HSMTMTS showrunner explains season 2's 'eerie' parallels to Olivia Rodrigo's music career
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Friday's season 2 finale of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
Back in January, Olivia Rodrigo wrote and released her debut single,"Drivers License," which blew up practically overnight when it became a go-to soundtrack for TikTok users. Six months later, Nini, Rodrigo's character on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, wrote "The Rose Song," which blew up literally overnight when someone posted a video of it on Instagram. Coincidence?
All throughout season 2 of the Disney+ series, Rodrigo's onscreen alter ego has been wrestling with her growing stardom and balancing it with her personal life, including her relationship with Joshua Bassett's Ricky — and the internet has some thoughts about what the rumored relationship was like between those two actors offscreen. The many similarities between the actor's real life and the character's arc this season can't be denied, especially the scene at the end of the finale (now streaming) in which Nini is connected with Gina's (Sofia Wylie) famous music producer brother, Jamie (played by Jordan Fisher), to potentially launch a professional music career. So is this a case of art imitating life, or life imitating art?
EW went straight to HSMTMTS showrunner Tim Federle for the answer. And it turns out, the parallels truly are a crazy coincidence. "Man, it's so crazy," Federle says. "We wrote that 'Rose Song' story maybe six or seven months before 'Drivers License' was even released. With the cadence of how TV rolls out, stuff can feel very fresh, and it was decided or filmed like months and months, if not a year, before. It's a wild amount of symmetry."
Below, Federle elaborates on the "eerie" connections between Rodrigo's real and onscreen lives this season, plus what its finale means for a potential third season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I can't believe this was all just a coincidence.
TIM FEDERLE: Sometimes it looks like an eerie parallel and other times I just chalk it up to the fact that there's a reason Romeo and Juliet is still a relevant story about love. It's because these themes of heartbreak and attachment and identity are timeless, which is why every series is doing their own variation on them.
Right, but this is so specifically similar to Olivia's unprecedented career launch that happened at the same time.
Yeah, I mean, I've always been somebody who bet on Olivia Rodrigo. I think she's got a skill that's unmatched and really rare. Nobody could predict this, including I'm guessing her own label — like, I don't think anybody can predict a No. 1 album, ever. That's just so massive and so world-changing. But it's a joy to watch. She deserves it.
As "Drivers License" debuted, did you have conversations with Olivia on set about how Nini's season 2 journey was so similar to hers?
A little bit. I was very cognizant that a lot of where the attention went in season 2 was literally like, how do we keep the show on track amid COVID? All that other stuff in the wings — I don't want to call it noise — but everything happening in people's real lives was kind of dwarfed by protocols and COVID testing and rewrites to accommodate safety and cutting certain scenes because all of a sudden somebody was knocked out of something. So I did not have a huge amount of back-and-forth with Olivia about those parallels, but we all felt it and also celebrated it.
I remember walking into a rehearsal once — I think it was for the "Be Our Guest" bit — and all of the dancers were jumping around screaming "Driver's License," and I was like, "Oh my god, it's such a phenomenon." So it definitely was there with us, but I was mostly consumed with, honestly, just trying to keep the show up.
Now that Nini is working with Gina's music producer brother, where is that going to lead her next season?
I hope if we get a next season that we can explore a really original path for Nini that doesn't just feel ripped from the headlines, both for the actor's sake and for the audience. But Jamie is there for a reason, and Jordan Fisher is such a joy to write for that I'd love to see him impact that. But I'd also love to see those stories impact Gina, because Sofia Wylie is so extraordinary, and rather than always centering the story on Nini's journey, we should give Gina some love too. I'm hoping to explore that brother-sister dynamic as well.
People have been wondering if Olivia's new music career will affect how much she's going to be around in a potential season 3 — will she be back full-time?
I don't have a specific plan for that because there's actor contract stuff I can't even touch — it's not for me to make a ruling on. What I will say is, it's hard to imagine High School Musical without Olivia, but Olivia is also experiencing a level of success and fame and opportunity that I would never want to stand in the way of. I want the show to succeed, but the actors who make the show are always more important to me than the product. [Sighs] I guess what I mean is, I want Olivia to be happy. I'd love for her to keep making the show, but at the end of the day I'm there to be both the head cheerleader of my series and also read the moment and say, "Wow, what Olivia is going through feels so unprecedented that I just want to support her in all of her dreams."
I loved the High School Musical 2 credit sequence number at the end of the finale. How did that come about?
Thank you! No one's brought that up, and I love that sequence too. Something I've never talked about is at the end of season 1, on the final day of shooting, the kids pulled me out from the corner and sang the song "Don't Dream It's Over." And we were all just crying. It was this beautiful goodbye moment. It really caught me off guard. And then at the end of season 2, I'm watching the monitor and we're shooting this big group scene, and all of a sudden Josh starts taking his wristguard off and his guitar shows up and Matt [Cornett, who plays EJ] starts talking, and I'm like, "Oh my god, they're doing it again!" I legitimately did not see this coming. I remember watching it thinking, "This has to be the credit sequence. It's so beautiful that they're doing this and our cameras better be running because people need to see this." [Laughs] It was really lovely. They are very much a group of theater kids who burst into song at inopportune moments.
What was your ultimate goal for this finale?
Led by Miss Jenn [Kate Reinders], everyone gets caught up in this competition this season. Ashlyn [Julia Lester] as Belle is comparing herself to Lily [Olivia Rose Keegan], and they're all in their heads trying to be the best. Ultimately, the story I wanted to tell was, they are the best because they found each other and not because the world discovered them. It was a beautiful thing to finish together strong, hands in the middle, saying, "What team? Wildcats!" because their lives have changed so much.
It felt good to see everyone agreeing on forgetting about the "Menkies" after opening night, since it was getting pretty dark for Miss Jenn and everyone.
There's obviously a different way [to end the season], which is like a massive Pitch Perfect–style showdown, which would have been really fun but practically very challenging to do during COVID. It's nice to make a wholesome TV series where at the end of the day you can lean on the reality of both Disney as a brand and this particular group of actors and characters, where the message you want is: It does not matter how many followers you have. It does not matter what you win or what you don't win. It matters that you're there for your people. That's why we do the show, and it's certainly a sentiment we embrace by the end of season 2.
We had a few romantic cliffhangers by the end of the finale. Where are those relationships heading if we get a third season?
Gina is ready for something sweet and normal and reciprocal, and EJ is there for her in a way that's really real. For EJ, who's been on this journey to try to be a better person, it was nice to see that pay off with somebody really accepting him and clearing up confusion. Nini was on a season-long arc we've been talking about for a year and a half in the writers' room where she really, truly, and finally chooses herself over a boy, prioritizing her own dreams but also just her own self-worth that is not refracted through the light or darkness of a partner. And I think Ricky is a dumb, clueless boy who has the best of intentions but grew up in an environment where change is scary for him, so he's trying on different identities. He's really afraid to be alone. So we'll see where that leads.
Nini and Ricky's relationship arc this season was a huge surprise. Where did you get the idea to have them go through this emotional breakup, especially after everything they went through to get together in season 1?
That was a really early decision. When you work in teen TV, there's the concept of "endgame" — who are the characters that are destined to be together? I have some opinions on that, but I remember feeling after season 1 like the reality of relationships is, you kind of want the thing you don't have. Especially in young relationships, you're like, "We were so close to being perfect, why did that go so wrong? Let's get back together." Putting them on a journey where, at almost any cost, they wanted to try to stay together even if it meant not communicating or saying the things they needed, was the story I really wanted to tell because it's real. It's not the fairy-tale romance we so often see in media.
So breaking them up was like an early, early plan for the writers. We wanted to show how two different people deal with that differently. For Ricky, it's beating yourself up and replaying the past and trying to figure out if you could have done something. For Nini, it's throwing herself into her work.
Are they over for good, or is that something we're going to see continue in a third season?
If I get to season 3 or beyond, there are a lot of stories I would still like to tell. For now, Nini is definitely on her own journey, and I think Ricky reads the room well enough to finally understand that this is not the moment to keep trying to explore that.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series season 2 is streaming now on Disney+.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series