If nothing else, Disney (and now Disney+) is never not on brand. Case in point: While on hold waiting to talk to Tim Federle, creator of the Disney+ flagship series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (hereafter shortened to HSMTMTS), it wasn’t silence that kept Paste company on the other end of the line, or tinny classical music. Rather—much to Federle’s own eventual delight—it was the official cast recording of the HSMTMTS original song, “Born to Be Brave.”
“It was?” Federle exclaims when we finally get connected and he is brought up to speed on this most meta example of meta-HSMTMTS synergy. “Ha! Oh, god bless Disney. Thank goodness, they’ve really got that marketing machine going. Love it.”
This kind of winkingly self-aware good humor will be Federle’s signature in the conversation that follows, just as it has been throughout High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which officially wrapped its first season run this Friday with the drop of “Act Two” (Episode 10), in which audiences finally get to see snippets of the (fictional) musical that the (also fictional) kids of Salt Lake’s (real) East High have been working on all semester.
Happily, Federle was more than ready to jump in and break down everything that went into both the big finale and the season as a whole. We also got to talk a little about what Season 2 (and beyond, if we’re lucky) might bring—which HSMTMTS fans may already be anxious about, given the handful of winking cliffhangers and romantic twists “Act Two” left off on.
The conversation that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and concision. (It has not been edited for charm.)
Paste: So the first season is finally all out in the world! How do you feel?
Tim Federle: You know, I think if we weren’t heading back into production [so soon], I’d be feeling a lot sadder than I am. Honestly, I’m just grateful that I get to keep telling the stories with this cast. But yeah, there is a bittersweetness, I think, because there hasn’t been an hour of my life in the last year and a half when I haven’t thought about High School Musical, and so it’s just so shocking to be like, oh my gosh, we’re already at the end of the season! It just went faster than I expected.
Paste: On the subject of expectations, you were coming into this as a first-time showrunner, in charge of a show that would end up setting at least part of the tone for what Disney+ content might look like. What were some things that ended up challenging (or rising to) your expectations this season?
Federle: In terms of things that turned out exactly the way I hoped they would, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is, in the very first episode, when Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) picks up the ukulele and sings “I Think I Kinda, You Know”. That was her first day on set, it was our first time ever doing a song live—which, I had worked pretty hard to convince Disney to give me a shot to let the cast sing songs live, because it’s a less traditional way of controlling the final product. So I was so thrilled, first of all, that the song resonated the way it did, and that Olivia knocked it out of the park. But also that song is kind of modeled off of Anna Kendrick’s “Cup Song,” from Pitch Perfect, in terms of how I wanted it to feel aspirational but achievable, and so it’s been so joyful to watch people post so many covers of that song. Because I think that’s what’s different about today than, you know, 13 years ago when the first movies came out, which is that you, too, can post the song from your bedroom singing on the ukulele. So that was really fun.
Another thing that came out exactly the way I hoped was “Born to Be Brave,” with the play back and forth between Kourtney (Dara Renee) and Nini singing in the alleyway and trying to remind themselves why they started singing in the first place, and Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez) at the school dance psyching himself up to say, OK, even if I don’t have a dance partner, I’m still allowed to dance. I think the shot of Joe Serafini as Seb walking in and just being so joyful at seeing his soon-to-be boyfriend celebrated by the whole school landed just the way I hoped it would.
I think the last thing, honestly, is just seeing Josh [Bassett] and Olivia’s song >a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_h-a-1lY528?“Just” for a Moment” land with people in such a big way. That was such a big risk, frankly, for me as a creator, because I have this young cast, and you don’t want to get people’s hopes up for something that might not happen, in terms of how we have a blind submission process for songs with the music group at Disney. So I was so proud of them, frankly, as young, talented songwriters, and that they were able to turn around something that I think is so fresh and real and modern. They knocked out the park, I think. The audience is just going crazy for it.
Paste: We definitely want to hear about more things that surprised you in a second, but this whole thing with the cast getting so many of HSMTMTS’s original songs through a blind submission process is wild. Can you walk us through that a bit more?
Federle: For sure! So there is a guy at Disney named Steve Vincent, who’s been there for many years, incredibly talented music brain, who is the VP for music at Disney Channel Worldwide. So the process is, I work with my writers, and we come up with an outline for the episode that the network approves, and then I send a really detailed side document to the music department that says, “These are the 2 or 3 songs that need to appear in this episode.” So, as an example, for “Just for a Moment,” in Episode 9, the the song briefing would have said, “Nini and Ricky (Josh Bassett) still have feelings for each other, but they just don’t know how quite how to say it, and they want to know if this is just a moment because it’s a showmance onstage, or if their feelings on stage or as real off stage.” And then I would say what I want it to be, you know, song-style-wise. Like in that case, “something you could imagine Harry Styles and Taylor Swift singing,” and then this is visually what I see happening, that it’s going to play over action of Ricky and Nini prepping for the show, but they keep catching glances at each other, and also that it should ultimately work as a pop song that lives outside the show, so not saying the words Ricky or Nini.
So then what Steve would do is he would he would go, “Okay, great, Harry Styles, Taylor Swift— we’ve got five writers in mind who I think would be great for this.” Then Steve’s team sidebars with writers, and people submit on spec. And the remarkable thing about the song writing community in the television film space is that these songs get turned around in like, five days, and coming from coming from the Broadway world in New York, where you’re like working on Broadway musical for seven years before it makes it to Broadway, I was so blown away. But anyway, in the end we get three or four songs, including Josh’s and Olivia’s—though sung by other people as a demo, so that they didn’t give themselves away—and unanimously, we all chose theirs. Occasionally there will be a song that is so perfectly suited for one person that I think Steve will just go right to that songwriting team, but generally, it’s this blind submission process.
Paste: So Josh and Olivia wrote that song together?
Federle: I know! Anyway, as far as surprises went this season, I was delighted by how many people seem to respond to the kind of Gina (Sofia Wiley)/Ricky of it all. First of all, Sofia Wiley is such an interesting actor who can play everything, she is an absolute phenom of a talent, and to take her character from this sort of stereotypical understudy villain to something that actually has more nuance and depth, which is something you can do in 10 episodes that can be harder to do in a in a teen film, was something I was proud of her for. And then to see how many people wound up saying, wait, I want to see Gina and Ricky sort of together together, that really surprised me. And then other surprises … you know, I pitched the show as an ensemble comedy, and I think we very quickly fell into the reality that in a half-hour show, you have to pick one story, so [this season] Ricky and Nini were always going to be the stars. But I’ve been so grateful to see characters like Carlos and Seb and Kourtney and Ashlynn (Julia Lester) and Big Red (Larry Saperstein) emerge as other people’s self-declared favorite thing in the show, and that only gives me more gas in the tank to say, you know I’ve got a Season 2 coming up, I want different people to carry A-stories. And so there is a plan for all of them to keep expanding and surprising people.
And I should say, Matt Cornett as E.J., too, who’s this kind of almost stereotypical 1980s Charlie Sheen jock type, and for whom I also always want to remind the audience, he’s just a 17 year old boy who’s figuring out who he is, even when he screws up, which I think is a part of what being a real person.
Paste: So as you’re headed (eventually) into production of Season 2, what are some things from the first season that might have been particularly challenging that you’re looking forward to tackling next season?
Federle: Number one is that, when you’re doing a musical, it is just straight-up on the verge of overwhelming [figuring out] how to put songs in the show that move the story forward when scripts themselves are such a flexible and fluid process. So what I mean by that is, you can run up to an actor on set and say, “never mind, change this line,” and that can change the entire story. But with songs, they have to be pre-recorded, pitched, commissioned, agreed upon by me and Disney, and so the biggest challenge in a season for which I’m adding more music—it’s a Paste exclusive! More music in Season 2, more music in Season 2, exclamation point, raves Paste!—is, you know, that’s exciting for me, but because we’re the only show on television with the word musical in its title twice, I feel like I have to deliver. But it also means that—because I’m a musical theater guy who knows that the best songs in a story are ones that tell you something different by the end than you knew in the beginning—it means doing even more homework and being more on my game as a creator and showrunner to make sure our scripts are bullet-proof as we head into production.
So challenge #1 is, oh my gosh, all of these songs. But the great opportunity we have returning in Season 2 is, we’ve got so many people returning from last season—the Thanksgiving episode in Season 1 was one of my favorites, directed by Kimberly McCullough, who herself won an Emmy as a child actress on General Hospital, she’s directing the first episode in Season 2, and Zach Woodlee, the Glee choreographer, who’s our choreographer, and so on. So I feel like I’ve got a great team around me.
Paste: That Thanksgiving episode! Yes! The only notes we managed to make for our question about that episode, and about the Cones of Dunshire-esque High School Musical: The Choosical board game specifically are, OMG How/Why/WHOMST/When will it be available for purchase?
Federle: Amazing. I mean, from your mouth to Mr. Iger’s ears! I feel there has been hunger for that game to actually be produced. So, Ann Kim wrote that episode, and she knocked it out of the park, then one of my writers, Zach Dodes I believe, pitched the concept of the board game. And you know, it’s cheesy and self-referential, and I think you can’t really work in a high school theater space without being cheesy and self-referential, that’s sort of the definition of who those people are—I was them, and still am. So, yes, hopefully it’ll be coming soon to shelves nationwide. I mean, nothing would surprise me, especially given the fact that the original High School Musical had branded Uno cards.
Paste: One of the big things you guys managed to pull off this season was including a couple cameos from the original HSM movies—KayCee Stroh briefly in Episode 6, then Lucas Grabeel for the big dream sequence musical number with Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) in Episode 8. It seems obvious in retrospect that you couldn’t not do that, but can you talk a little bit about what it was like to get them involved?
Federle: From Day 1, when I went in to Disney, I was like, look, I think this should not be an extension of the original. I certainly would have watched grown-up Troy and grown-up Gabriella with their own kids, but I’m not actually sure how viable it would have been for 10-plus episodes. I think reboots go one of two ways, which is: They totally tank because they somehow don’t capture the spirit of the original, or because there’s over-anticipation of an audience that doesn’t show up, or they try to carve out a new niche that says, look, we’re built on the DNA of the original, but we’re doing something totally new.
So what I expected in Season 1 was that nobody [from the original movies] would want to come back, because I think those films were such a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that I expected everyone involved with them to say, no, thank you, we’ve moved on. So I was so grateful that, after I sat with him and talked to him and explained how HSMTMTS is a celebration of what they did, and that it’s not us trying to remake it, Lucas in particular gave us the shot and said yes to come in for that big, juicy cameo.
And with KayCee, who lives in Utah, her pop-and-lock is iconic, and she could not have been more gracious [to come back to do it.] She stepped in the cafeteria and it was like—I don’t know what it was like. It was like it was like Jeff Goldblum coming back to Jurassic Park. I mean, it was like witnessing a miracle. I was so thrilled that she said yes.
And then, I think what is emerging now is the show having a devoted enough new audience, who might not even have grown up with Troy and Gabriella and who think of themselves as, you know, Rini (Ricky+Nini) or Rena (Ricky+Gina) stans. So my hope for the future, if the show keeps expanding, is that I’ll be able to attract big guest stars who see this as something that is both an unabashed love letter to High School Musical AND high school theater, and also, you know, a legit show that stands on its own merits.
Paste: Looking to the future, let’s talk about the finale, and everything it set up for next season! First of all, we were so happy to see so many actual snippets of their actual performance, which, obviously, is something the original trilogies never did.
Federle: I think having spent so much time backstage myself, oftentimes what’s happening in the wings is more interesting than what’s happening center stage. So it was trying to strike a balance between giving the audience some of the hits, like “Stick to the Status Quo” and “Get Your Head in the Game,” but also paying off the stories of these characters who, with any luck, people will have become invested in aside from the musical. So the finale, it always wanted to have a little bit of an upstairs/downstairs vibe, with [drama] around like, who’s playing what character now??
And then when it comes to somebody like Larry Saperstein, who plays Big Red, he didn’t get to really perform all season, so I thought, like, god, even if he’s not on stage in the “musical,” we gotta get him tap dancing in that final credits scene.
Paste: That’s really him tap dancing? How did you discover that was a talent of his?
Federle: Yes! Frankly, I am just startled by how multi-talented all of these young people are. So, his character was never conceived of as a dancer, or even a singer—he was just meant to be Ricky’s best friend—but in the audition process, we just could not find a Big Red. I really wanted, like, big Seth Green energy [Ed: Don’t we all], since there’s something about Big Red that’s so very 90s, but we were getting a lot of people coming in in L.A. who were great, but doing something more of a kids TV performance. Then Larry comes from the dance community in New York—I used to be on the artistic staff of Billy Elliot on Broadway before I was a writer, and Larry actually came in as a little kid and auditioned for the show, so when he came out of the woodwork all these years later and Julie, our casting director, found him in New York, it just became quickly apparent that he had this sort of secret side skills that we had to work into the show. And frankly, I already have plans in Season 2 to make sure Big Red doesn’t stop tapping.
Oh! That was another Paste exclusive!
Paste: We’re wizards! So, Miss Jenn has the moment looking straight at the camera when she teases the cast about the musical she’s picked out for the next semester. We don’t imagine we’re sorcerous enough to get that musical out of you now, but we also suspect it won’t be High School Musical 2, since you’ve talked elsewhere about seeing this a series with a much longer than three-season lifespan. What, broadly, is the shape of your plan?
Federle: I mostly come from like film and theater, so I walked into the original pitch meeting feeling like, how do I convince Disney there’s 100 episodes in this? Or at least, you know, 20 or 30 or 40? But look—I grew up with the same theater kids in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and I’m still in touch with a bunch of them on social media or whatever, because all the way through productions of like, Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, or Grease, we all grew together offstage—different people started dating, different people broke up, I realized I was gay, somebody got the national tour of Rent and left Pittsburgh. There was just so much drama and interpersonal dynamics happening offstage. So my pitch to Disney was, look, what we’re going to unabashedly launch this thing on the back of is High School Musical, but then in future seasons we’re going to do different shows. Because there’s only so many Troy and Gabriella jokes I can do before I feel like all I’m doing is some sort of cravenly big corporate thing.
Paste: A fine line to walk, for sure.
Federle: So it’s it’s kind of a wide open door. I mean, there are certainly things I never want to see these kids put on, like, I don’t think I need to see the East High production of Sunday in the Park with George,. In any case, you’ll learn soon enough what Season 2 will be. We’re gonna be announcing soon.
Paste: We’ve got our fingers crossed for Teen Beach Movie, but we’re sure whatever you’re going with, it will be great.
Federle: Well, I will always fall on my sword for this cast. Every time I’ve said to Disney, trust me, these children are the future, they’ve come through and and knocked everybody’s socks off. So really, the biggest challenges that doubles as an opportunity in Season 2 will be to elevate all the characters who popped in Season 1—which, again, I think is every character—but make sure they don’t just feel like C-stories or side kicks. They are all actors and people who deserve their chance in the spotlight, so one of my final goals is just to let Season 2 breathe a bit more, and to let the episodes tell even deeper stories.
So for everyone out there dropping into our DMs, my message is just, don’t worry. It’s a long game with the show, and I think all of their favorite characters are gonna have their moment in the sun.
The first season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is streaming now on Disney+.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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