After smashing the charts with her debut song "Drivers License," Rodrigo is ready for her Disney+ onscreen alter ego Nini to follow in her footsteps.

By Sydney Bucksbaum
May 12, 2021 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Olivia Rodrigo isn't speeding away from her day job.

When her breakout song "Drivers License" dropped in January, Rodrigo was busy filming High School Musical: The Musical: The Series season 2, and as she watched her single dominate charts and break record after record, she didn't let that success change her daily life. "It was sort of a strange experience because 'Drivers License' came out and debuted at No. 1 — and it's still No. 1 today which is crazy — but it was really awesome to be able to go to the set and have things be totally normal," she told EW in March. "It helps me keep my head on straight."

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series showrunner Tim Federle felt a "parental pride" watching her music career skyrocket overnight. "Olivia is a crazy songwriting machine. I don't even know if Olivia realizes how gifted she is," he says. "It felt inevitable that she was going to become this sensation with the storytelling of Taylor Swift and the edge of Lorde, and she still shows up to work and knows every line and jokes around with the crew and is so sweet to the cast."

Rodrigo has been hard at work on her follow-up to "Drivers License" with her album Sour (out May 21), but fans will hear her new music first in season 2 of the Disney+ series (premiering May 14) as East High puts on a performance of Beauty and the Beast. "Olivia's got a song in season 2 that the first time I heard it I was like, I actually think this is better than 'All I Want,'" Federle says, referencing Rodrigo's hit original song from season 1.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES
Joshua Bassett and Olivia Rodrigo in 'High School Musical: The Musical: The Series'
| Credit: Nick Sokoloff/Disney+

"The success of the music I've put out recently has given me a lot of confidence as a writer and in the other songs that I've written like the rose song," she says. "I think it's one of the best songs I've written. It's this really intricate metaphor and I've never written a song like that before."

The "hopeful" song tackles feeling misrepresented, which is something Rodrigo knows well from her life in the public eye, since her Disney Channel days on Bizaardvark to the past few months of intense internet rumors about her love life. "I've always struggled with identity and that only gets more confusing when you start to introduce boys into the equation, which was what Nini is going through and what I'm still going through," she says. "It was really important for me to write a song with a message that you're so much more than what boys think of you. That was something that I actually needed to hear myself in that time. I'm really proud of that song."

Season 2 begins with Nini relishing her new relationship with Ricky (Joshua Bassett) after trading "I love you's" in the season 1 finale. But Ricky is unaware his happy high school romance bubble is about to pop as Nini struggles with telling him that she's been accepted to a prestigious acting school in another state. Long-distance may not be what fans wanted for that relationship so soon after a full season of will-they-won't-they, but Rodrigo loved seeing Nini step out of her comfort zone and make this big decision for herself — and not for any relationship. "One of my favorite things about season 2 is Nini's character arc and her growth is not related to boys at all," she says. "She's her own new person and learning her own lessons and all of that is sort of sans boys."

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES
Olivia Rodrigo as Nini in 'High School Musical: The Musical: The Series'
| Credit: Fred Hayes/Disney+

That was a conscious decision on Federle's part to make Nini the star of her own story. "In season 1, Nini would frequently say things like, 'I'm so tired of seeing my life through a boy's eyes,' and then in the next episode, she's like, 'Oh my god, I'm thinking about EJ or Ricky,'" Federle says. "One of the big statements for season 2 in giving her this opportunity was to make her not play a supporting character to boys or anyone else's image of her, which is I think a really important lesson for young people."

It's a lesson that gave Rodrigo major deja vu, as she found herself relating to Nini's arc more than she anticipated as she watched "Drivers License" take off on such an unexpectedly global scale — even getting her own SNL sketch and upcoming musical appearance on May 15. "Nini is finding her footing in this crazy world and finding out what she likes and how she wants to be treated and that's something that Olivia is also discovering as well," she says with a laugh. But the past few months have been "incredible" for the young star, to say the least. "I love writing music and I just feel so lucky that people are responding to it the way that they are. It's really my biggest dream come true."

And no matter how massive her promising music career becomes, she isn't turning her back on the show that helped launch her career. "I'm feeling so grateful because I really did get my start writing songs on High School Musical — I've always been writing songs since I could like literally speak but Tim was the first person who really gave me my first shot at writing something that had the opportunity to be heard by a ton of people," she says. "I love making art and making music and I'm hopefully going to be doing that for the rest of my life. This year is going to be no exception to that."

Guess she really did mean what she wrote in that song.

A version of this story appeared in the the May issue of Entertainment Weekly, which you can order now or find it on newsstands. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. 

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High School Musical: The Musical: The Series

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