This article contains spoilers from this week's episode of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
In the original High School Musical, broadcast a scant 14 years ago on the Disney Channel, the character Ryan Evans stood out for many a young viewer. Not because he was particularly talented (although he was, Ryan was canonically good enough to get into Juilliard by the film trilogy's end). And not because he was cute, although actor Lucas Grabeel certainly was adorable.
No, what made Ryan stand out was something that, at least in canon, he wasn't: For many a viewer along the LGBTQ+ spectrum, Ryan was coded as queer. His love of theatre and dance, his fawning relationship with gay icon sister Sharpay, and his argyle-forward fashion choices all suggested something that young queers could relate to. But in the film series, at least, Ryan would remain heterosexual: He wound up romantically involved with pianist Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), in a story decision that never quite felt like a great fit for either character.
Cut to Disney+'s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, a show that features a boy playing the part of Sharpay in the series' musical-within-a-musical. Suffice it to say, this era of High School Musical is much more comfortable with the young queers and queers-to-be who often populate high school theatre departments. Not only is there Seb (Joe Serafini), the Sharpay in question, but there's also Carlos (Frankie Rodriguez), the production's choreographer. In the series' first five episodes, Carlos has been a breakout character — so much so that when he finally gets a romantic subplot with Seb in episode five, it almost feels overdue.
In an interview with Primetimer, Rodriguez describes out and proud Carlos as someone who's known from an early age who he is — someone for whom “it was never a choice but to be himself." It comes through in the series: When asked in the first episode where he's supposed to be after a teacher catches him dancing in the gym, Carlos' response is pithy and perfect: “Broadway." His presence in the main cast would be welcome in any teen comedy, but it's even more significant considering the show airs on a Disney property.
Disney has had a rocky track record with LGBTQ+ representation, at least in their films: Attempts to get characters like Captain America and Elsa same-sex partners have fallen on deaf ears, and the Beauty and the Beast live action remake's “exclusively gay moment" was widely derided. Casting a straight actor in Jungle Cruise, or director Joe Russo as a nominal gay character in Avengers: Endgame, have gone similarly gone over poorly. There's promise of upcoming LGBTQ+ characters in future Marvel and Star Wars movies, but even those developments feel behind-the-curve compared to much greater leaps in queer representation in media elsewhere.
Where Disney has succeeded recently in telling these stories is in their teen-targeted programming. On Disney Channel's Andi Mack, Cyrus Goodman (played by Joshua Rush) came out earlier this year, and show later featured Cyrus kissing another boy. That plot was celebrated for its surprising depth, and may have inspired Disney to order a a Disney+ adaptation of gay young adult novel Love, Simon. But in the meantime, Carlos is breaking new ground, as this week's episode of HSM:TM:TS features him not only doing an elaborate, partnered dance with Seb to start the show, but also asking Seb to the Homecoming Dance.
Rodriguez told us he was nervous while shooting the episode, but that the character and the scene in front of him kept him focused. "After it was all said and done, I take away the special moments — and that these characters are being shown on a Disney platform," Rodriguez says. “From the get-go, the show has always been very good about depicting what high school life is like right now. So I think, in a way, we were replicating what's already out there." Asked if he felt any additional weight performing this story on a Disney show, Rodriguez says there was no pressure, “more excitement than anything."
Refreshingly, the story doesn't get mired in panic over coming out of the closet. Carlos is certainly out and proud, while farmboy Seb seems comfortable in the theatre environment. At the same time, it doesn't present high school queerness as a cakewalk. Seb is concerned about dancing together in front of the entire school, enough to hesitate when Carlos first asks him. Still, he agrees, and Carlos twirls into an ecstatic jump for joy. It's all the more crushing, then, when Seb doesn't immediately show up. Carlos wonders if asking him to dance in front of others together was too big a leap. Happily it was just a hold-up on Seb's farm, and he shows up by the end of the event in time for the boys share a lovely slow dance together.
Years after Ryan Evans was made straight by canon, the moment feels like potential fulfilled: a proper reflection of the queerness of high school musicals. “We're really just trying to showcase real life," Rodriguez says when asked about Carlos' plot coming over a decade after Ryan's. “All of the storylines are written so organically — nothing ever felt forced, or like, ‘We're doing this just because.' It feels like playing and living truth."
Future episodes of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series will feature an increased focus on Carlos forging bonds with friends, with some show business “sprinkled in," as Rodriguez put it. Beyond that, Rodriguez is just excited to see where he (and Seb) go. But we had to ask: Since showrunner Tim Federle told us that Season 2 won't be about a production of High School Musical 2, does Rodriguez have any wishes?
"I'm such a big Into the Woods fan," Rodriguez confessed. “I don't know if it's owned by Disney or not, but they just did it [for the 2014 movie]. I think that'd be a lot of fun."
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.