Apologies to all the Hiddels-fans out there, but as far as I’m concerned, the long-awaited return this week of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is THE Disney+ event of the summer. Yes, I know it’s still early May, but Tim Federle’s joyfully audacious musical teen dramedy was so dang hot in its debut season, it was going to feel like the first day of summer no matter when the second season dropped. That production slowdowns due to the pandemic pushed it even this close to the actual start of summer is just icing on the musical theater cake.
That said, sequels are notoriously tricky to pull off—and that’s when you’re not a series whose Season 1 success relied so heavily on A) surprising your audience with so much sly Mouse House meta-ness, and B) one extremely specific Mouse House property. Facing a legion of fans who now know, for the most part, exactly what to expect whenever the (real) fictional teens of the fictional (real) East High are on their screens, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: Season 2 was going to have to put in some serious work to not just recapture everything that made High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: Season 1 so magical, but to surprise its audience anew.
On that note, friends, I am delighted to confirm: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: Season 2 absolutely sticks the landing. As frothy and earnest and emotionally/musically/comedically propulsive as Season 1 was, this newest season is just… more. More energetic. More self-assured. More willing to test its (and its characters’) limits. The individual performances are stronger, the group performances more dynamic, the ensemble chemistry more electric. Where Season 1 was a happy surprise, Season 2 is a fizzy letter of intent: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is here to stay.
The best evidence for this last point comes from Season 2’s very premise, which finds Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders), in a fit of Derek Hough-inspired pique, tossing the entire High School Musical franchise aside. (I mean, whomst among us?) On screen, this means that the same East High teens who spent their Season 1 fall semester bringing Gabriella, Troy, and Sharpay to meta-life in High School Musical: The Musical will be spending their Season 2 spring semester mounting Beauty and the Beast. Off screen, it means that Federle and everyone else on the HSMTMTS team have successfully stepped over the only real hurdle to the project’s long-term success. That this was the synergistic move the series would eventually make was probably inevitable—I mean, the High School Musical franchise is fun, sure, but in what possible world was Disney+ going to stick with one single IP when they have the whole back catalog of Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars to draw from? But still, that Federle et al made the leap so soon—not so soon, though (in case you were worried), that Ricky (Joshua Bassett) doesn’t spend the better part of winter break practicing that Troy Bolton High School Musical 2 classic, “Bet on It”, in anticipation of spring semester try-outs—underscores both the confidence they have in their own vision, and the confidence the streamer has in the thing Federle’s team has created.
And honestly, what a relief. Not that we didn’t already have every reason to believe that Disney+ was fully on board with everything HSMTMTS was setting up, right from the start—chastely queer romances and all. But with such a clear sign that the show is putting itself in a position to explore all kinds of musical theater stories/formats beyond the bounds of the inherently limited HSM world, there’s suddenly so much more freedom in the watch experience. It’s always fun when a new show tears out of the gate as fully formed and confident as HSMTMTS did in its first season. But while I want first seasons to get to have that fun, I want second seasons to add complexity. And, with all the love in the world to the goofy legacy of High School Musical, you can’t get very complex if you get stuck grinding your gears in your initial gimmick. Thankfully, in Beauty and the Beast, Federle has found his complexity—and yes, anthropomorphized candlesticks and all, that is objectively hilarious.
It would give too much away to go into detail about the specific ways in which Beauty and the Beast lets HSMTMTS complicate the characters that audiences fell in love with, but it suffice it to say, Miss Jenn’s ultimate casting decisions fall along some surprising lines. Some of this is due to circumstance—Olivia Rodrigo’s Nini, for example, transfers to a fancy Denver boarding school for young actors before the new semester starts, and so isn’t even available to be in contention for Belle, while Matt Cornett’s EJ (as the crew’s sole senior), asks for a smaller role to accommodate what he anticipates being a very busy semester getting ready for college. Conversely, Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez), Kourtney (Dara Renee) and Big Red (Larry Saperstein) all find themselves, for reasons both personal and academic, pursuing actual on-stage roles for the first time. At the same time, the reason Miss Jenn made such a drastic last-second change of program in the first place was to be competitive for a (fictional) high school theater award against her high school ex/professional rival, Zack Roy (Hough), who she has recently learned is returning to their alma mater for a single semester to direct The Little Mermaid. The unexpected psychic turmoil stemming from that development puts Miss Jenn in a new and interesting headspace—one, happily, that lets her divest from the overfamiliarity she developed with some of the kids’ personal lives in Season 1, even if only because she’s focusing all that energy, this time around, on obsessing over the success of her ex. (Look—small victories.)
What Miss Jenn’s eventual casting decisions end up doing, in any case, is highlighting characters who existed more on the sidelines in Season 1, and in so doing, eschew that season’s mostly classic teen rom-com subplots to explore a whole new ocean of teenage insecurities. As was true in the first season, there are literally no weak links in this cast, but—at least in the three episodes provided for review—Kourtney, Ashlyn (Julia Lester), and Gina (Sofia Wylie) make an especially big splash, both as a trio and as individuals stepping tentatively into their own light, while Joe Serafini, as Seb, breaks out some improvisational jazz piano skills in Episode 3 (“I call it my THINKIN’ jazz!”) that are as surprising and enthralling as Big Red’s tap dancing reveal was at the end of the Season 1 finale. As East High’s almost cartoonishly maleficent new girl, Lily, meanwhile, newcomer Olivia Rose Keegan is getting to do some of the most fun work this show’s given anyone yet.
As for the music, the mix of new songs and Beauty and the Beast classics is perfectly struck, too. As half-star-crossed lovers, Rodrigo and Basset’s Nini and Ricky were the obvious breakouts of Season 1, and are understandably given every opportunity to capitalize on their well-earned success (and simmering chemistry) this time around—most notably on a very clever duet in the third episode, written for them by the songwriting team of Mitch Allan, Chantry Johnson, and Michelle Zarlenga. But this is High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: Take 2, and Rodrigo and Basset’s half-star-crossed lovers aren’t anywhere close to the only characters whose musical self-reflection Federle is interested in shining a spotlight on. (Sorry, “Driver’s License” stans.) In just the few episodes provided for review, the Destiny’s Child-like “1-2-3” performed by Ashlyn, Kourtney, and Gina is a particular standout, as is a “modified” version of a specific Beauty and the Beast song that Seb remixes for Kourtney to bump her confidence up a level. That a team as steeped in both musical theater and teen culture as Federle’s would get this balance just right isn’t a surprise, but it is absolutely a joy.
In the end, *that* is what makes High School Musical: The Musical: The Series worth all this praise. From top to bottom, this is a team that both knows and cares about both the subject it’s framing its stories around, and the demographic it’s telling those stories about. Fictional Alan Menken Awards in play or not, the best television out there is only competing against itself, and HSMTMTS has not only set its own bar high, but worked damn hard to hit it. It may be too twee or earnest or (thanks, Zack Roy) “cute” for a lot of people, but for those of us who it IS for, it’s obviously worked immensely hard to become as close to its own Platonic ideal as possible.
And honestly: you love to see it.
Season 1 of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is streaming now on Disney+. Season 2 premieres Friday, May 14, with new episodes dropping weekly through July.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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