For three consecutive years, Disney’s High School Musical franchise was a juggernaut; the movie musical trilogy produced a trio of soundtracks from 2006-08 that have sold a combined 9.8 million copies, according to Nielsen Music. Now, Disney is hoping to reintroduce one of its most lucrative tentpoles with High School Musical: The Musical: The Series — one of six original shows premiering on the company’s new streaming service, Disney+, which will launch Nov. 12 and offer new and classic Disney programming. (Unlike Netflix’s binge-watch model, new episodes will be released weekly.)
The show’s plot is quite meta: A group of students from Salt Lake City’s East High School (where the movies were filmed, though the trilogy was set in Albuquerque) are staging a production of High School Musical. The series’ creator, Tim Federle, insists the show isn’t a continuation of HSM, but a modern take.
“It’s a feel-good series that deals with authentic things happening to teenagers today,” he says, “whether it’s social media issues or the natural comparison that happens when you’re up for the same role — let alone in high school.”
Federle refers to High School Musical: The Musical: The Series as “The Office meets Glee,” combining mockumentary-style dialogue with musical numbers. The biggest difference fans will notice, though, is that the show is not a typical musical — none of the characters spontaneously break into song. Instead, the show incorporates music organically, during a scene at a karaoke club or through an Instagram video. “You can become famous on TikTok now,” says Federle. “Young viewers know when they’re being fed something that’s not real, because they’re putting so much reality out there themselves.”
That’s exactly why Federle hired actors who are also singer-songwriters, like leads Olivia Rodrigo (Nini) and Joshua Bassett (Ricky), who co-wrote a song called “Just For a Moment” that will be featured in the ninth episode. Having actors who were musically inclined allowed a majority of the show’s musical numbers to be filmed live, which Federle predicts will help viewers further connect with the characters.
For the other original songs, Federle teamed up with music supervisor Steve Vincent, who worked on all three High School Musical movies. After Federle laid out what he was looking for — whether it was channeling the sound of an artist like Sara Bareilles, or accomplishing a specific lyrical approach — Vincent would retrieve submissions from L.A.-based songwriters, which Federle would listen to blindly “so I wasn’t just hiring my friends.”
Vincent says his biggest challenge was figuring out what exactly what HSM music sounds like in 2019. But he’s confident the songs from the series will stream well because of one key advantage HSM presents: the power of nostalgia. “When I started re-listening to stuff from the movies, a lot of it was guitar- and piano-driven, then would grow into bigger pop-rock productions,” he says. “Even though there’s not a ton of that on pop radio right now, it felt like the franchise.”
Both Federle and Vincent are particularly excited about one High School Musical: The Musical: The Series original titled “Wondering,” a piano duet that doubles as a “what if” tale for the HSM drama teacher, Mrs. Darbus, as well as Nini in her relationship with Ricky. Vincent also highlights an empowering pop track titled “Born to Be Brave” from episode five: “I think that’s our new ‘We’re All in This Together’ anthem.”
Don’t worry, HSM diehards: “We’re All in This Together” and other favorites from the first film, like “Breaking Free” and “Start of Something New,” were revamped for the show, too. “It’s comfort food,” Vincent adds. “The content battle across show business is huge — but being able to wave a familiar flag can catch people’s eyes.”
But those who tune in to High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ Nov. 12 premiere will see that the series isn’t using the popularity of High School Musical as a crutch. Federle’s mockumentary approach eliminates the potential for cheesy dialogue, and occasional callbacks to the film come in the form of lighthearted jabs: For one, a teacher sternly reminds in the pilot that East High’s mascot is the leopards, not the wildcats.
Still, Vincent recognizes comparisons will be made to the original film and its cast members (“It’s tough to compete with Zac Efron and Vanessa [Hudgens],” he says), but he suggests that fans will relate to the actors finding the joy of High School Musical for themselves — perhaps, in part, because most of them are big fans of the original franchise. “They knew the movies backwards and forwards,” adds Federle, who pointed out that Sofia Wylie (Gina in the series) won a contest to attend one of the movie’s premieres when she was younger.
After an episode is uploaded to Disney+ every Friday through season one’s finale on January 10, 2020, the music that appeared in it will be available on streaming platforms. Thanks to the success Disney’s Descendants franchise has seen on YouTube and streaming services (the second single from the first film, “Rotten to the Core,” has more than 336 million views on YouTube alone), Vincent isn’t concerned with how the music will perform, whether it’s on streaming platforms or top 40 radio — even without the now-defunct iTunes, which was ironically the catalyst for the success of HSM’s soundtracks.
Regardless of the show’s success, Federle feels High School Musical: The Musical: The Series couldn’t be coming at a better time. “For a lot of people, there’s been sort of like a Glee-sized hole in their hearts,” the showrunner says. “It’s a tough world out there. A half-hour of singing and dancing is a nice way to counteract some of that.”
Though the first season’s final two episodes will see the East High students putting on their production of High School Musical, Federle already has a vision for where the show could go for at least five more seasons. Vincent is apprehensive to look that far ahead just yet, but is hopeful that the series will make an impact on HSM fans and beyond.
“The audience that loves music-driven content will love the show,” Vincent says. “Leave your preconceived notions at the door and think of it fresh. It can be everybody’s High School Musical.”