, “Please cut this serious moment that hints at a level of authenticity and diversity that we all know exists in the real world.” I think we push boundaries, while always keeping in mind that we want the show to appeal to a broad audience, including moms who can watch it in a co-viewing experience with their kids. Sometimes we take baby steps, and sometimes we take leaping jumps.
TVLINE | Looking back on the original movies, the fact that Ryan — who was so clearly gay — ended up with Kelsey felt like such a tragedy.
I wasn’t there at the time, and I understand the challenges of trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible without riling people up. I don’t feel that my show is trying to make up for anything that wasn’t there before, but I do think it’s a new generation, and having a cast full of 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, I’m aware that I can’t put anything in there that they’re going to roll their eyes at. They’re real teens living real lives.
TVLINE | And you’ve already been picked up for Season 2, which is exciting. I understand the plan, though, is not to do High School Musical 2 next year?
Right, it’s going to be a different musical. We’re circling a title right now that I’m really excited about. It’s definitely outside of the Troy and Gabriella world. At the end of the day, it’s going for something that’ll be escapist for people.
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