Created by Tim Federle, the second season of the Disney+ original series High School Musical: The Musical – The Series has followed the East High Wildcats as they prepared to perform Beauty and the Beast as their spring musical. While the students had all of the typical high school drama to deal with, they also had to face rival North High, who wasn’t going to let them get away with being the only school performing the work of Alan Menken.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, showrunner Federle talked about how he actually felt more pressure going into the first season of the show than he did following it up with the second season, allowing the ensemble cast to step into their own star power, the unintentional parallels between the journey to success that Olivia Rodrigo and her character Nini are both on, working with COVID, and how there are definitely more stories to tell with these characters.
Collider: You were able to do the first season and put it out into the world with no expectations. People were like, “What is this show with this long title?,” but they had time to discover what you were doing. Going into Season 2, there’s more of an expectation because fans are familiar with the characters and the world. What pressure did that create for you?
TIM FEDERLE: Oh, man. In some ways, I felt so much pressure with Season 1 because until you release the thing, it’s just people speculating what it’s gonna be. And so, the entire thing was this experiment and question mark, which is a Waiting for Guffman-esque, slightly mockumentary take on the high school musical experience. You hope that fans of the original High School Musical franchise, of which there are many, accept this new thing you’re trying to do. So, I oddly felt less pressure in Season 2 because I trusted the fan embracement, if that’s a word, of Ricky and Nini and Gina on and Courtney and these characters. Maybe I should have felt more pressure, but I actually just felt like it was great opportunity with this crazy talented cast.
Was there anything you felt like you could do in Season 2, after things went well with Season 1?
FEDERLE: Yeah. One of the obvious things with a cast of genuine grownup theater kids, we could throw anything at them and they didn’t blink. So, characters who were presented in more of a supporting character light in Season 1, really have an opportunity to step center stage and into their own power and their own voice. That felt like an opportunity. And then, with Beauty and the Beast, which is one of my all-time favorite scores of music, we also had an opportunity to sing something that’s still like natively Disney, but expands beyond the High School Musical universe.
You’ve also said that you didn’t know that you’d get a Season 2 when you did the first season. Is there anything you feel you would have done differently, drawn out more, or held off on, if you knew that you would have more seasons, or do you feel that it worked to the show’s advantage that you didn’t know?
FEDERLE: I think it worked to our advantage because in TV, you wanna tell a story in a season that feels satisfying on its own, but leaves room for more. No matter what, I wanted Ricky and Nini to come to an understanding and a resting place together that they had both, in their own ways, worked so hard for. But that’s also a long writerly answer. The minute we had a Season 2, I was like, “We’re opening with a dance number where we’re dancing through the halls of East High.” Some of it is just selfishly being like, “Who would I like to hear sing that song?” Oh, my gosh, it would be so cool for Josh [Bassett] and Olivia [Rodrigo] to sing ‘You Are the Music in Me.’” And then, all of a sudden, you’re off to the races and you’ve got a medley. So, the creation is informed in different ways.
The season opens with a number with your cast in Christmas sweaters. What was it like to have to come up with so many of them?
FEDERLE: We have an incredible costume designer, whose shoppers and assistants ran out and went online and pulled every Christmas sweater they could, off the rack. Frankie [Rodriguez] had the best one, with a Christmas tree with balls on it. And then, Joe Serafini got to wear a onesie, which was really fun. That was a really fun day on set.
I love that you set up this season, not just for one high school musical, but for rival high school musicals. What was your process for figuring out what musicals you wanted to do?
FEDERLE: I think Alan Menken and the late, great Howard Ashman are two of the all-time great songwriters. I grew up like a Little Shop of Horrors kid. I remember seeing Beauty and the Beast in the movie theater and making my parents sit behind me be cause I thought I would look cooler as an eighth grader. It was a pretty tight list that I presented to Disney. And then, my mentor, who runs the theatrical division on Broadway, had the keys to the proverbial kingdom. I called him and I was like, “Look, I think this is one of the greatest all-time scores. If you let us put on this show, I promise we’ll do a really beautiful production.” And I was lucky enough that they said yes. And then, it was just a matter of casting this cast as those characters, which is meta in the tradition of the show.
Is there really such a thing as The Menkies, and if not, why not?
FEDERLE: Why not? What are we doing with our lives, that we haven’t invented the Menkies? There is not. But there is the Jimmy Awards, which are the high school Tony Awards, that are culled from regional competitions across the country, including Jimmy Award-winner Andrew Barth Feldman, who plays a French exchange student this season on the show. There’s great comedy to be found in something that’s as low stakes as the very high stakes feeling high school theater experience. Competition is just a way of revving up and raising the stakes on all of those engines.
Have you actually spoken to Alan Menken about any of this?
FEDERLE: Yeah, we had to get various permissions. I worked with Alan back when I was a catfish and The Little Mermaid on Broadway. It’s not a joke, I was a dancing catfish and I also understudied the seagull. So, he’s been in my life for awhile. I mostly just exist as a fan, despite the fact that we’ve worked together. I think he has a gift for melody that’s seldom rivaled.
When it comes to Beauty and the Beast, are there songs that you felt like you absolutely had to include and were there ones that you were most excited to get to see the cast perform?
FEDERLE: Yeah. I think the title song is so crazy beautiful, and Alan, himself, has been quoted as saying it’s his favorite song that he’s ever written. Also, I don’t think you can do a season with Beauty and the Beast without doing “Be Our Guest.” There’s also a beautiful song, called “Home,” from the Broadway production, and I was excited to hear that sung this season as well. One of the observations I had, after Season 1, was that the songs that really broke out and resonated with viewers were the originals, like “All I Want by Olivia and “Born to be Brave,” so I’m most excited about those brand new songs that hopefully will become a new High School Musical soundtrack for this next generation.
When did you realize just how insanely talented your cast was and what they were capable of delivering on, to have them also be writing material?
FEDERLE: Pretty early on. I had never done TV. I come from a theater background, where you’re stuck in tight dressing rooms with people for many hours on end, so I really wanted to cast a group of kids who are great people to be around. Early on in the process, when they would sing live in the show, which is an unusual thing in a TV show or even a movie, I realized they could handle everything. Our casting director, Julie Ashton, worked hard to really find genuine theater kids who can do it all and not be auto-tuned.
This show has introduced us to the songwriting skills of Olivia Rodrigo, who now has two of the biggest pop songs of the year. What’s it like to see her take that journey, and will Nini’s music and acting career mirror Olivia’s story at all?
FEDERLE: The second part, not on purpose. Olivia wrote and released “Driver’s License,” a monster hit, very close to the end of us wrapping Season 2, and we had written most of her stories, as the character Nini, almost a year before because of the pandemic and there was a shutdown. Oftentimes, things that feel like they purposely mirror real life are actually either good writing, because we have a really good writers’ room, or it’s the high school experience where, when you have a crush or a broken heart, you’re the first person who ever felt that way. Those years are so formidable that, in some ways, you never get over them and you spend the rest of your life either proving that people were wrong, or maybe proving that you were wrong about yourself.
What were the biggest challenges in having Nini off in another place and finding ways to still keep her involved in the story that’s going on in East High?
FEDERLE: That was the biggest challenge, how to keep the character of Nini engaged with our cast, but in a way, that was the point of having her take that journey. I wanted the character to center herself and not choose the boy. To hold onto the boy and to hold onto her boyfriend, as she went on this journey, but to also make sure she put herself first, which I think is a story that’s important for young women, and really all of us, to see portrayed on screen. At the end of the day, if you’re lucky enough to write for Olivia Rodrigo, you don’t want her too far away for too long.
When you already have such a big cast, what goes into figuring out where and how to expand that, and still give time to everybody?
FEDERLE: Spreadsheets and white boards. Some of it starts with music. You have two or three song slots per episode, and about 30 to 32 minutes to tell it, so there’s six minutes right there. It’s like a math equation. It was also taking a step back this season and saying, “If we’re gonna be a proper ensemble show with a cast of such gifted people, then we really need to break stories in a primal way, that center Dara [Renee] as Kourtney, that center Julia [Lester] as Ashlyn, and that center Frankie as Carlos. As the season chugs along and unrolls, while Ricky and Nini, and certainly Gina and EJ remain the central drivers of the series, this is a season of stars. Last season, we had some stars in the wings, ready for their moment. This season, Joe Serafini, who plays Seb, is a series regular for the first time. I was so gratified to really partner with Disney and make sure all 11 of them were really featured this season on the poster because, as a former chorus boy, I think everyone deserves their bow.
Derek Hough doesn’t do a lot of acting roles. What did you have to do to convince him to join up as the rival theater teacher? Was there anything that he insisted on doing or not doing, in order to join the show?
FEDERLE: All of his own stunt. Kidding. There are zero stunts. I think he was intrigued. I went to him through casting, but eventually reached out personally to be like, “I used to be a dancer. Nowhere as good as you, but I get who you are. I think you’re today’s Gene Kelly. I think that the world thinks of you as the polished sweetheart that you are, but I think you can flex a different muscle. You’ll still get to dance, but you’ll also get to be a little bit of a jerk.” I think Derek was drawn to the duality and surprise of that because he is a hungry artist who also wants to try different things. So, I felt very lucky that we got him on the show and it definitely shakes up the Miss Jenn experience as well.
How were you able to film a show with a bunch of teenagers that were singing, dancing and kissing in a world with COVID? What goes into that? Were there things you had to rework?
FEDERLE: We reworked less than you would think because Disney has a robust safety protocol in place that really does work. A lot of it was less about how we shot the show and more about how we really tried to live like nuns outside of the show. Salt Lake City, for me, was the soundstage, with this little house I rented, and that was it for five months. For a show that really is all about the theater, as theaters across the world sat empty, we all felt incredibly lucky, as challenging as it was, to be working, period, let alone to be working in the performing arts. We did fewer rewrites and fewer adjustments than you’d think because ultimately I really wanted to deliver with Disney and for Disney, a big escapist, musical experience this season. I had this hunch that, by the time the show aired, we’d all be so worn out, physically and mentally, by COVID that, if for 12 Fridays in a row, we could just give people a half-hour to escape, maybe they would appreciate it, and I hope they did.
Are you already working on Season 3?
FEDERLE: Not in an official capacity. If the wind blows our way, I think there’s always more stories to tell, especially with this cast. If fans wanna see a Season 3, then they should let us know and they should let the world know.
High School Musical: The Musical – The Series is available to stream at Disney+.
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