Get a first look at High School Musical: The Musical: The Series holiday special and season 2
EW has your exclusive first look at Disney+'s meta High School Musical show as it dishes out some Christmas/Hanukkah/nondenominational winter cheer in an upcoming holiday special, as well as some season 2 sneak peeks. The special, titled High School Musical: The Musical: The Holiday Special, reunites the cast for a 45-minute episode featuring performances of their favorite Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year's songs along with their childhood holiday memories, stories about their best and most embarrassing presents, their family traditions, photos, and New Year's resolutions. And the special came about simply because showrunner Tim Federle missed everyone during the extended coronavirus shutdown.
"I was like, I miss the cast, I could use a little Christmas, let's make a holiday special," Federle tells EW. "And I still kind of can't believe we made it. It was a lot of Google spreadsheets and Zoom meetings." The showrunner admits he already was feeling his own Zoom fatigue but still wanted to deliver something "fresh yet also old-fashioned" when it came to TV produced during the pandemic as well as holiday specials.
"I want the audience experience to be escaping into this holiday merriment, as opposed to thinking too hard about how did they shoot this during this unprecedented time," he says. "We had four different crews in four different cities. Sofia Wylie, she was up at 4 in the morning and she was shooting in the Arizona desert during a heatwave, and I was directing it over a speakerphone attached to a microphone on set. My Snapple fun fact is that we shot the L.A. portion at the Bachelor house literally in Malibu because we were right down to the wire trying to figure out locations and a lot of locations weren't available [at the height of the shutdown]. It just makes me laugh because it is all part of the ABC family."
Once Federle figured out how to pull it off, he had to work out exactly what he wanted the holiday special to be. "I grew up such a fan of shows like So You Think You Can Dance and American Idol and these kind of programs that are unscripted where you get to learn a little bit about the contestant and then they perform," Federle says. "Knowing that the cast would be separated and in their own hometowns, I thought, let's just use this as an opportunity to learn who they actually are, not as their characters. Mark St. Cyr is so different from the uptight teacher Mr. Mazzara and Matt Cornett has such a different life story than who E.J. is, so knowing who they are as people just makes them more lovable for what they're able to pull off as characters."
Joshua Bassett, who plays lead heartthrob Ricky, tells EW that "it was really special that we were able to make this happen during such a crazy time," before laughing at his unintentional use of the word special. "I'm just excited for everyone to get to know the cast a little bit better on a more personal level than maybe they did by watching the show," he adds.
"Before shooting this, all of us were in quarantine for like five months or something, and so to get to be on a set with these people who you had missed for so long and to finally get to see them in person was just amazing," Olivia Rodrigo, who plays Nini, tells EW. "The joy of having that experience shows through on camera."
The special also features a sneak peek at season 2, with a brand-new song written and performed by Bassett. "The first episode of season 2 picks up right where season 1 left off," Federle says. "It's a very holiday-themed episode. I said to Josh, 'What if you wrote a new Christmas song from Ricky's point of view?' It's a really great Joshua Bassett original. It's a really sweet moment in the episode."
"I was so honored that they asked me to perform it in the special," Bassett says. "The key element of the song is that Ricky is trying to get a gift for someone and he doesn't really have much money, and so it's like, 'I can't afford a gift so instead I'm going to write you a song.'"
It's a sentiment Bassett related to on a personal level. "Christmas was always much more about the quality family time for me and my family than it was about getting fancy gifts, given that I had five sisters, and so we weren't really big on gift giving," he says. "So that really resonated with me and it made writing the song a pretty seamless process."
That's not the only new song written by a cast member that fans will hear in season 2. "We each wrote a new song for season 2, which was absolutely insane," Rodrigo reveals. "I am so grateful to Tim Federle and everyone who's created the show for letting us teenagers have that much responsibility in creating something for such a wonderful project. The show is very much about teenagers and portraying a teenager's issues in a realistic way, and so the fact that some of the songs are written by teenagers is just an extension of how authentic I think the show is."
Plus, fans will get to see one of the first musical performances of season 2 in the holiday special featuring the entire ensemble. "What I can tease about the first look at season 2 is that I think it embraces the best of East High as a location, and also really announces this entire cast with a giant group song that sets the standard for tone and energy and joy and dancing for the season," Federle says. "Season 1, so many of the performances by design were extremely acoustic, it was like Josh with a guitar. And I love those performances and we do those in season 2 too but I feel like we're the only show on television with the word musical in its title twice, and so we wanted to open season 2 with a bang."
Get your first look at season 2 (including a couple of romantic moments with Ricky and Nini!) in the exclusive photos below.
Plus, check out more exclusive photos from the holiday special:
The soundtrack for the holiday special (called — what else? — High School Musical: The Musical: The Holiday Special: The Soundtrack) will be available Nov. 20 on all major music services and streaming platforms. High School Musical: The Musical: The Holiday Special premieres Dec. 11 on Disney+.
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