It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been vibing with the magic that is High School Musical: The Musical: The Series since the very beginning, but the hyper-meta, ultra-joyful Disney+ series, which just dropped a winking victory of a finale episode in “Second Chances,” absolutely nailed its sophomore season.
Moving away from the first season’s self-aware, goofy mega-meta premise—that being the “real” (fictional) students of the “real” (real) East High mounting a “real” (real) production of the “real” (fictional) High School Musical: The Musical stage adaptation, all while living out the broader strokes of the original DCOM’s major arcs in their “real” (fictional) lives—the second season of HSMTMTS turned to the “real” (real!) stage adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to give everyone in its talent-stacked ensemble the chance to grow in new, often thornier, ways.
In casting Ashlyn (Julia Lester) as Belle, the series let both her and its audience confront the limiting stereotypes behind who “gets” to be a fairy tale princess that society—and by capitalist extension, Disney, itself—have long used stories like Beauty and the Beast to perpetuate. In casting Gina (Sofia Wylie), Kourtney (Dara Renée) and Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez) as Babette, Mrs. Potts and Lumière, meanwhile, it was able to interrogate not just ego (Gina), empowerment (Kourtney) and sky-high emotional walls (Carlos), but also what it means to both support and be supported by a community (all three). Conversely, in casting EJ (Matt Cornett) as an ego-less Gaston, Ricky (Joshua Bassett) as a just-happy-to-try Beast, and Nini (Olivia Rodrigo), ultimately, as no one at all, the show was able to underscore how much growth all three characters had undergone in their time as the leads of High School Musical: The Musical in Season 1. Season 2 wants us to understand that people change, and that’s good.
In terms of pure entertainment value, HSMTMTS has never been one to take anything less than a fully maximalist approach to every element of its storytelling, and this most recent run was no exception. It had, as Stefan would say, everything—from first love (Kourtney and Howie) to first kisses (Gina and EJ), second love (Ricky and Nini) to second heartbreaks (…Ricky and Nini), third loves (Miss Jenn and Mr. Mazzara) to third act twists (too many to name!), and plenty of drama in between. HSMTMTS Season 2 was a rollercoaster of fun from start to finish.
Plus, between Derek Hough (as Miss Jenn’s high school sweetheart/professional nemesis), Asher Angel (as Gina’s random airport buddy), and Jordan Fisher (as Gina’s mysteriously villainous music producer brother), the season was able to deliver more guest spots than fans were likely to expect. Meanwhile, while between the surprise Quinceañero that Seb (Joe Serafini) throws for Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez) in Episode 5 and the sold-out audience East High’s spring performance opens to in Episode 11, it managed to put up a much fuller story than anyone might have expected from a series filmed mid-pandemic (and pre-vaccine). That we also ended up getting a score of new original songs (“Even When/The Best Part,” “The Rose Song,” “In A Heartbeat”), a self-congratulatorily goofy dance-off, and a truly wicked villain in North High’s scheming star, Lily (Olivia Rose Keegan), is almost icing on the cake.
Naturally, we’re on pins and wicked step-parent needles waiting to hear about a possible Season 3 (summer drama camp, we are ready for you!) but thankfully, Paste was able to hop on the phone with series creator and showrunner, Tim Federle, to chat about all things Season 2 while we wait—fairy tale magic and otherwise.
Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and space.
Paste Magazine: So, you’ve now got two seasons under your belt—how are you feeling?
Tim Federle: Kind of emotional, actually! A season of TV is always a fun, challenging puzzle to produce, but then to be doing it amidst the pandemic… First of all, it was an honor to be somebody who got to work. I really mean that. And then, you know, suddenly the stakes went from hooray, theater kids! to genuine Life and Death stuff. Every person producing or making TV or film these days probably relates to what I’m about to say which is, there’s a whole new pressure [with COVID]. You wake up every day and you hold your breath and you hope that you don’t get a text message that says, you know, ”we’ve got bad news, call me.” And that’s just a whole new thing that puts everything [else] into context. Which is [to say], success for me in Season 1 was, I want the show to break out and I want the kids to get fans and I want the songs to do great, and success for me in Season 2 was: I really want every member of this cast and crew to walk off the set healthy. And that is a massive, that’s a massive sort of priority shift.
So, yeah, it’s kind of emotional to hit the finish line on this one.
Paste: At what point in the filming process did COVID really hit?
Federle: It was after the first two episodes. Once we hit the Valentine’s Day episode, from there on out we were [in it]. The massive adjustments were mostly off camera, with masks and shields and testing, but a lot of the stories had to be adjusted, too, just for practical safety reasons. But I still think this was basically the season we were always going to make.
Paste: I remember that when we last spoke, after the end of the first season, I asked you about Season 2 and you were—appropriately and professionally!—cagey about it. But considering how perfectly matched your cast was for this season’s Beauty and the Beast frame, I can only presume that you knew at least a tiny bit more, even way back then, about what direction you wanted to take things.
Federle: Yeah, I knew about Beauty and the Beast, and I kind of knew the general makeup of, like, Nini going away to ARC. But there are a lot of stories in Season 2, whether it’s the Ricky/Nini breakup, or Gina deciding whether she’s going to stay at East High or go, that we always wanted to tell. That was just always going to be Season 2. So it was sort of interesting as we rolled out, and then paused for COVID, and then went back during COVID, to see how some things didn’t change at all, and then other things—like big group scenes in the cafeteria—we just had to take off the table. We were like, “yeah, we maybe don’t want to do something with 50 background players!” It just felt too risky.
Paste: Still, you did end up getting to do a couple bigger scenes, like Carlos’s Quinceañero, with all the people in Seb’s barn, and then also (obviously) the final performance, with the full opening night audience.
Federle: Yes! This final episode with East High was challenging. I don’t blame them—like many schools across the country, they shut down, and when they were shut down, they didn’t want visitors for obvious reasons, right? And so we were very lucky that we [even] got to shoot some things at East High. But almost the entire final performance we actually shot at a local, giant professional theater called the Eccles, which is this beautiful theater in Salt Lake. And then all of the turnaround shots that reverse onto the audience we actually shot on a separate day, with different background players, just so the principal actors weren’t being exposed. It was really like an incredibly complicated math problem. I guess one Snapple Fun Fact I can share is that in the last episode, when Miss Jenn is on stage, she’s at the actual East High, but then when she turns around to talk to Seb and Carlos, that scene was shot at the Eccles. Because we could only be in East High for maybe a day before we had to leave again. And so there was just a remarkable amount of math that the producers and the crew—and, ultimately the cast—had to kind of rally for, to say, OK, this is going to feel a lot different than it used to.
Paste: Well, you all managed to pull it off. From my perspective, there wasn’t ever a point where it felt like, all of a sudden, there was a change in how everybody was interacting on the screen—except, obviously, for the Spring Break episode. Was that the first episode you filmed after coming back?
Federle: No, we’d actually been back filming for a while. Frankly, we had already broken that episode in the writers room pre-pandemic as one where we wanted the cast to be separated. We wanted it to really be a Sofia Wiley-headlining episode. But then [everything with COVID] was so scary, and there was such a heightened sense of responsibility both to keep people safe and also try to keep the show on budget, I was also trying to build in episodes where everybody could kind of breathe and relax a little bit. So the Spring Break episode was really us pragmatically saying, “How can we separate people for a minute, and actually, for one episode, not worry about as many implications if somebody does test positive?” And then Zoom just became the technology we could do that with.
Paste: I’m really interested in the Zoom of it all. I mean, it’s a household name now, but I think we’re all maybe starting to forget how completely alien the technology felt at the beginning of the pandemic. So when you broke the general “everyone’s separated” idea in the writers room pre-pandemic—which is to say, pre-Zoom—how were you envisioning making that separation work?
Federle: It was going to be FaceTime calls! Like FaceTime and text messages. It was originally going to be more about one-on-one conversations. I think there was even a version that was going to be very Broad City-like, with the entire thing taking place in Instagram stories—nothing shot traditionally at all. I’d still love to do that with the show someday, but ultimately, we veered away from that and went a bit more traditional. And so what Zoom sort of taught us was, hey, here’s this fairly simple technology that allows you to have more of a group conversation, which helped to combine more of our stories in a [useful] way. Like I said, I really wanted Sofia to have that nice A-story. But when you can have 10 people on screen at once [on Zoom], you can also see the tension between Carlos and Seb, and you can see Big Red notice that and call them out—really, you can just see the dynamic of the whole group.
Paste: On that point, the longer the season wore on, the more I let myself be seduced by my own personal conspiracy theory that you must have had Beauty and the Beast already in mind even when you were casting everyone for their original High School Musical: The Musical roles. Every single character mapped on to their Beauty and the Beast role so perfectly, it was almost eerie.
Federle: I mean, this cast is full of such authentic theater kids, and yet, you know, it’s been three years since most of them were cast. So ultimately it’s not that we try to write what the what the actors are like in real life, it’s that we try to write for what their strengths are. And we’re really lucky because we’ve got actors who can play everything. So [you can have] somebody like Julia Lester, who of course plays Ashlyn, who can reach not-so-far back and reflect on how she felt in high school [to play Ashlyn playing Belle], but also bring an adult sophistication to the performance, and you can also have Sofia Wylie as Gina be “just” Babette the feather-duster, but still very much co-headline so many stories this season—as she rightfully should!
Paste: Just as a side comment about Gina/Babette, and you can pass this off to whoever was responsible, but—those feather eyelash extensions when she was finally in costume were genius.
Federle: That’s all Heidi, our makeup head! She was so excited about those, and so was Sofia. They were beautiful.
Paste: They were beautiful, and also very clever.
Federle: I’m going to text her about this immediately after we hang up!
Paste: Okay, so, back to the theme of eerie coincidences, as much as HSMTMTS is a true ensemble show, you still have your two romantic leads, Olivia and Josh, who each had an IRL breakout year at what feels like the exact same moment as their characters—or at least, Olivia’s—had similar breakout moments in the show. It was definitely clear in Season 1 that Nini was on track to have some kind of breakout success—she was already making music for her Instagram, she was already a songwriter, she was already, you know, aiming for the stars. But Season 2 ended up being a much eerier parallel, watching her storyline play out next to Olivia’s storyline in real life. I think I laughed out loud when Nini was shocked to learn that she suddenly had 15,000 followers, and I clicked over to Olivia’s IG to find she has 15 million.
Federle: Honestly, I always felt that Olivia and Josh’s stratospheric success was only a matter of time. I mean, you can never predict when something is going to be so zeitgeisty that, like, Saturday Night Live mentions it, so that was pretty wild to watch. But I have drafts of every outline, almost all 12 scripts, dating back to, gosh, a year and a half ago, and I was shocked, watching the season rollout, by some of the parallels.
I don’t know if art imitates life or life imitates art, but, you know, I felt pretty strongly after “All I Want” broke out last season, that there’s something very true to both Olivia and Nini’s life which is: When in doubt, express yourself through song. And it is a little Ouija-board, that we would break these stories, specifically about something like the song going viral, and then we’d shoot the episode, and then a month after we shot the episode, “Driver’s License” debuts. The stuff like that was just so, so wild, but I think speaks more to the fact that Olivia is this extraordinarily gifted songwriter who has arrived at the perfect moment, rather than the idea that we’re sitting around the writers room saying, like, “how can we mimic what’s happening in real life?” It’s an odd kind of thing, because TV airs so much later than when you shoot it, that I can imagine that the perception is, “oh my gosh, they’re just copying Olivia’s life,” when in reality, we would write something and then it would come true six months later. So I agree with you! Reflecting on it, it’s a strange, strange dynamic.
Paste: Beyond Nini’s spooky spurt of personal growth, what arcs (or even just individual moments) are you especially proud of this year? Two highlights for me: I thought the EJ arc was really strong—and in a surprising way, because he was so close to being just a one-dimensional heel in the first season—and then I also really loved everything between Seb and Carlos (though especially the dream sequence reprise with their prom suits).
Federle: I think my favorite story is the one between Ricky and Nini. We really wanted to show how high school relationships feel so intense and so important, but that even when you go through a breakup or a miscommunication, you can do it in a healthy way. I think a lot of TV shows don’t always highlight that and I understand that, because it [offers] natural tension and backstabbing and gossip. But we made a concerted effort in the writers room to say this season to say, “how do we show something fall apart in a way that’s heartbreaking, but also kind of hopeful in the way that people take care of each other?” and I’m proud of the stories we dove into this season.
And then in terms of something surprising, oh my goodness, that’s a tough one. I think I’m always surprised and amazed by the amount of detail that super fans pick up on. Like, I remember as an example from Season 1, when Carlos and Seb embrace after Seb’s song, it was really important in editing that we cut to Matt [Cornett] as EJ, smiling. Because if we can show the world that EJ thinks it’s so, so great that these guys love each other so openly, maybe we can change some minds and underline that love is love. So it was really important that the first person we cut to for a reaction was Matt. And then fans picked up on that! They were saying, “wow, look at that, EJ loves them, how cool is that?” That’s really meaningful to me because, you know, we make the show in a bubble in Salt Lake City, and you don’t always [know] if someday, somebody is going to see. And so it’s meaningful how closely people watch it.
Paste: I know we have to wrap up here in a second, but I’ve got two last things, both pretty small. First, please give us literally any background on the origin of the whole risotto thing; it’s just so specific, and so weird, and so funny, and I want to know everything. Second—and I think that cliffhanger you ended the finale on means I’m legally required to ask this, so forgive me in advance—but do you have any official word on a potential Season 3? And if so (or even if not!), do you have an idea of what you’d want the East High theater kids to take on next? (My deepest wish: Summer theater camp.)
Federle: I can answer those both pretty quickly! Risotto was really just a writers room thing—we were trying to imagine what somebody like EJ thinks is, like, a casual first date, and risotto [just made us] hysterical. He’s a frickin’ high school senior! Like, who “goes for” risotto? So that’s just a word that made us laugh.
As for the second question, I can honestly tell you very much on the record that I do not know if we’re getting a Season 3, and that’s not even me being cagey! Summer theater camp would be a blast, but at this point, I’m just focusing on the 22 episodes we have produced, and hoping that when the full album drops this week, people will scoop it up. So I don’t know about a Season 3. But I have high hopes.
Season 1 & 2 of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series are streaming now on Disney+
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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