Disney+'s High School Musical series showrunner on honoring the franchise with a fresh take
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series — yes, that’s the actual title — bops to the top when Disney+ launches Nov. 12. But the musical comedy may not be what fans of the original franchise are expecting. The 10-episode series doesn’t stick to the status quo or catch up with old fan-favorite characters after their big-screen graduation in 2008’s High School Musical: Senior Year. Rather, it follows a new generation of characters in a completely different (and decidedly more meta) universe.
Disney+’s continuation of the High School Musical franchise comes in the form of a mockumentary comedy set in the real world at the high school where all the movies were filmed. The names Troy Bolton, Gabriella Montez, and Sharpay Evans are just as famous as Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Tisdale, and East High’s mascots are not the Wildcats. When the drama teacher decides to pay homage to the films that put the high school on the map, students — some of whom are huge fans of the movies, while others couldn’t care less — audition for the roles of Troy, Gabriella, Sharpay, singing new versions of the now-familiar songs. Every line, scene, and choice is engineered to delight fans of the franchise, while simultaneously making sure to not step on the legacy of the original trilogy.
And that’s all by design of showrunner Tim Federle. “I was always thinking about the original fans, whose childhood I promise I’m not trying to ruin,” he tells EW with a laugh. “Every episode should contain Easter eggs and callbacks and references to the original, whether it be with a wink to a prop that pops up on screen or a cameo from an original cast member — which I can confirm happens, I just can’t say who or when! But it’s a fresh start and brand-new cast, and I want to tell stories that went totally outside the High School Musical universe and engage people in a new way.”
Federle acknowledges that while most viewers probably already have a deep-seated love for the original films, he’s hoping to bring new fans to the series too (since we’re all in this together). “I was also thinking hard about trying to invest in a new group of people who are coming to this fresh,” he says. In fact, Federle himself wasn’t in the High School Musical fanbase when the movies first came out. “I was not somebody who grew up with it; I was out of the demographic. I was the Grease, Little Shop of Horrors generation.”
It turns out Federle’s fresh perspective on the franchise was exactly what the Disney+ series needed to finally break free of development purgatory and soar onto your screens — be they a computer, tablet, phone, TV, or wherever else you might stream the show. “Gary Marsh, who runs the Disney Channel, has for about 10 years since the third movie came out looked at it and kept looking at it,” Federle says of the long road to bringing a High School Musical series to life. “It’s one of the biggest Disney Channel Original Movies they’ve ever had, and he had an eagerness to reinvent the franchise — and also a hesitancy to do anything that felt like a cheap money grab.”
Federle praises Marsh’s “integrity to say, ‘Those movies mean so much to so many people that if we’re going to do it again, we have to do it right.’” That’s why it took so long to develop this show into what it is now, and it wasn’t until about a year and a half ago when Federle finally became attached as showrunner.
“There was this great excitement to get a teen musical back on the air,” Federle says. “They didn’t quite know what to do with it. I came in and basically said, ‘I love the original movie, but there’s a way to do this that reinvents it while still paying reverence to the original.’ So while I’ve been attached for about a year and a half, they’ve been mulling ways to reinvent it for about a decade. This was the formula we all agreed upon.”
As for that mouthful of a title, Federle knows that it’s “a little bit audacious and a little bit crazy.”
“My initial pitch was The Making of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, and everybody laughed,” he says. “I certainly see the online chatter, like, ‘Whoever thought of this is nuts,’ and I wear that as a badge of pride because there are so many scripted shows out there that I feel like anything to make you stand out from the pack and get people to look twice is not a terrible thing these days. And also once you actually see the show and see what we’ve done with it, that we’re self-referential and winking at the original franchise, the title starts to come into clearer focus.”
Revisiting this franchise through a self-referential lens was inspired by Federle’s love of mockumentaries like The Office and Waiting For Guffman. “It was right at the height of American Vandal, which I thought was incredible and brilliantly done,” he says. “And I wanted to differentiate us from the original [movies] right away. I knew that camera-style-wise, if I could borrow some of the elements from The Office, with characters talking to the camera and whip pans and zooms, it would immediately announce it as not a copycat of the original, but a new way in. And the docu-style would allow me to revisit the original music but not feel like we’re doing direct karaoke covers.”
As a Broadway fan, Federle wanted to capture the magic of live performances on camera for the series to add an extra layer of authenticity. “Sometimes the most exciting rendition of a song is just a voice and a piano. When that person is five feet away from you, something electric happens that only music can do,” he explains. “Let’s get as many of these songs sung live as possible, which also meant hunting really hard for cast members who could sing 20 takes in a row live without losing their voices. The lip-sync, Auto-Tune era is played out. In a TikTok universe, authenticity is key these days with a teenage audience, so I wanted to present these sparkling new cast members as realistically as possible.”
That’s why casting all the roles with the right performers was Federle’s top priority during development. “From day one, I always saw us as what I hope is a long-running series, and I knew that if we cast the right talent who had the right chemistry and who were proud theater kids themselves, the audience would become engaged with their journeys,” he says. “Casting was key and we looked really, really hard for this group.”
Once all the roles were cast, Federle discovered an unintended benefit from his stars. “There’s actually a couple songs over the course of 10 episodes that were written by cast members of mine, because once I learned that Joshua Bassett [who plays male lead Ricky] and Olivia Rodrigo [who plays female lead Nini] are themselves young songwriters and posting their own songs on Instagram, I knew we should just go right to the source,” he says. “They’re the real deal. Giving those guys a shot to submit a song and have it be chosen unanimously by me and Disney because the chops were so undeniable, it’s a total thrill. It’s about eliminating gatekeepers and letting these voices sings as purely as possible.”
While he’s waiting on pins and needles to finally debut all the new songs in addition to new versions of the original songs, Federle is excited about one in particular. “There’s an episode that takes place at a homecoming dance,” he says. “That has a real empowerment anthem for anyone who ever feels like they haven’t been able to dance unless they had a dance partner.”
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series debuts Nov. 12 on Disney+, and new episodes will be released every Friday.