There's a lot be be excited about when it comes to the soon-to-be launched Disney+ streaming service. Beyond the vast archive of content that it's slated to include (the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, every Star Wars movie, and every episode of The Simpsons, for starters), the service will also feature new original content like highly anticipated Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian, and several projects that will bring the world of Pixar to the small screen.
Set in this context, a mockumentary series about a group of Gen Zers putting on a production of the distinctly Millennial Disney Channel movie-turned-stage musical High School Musical feels a bit quaint. But what High School Musical:The Musical:The Series has that most of the other shows lack is a Season 2 order, and a multi-channel early premiere on linear television. Those votes of confidence give the series a feeling of being Chosen among the flood of Disney+ content ahead of us. They’re also votes of confidence in the show's creator/showrunner Tim Federle, who moves into TV after work in theatre (as performer, then dance captain, then book writer), literature (with eight books to his name in various genres), and movies (as the screenwriter of Golden Globe nominee Ferdinand). Ahead of the series’ premiere, Primetimer talked to Federle about his first time at the helm of a series, why the title has so many colons, and what it means to have a boy playing burgeoning gay icon Sharpay in the show. (Full disclosure: Federle and I have been friends since I previously profiled him for The Atlantic.)
Primetimer (PT): The show that first comes to mind when I watch High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is Smash, which holds a very dear place in musical theatre fans’ hearts. How much was that a conscious inspiration for you, and what were your other inspirations when shaping the show?
Tim Federle (TF): Totally aware of Smash; I love the pop culture impact and the Debra Messing memes alone. An important part of the conversation! For this particular show, I was looking more toward Waiting for Guffman, for its irreverent documentary style, and The Office, which has done such a good job staying in the conversation as both really funny and unexpectedly heart-rending in those later Jim-and-Pam storylines. Stylistically, what I loved about Smash is that it was this absolutely over-the-top take on Broadway. What I wanted to do with High School Musical was a more realistic take on the real process of pulling together a high school theatre production — getting inside the characters’ heads, with all the drama that feels so huge when you’re in high school, because the stakes feel so high, and yet in some way [are] glaringly low.
PT: A lot has been made of the title of the series, the heavy colon use in particular. Is there an origin story for that?
TF: I think I always wanted it to announce itself as irreverent, and not taking itself too seriously. In fact, I think I first pitched it as The Making of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. When I was pitching it, American Vandal had swept the nation. I remember just thinking, that level of care taken with something that was so small was so interesting. We could’ve just been High School Musical: The Series. I think the conversation around it has been a little bit, ‘What the heck were they thinking?’ Which cracks me up. I’m hoping that once people discover it and sit with it, they’ll realize that we’re in on the joke. We poke fun at the original franchise, but we never really make fun of it. We love High School Musical, and we think there’s a new way to celebrate it with these new characters.
PT: In the pilot, Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) says she’s shocked “as a Millennial” that the school where High School Musical was shot has never staged a production of High School Musical. It struck me that I’m not sure how much Gen-Zers were part of that cultural moment of High School Musical. Was there any concern for you about making a show with characters this age, or targeted at viewers this age, about a property that might be out of their reference pool?
TF: Such a good question, as I went into it not knowing what the impact was. I’m right on the Millennial/Gen-X cusp, and I grew up with Little Shop of Horrors, Grease and Footloose as my cultural musicals. My cast is largely made up of 15-20 year olds, and every one of them knew every lyric to the songs — not just because they’re showbiz kids, either. We shot the show at East High in Salt Lake City, and you almost would not believe how many busloads of people still show up to that school on the weekends to take selfies outside. And it’s young folks, from all over the world. There’s something about that larger-than-life, slightly cheesy but ultimately escapist entertainment that that movie captured the big-theme stories of ‘will they or won’t they get together?’
PT: Disney is giving the show a multi-channel launch on Disney Channel, ABC, and Freeform on Nov. 8, ahead of the show’s proper launch on Disney+ on Nov. 12. Combined with the early Season 2 pickup, it adds up to a real vote of confidence. Will that faith change how you approach developing Season 2?
TF: As a creator, it’s incredibly meaningful to know that I get to keep telling these stories, and that Disney+ saw that these are characters who — look, the nice thing about doing a series instead of a movie is that you get to go so deep into the ensemble. Even in the first couple of episodes, you can see it’s a real love triangle story. The season opens up into being a much bigger ensemble comedy, where sidekicks get their own love songs. Mostly, it just makes me excited to continue exploring the world, and to delicately expand the High School Musical universe so that Season 2 is not so self-referential to Troy and Gabriella, or Zac [Efron] and Vanessa [Hudgens].
PT: Should we assume Season 2 will involve a production of High School Musical 2?
TF: We haven’t settled on anything. I think that might be too obvious? At a certain point, the fun of theatre for anyone who’s a theatre lover is figuring out what title you’re gonna do, and what your spin on it is gonna be. For me, while we’ll always be at East High, my initial artistic guess is that we’re gonna expand the universe a bit beyond High School Musical. … Season 2 is just Passion. Season 2 is Stephen Sondheim’s chamber opera. The only things I can confirm is that Season 2 is probably not High School Musical 2 or Passion. And that is a Primetimer exclusive.
PT: Episode 2 features an original song by a supporting character, to refer back to your talk about side characters getting love songs. At what point in development did you realize you wanted to feature original songs?
TF: That was part of the very initial pitch. As a theatre kid growing up, I remember putting on a production of Godspell — but we were singing Evita in the wings! When you’re a theatre kid, theatre is such a part of your life on and offstage. Looking at my own cast, people like Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett would post their own original songs, totally stripped down, very raw on Instagram. In a Tik Tok universe, we have a generation that puts so much content out there natively. I wanted to capture, in the first couple episodes, that spirit of music being a part of their lives. And not in a way where they’re fantasy songs, but where it’s just baked into their DNA.
PT: How many original songs can we expect this season?
TF: Basically one per episode, in 10 episodes. So basically you’re gonna get a cover album of the original movie, with these original interpretations of the songs, along with brand new songs every episode. And they’re really good! I’m so proud of the original music. Steve Vincent, who runs music over at Disney, worked so hard to engage these amazing composers who brought it to life. I hope we get a few new classics out of it.
PT: A lot of shows about high school performers encounter issues down the line. Anyone would agree that Glee suffered some character derailment issues as it went on, and NBC’s Rise never found an audience. As you prepare to take this show beyond its initial season, how do you plan to keep the boat afloat.
TF: A very good question, and suddenly you sound like my execs. The honest answer to that is, A, we’re starting from a place that’s a little more grounded. Even though it’s fun … we’re not going for the shock factor. And the second thing I’d say is: Disney+ is untested waters. It’s a little bit the Wild West. It’s not the Disney Channel, it’s not a Disney feature film. It’s a new beat. In this time that we’re in, and into the foreseeable future, where there’s so much darkness and craziness in life, media and politics, I want to tell true stories in a way that’s positive and optimistic. My job is to tell stories into Season 2, and hopefully beyond that, that [are] both honest about the experience of being a teenager and also offers the audience a bit of an escape. Beyond those two shows you just mentioned, I think a lot of teen content out there is dark and soapy. And I love it! I watch them all, by the way. And they star 30-year-old teenagers. I think what we wanted to do with this was cast teenagers, capture them in the moment, and offer different types of stories that ultimately have an optimism at work.
PT: Oliver Goldstick was the original showrunner for the series, but after he departed over creative differences, you took over. What was your frame of mind taking on a new role like showrunner, especially hopping in mid-stream?
TF: Oliver’s terrific, and we kept in close touch. He’s a good friend, and he’s incredibly talented. What I came to realize about showrunning is that it’s not about having every answer — it’s about trusting your own taste, and trusting your team. There are simply too many things associated with the show, from costume approvals to location scouting to hiring directors to rewriting scripts, that if you try to do it all, you’ll burn out and drive everybody crazy. What we all came to realize is, because my experience is so disparate, both writing for young people but also running elements of Billy Elliott and being an associate director on various shows in the West End — a lot of those skills added up to being a showrunning academy. Eventually, my vision of the show was clear enough that doing it solo made sense. It was a pretty easy transition.
PT: In the show’s production of High School Musical, you have Sharpay being played by a male student. Was there a specific goal in mind in positioning Sharpay as a gay icon of sorts with that casting?
TF: I didn’t set out to make a statement with the show. What I wanted to do was to peel back the layers of how much has changed culturally in the years since the show came out. An example would be, the movie had this sort-of-shocking concept of a basketball player being afraid to do a musical. Now we’ve got Super Bowl quarterbacks winning Dancing With the Stars. Culture has changed a lot in 13 years. The choice to have a boy step forward and say, ‘Actually, I’d love to play Sharpay,’ is a natural evolution of events in where the world is going. I’m not actually sure if that character even knows who he is yet, but he sees something in that character in a way that I might say, ‘No matter what, I’m going to see Judy opening weekend.’ He sees something in that character that you rightly identified as being empowering, and owning her fullness and the ambition she has. If Sharpay emerges in history as a gay icon, I think we can all be proud that there’s a long history of musicals giving voice to people who have felt underrepresented. If my show is a small footnote in that history, I think that’s something we can be proud of.
ABC, Freeform and Disney Channel air a sneak peek of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series Friday November 8th at 8pm before the series becomes a Disney+ exclusive on Tuesday, November 12.
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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.