The latest installment of the High School Musical franchise wasn’t supposed to be the reason you give in to the pull of Disney+. That was the job of The Mandalorian, the Star Wars prestige drama. But High School Musical: The Musical: The Series has quickly bopped to the top as the streaming service’s premier original show (so far). The real surprise, though? It’s also the best spin-off in a year of reboots and remakes.
The new series is a mockumentary set in the same hallowed halls where High School Musical was shot, and now they’re putting on East High School’s first-ever production of the famed High School Musical… the musical. Every student seems to know the rich history of High School Musical. The original film High School Musical premiered in 2006 on Disney Channel, and in its first year garnered $500 million in DVD, album and retail sales. It spawned two sequels, a reality show, video game, concert tour, ice tour and, of course, a stage musical.
Nini Salazar-Roberts (Olivia Rodrigo) and Ricky Bowen (Joshua Bassett) are the pseudo-Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) in this school. Except the two leads of this series have just broken up. Nini has a new boyfriend, but she and Ricky were cast as lovers Troy and Gabriella in the school’s production. (At times, the plot is overly meta; Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens exist as actors in this universe.)
For those of us who grew up two-stepping to the High School Musical soundtrack in our living rooms, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: The Mistake” seemed like a better title. Then we watched the first episode.
“I expected a corny Disney Channel remake with rigid acting and bad musical numbers trying way too hard, but I thought it was great,” says Jessica Kovalick, a 23-year-old fan from New Jersey. “It almost feels like a hybrid of Glee and The Office.”
By bridging two of our biggest cultural touchstones instead of trying to recreate another, the series pleases franchise loyalists. All the familiar aesthetics our generation has an affinity for — like talking directly into the camera mockumentary-style, and bombastic musical numbers in suburban high school theaters — set a comfortable familiarity that leaves room for a new story to be told. Fans of the original will feel like we’re seeing ourselves onscreen, not a pale attempt to recreate our icons. After all, we’re the kids who played Troy and Gabriella in actual high school productions of High School Musical.
This is why the show works. It’s telling a story closer to our own high school experience, not Troy and Gabriella’s overly dramatic life. “Tbh I wasn’t a big fan of High School Musical growing up,” Brennyn, a 16-year-old from Los Angeles, writes me. “I was very logical, and it didn’t make any sense to me that all they did was sing. I was worried they weren’t actually learning anything.”
The original movie and its two sequels were full of eye-roll-inducing attempts at heteronormativity. Troy is afraid his masculinity is at stake if he sings, and Gabriella is concerned she’ll be ostracized if she speaks her mind. The obviously gay theater geek Ryan Evans is sidelined, only serving the plot of his faboulous sister Sharpay. Plus, it all took place in a pre-Recession adolescence. Remember, the whole premise is based around a chance karaoke meetup as a New Year’s Eve ski lodge vacation.
Though this new series’ plot doesn’t address socioeconomic inequality (It’s Disney, why would it?), it at least acknowledges teenage life is more than just a lover’s quarrel. Kids are bracing for school shootings and advocating for climate change on top of rigorous academic testing, their ever-important social media presence and their impending student loans. There’s no Euphoria drug use, overt political statements or even creative makeup among these kids, but this modern-day Disney version of high school is a major step forward in sheer reality — especially for a production company with the weakest history of LGBTQ representation in film.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series wants to change this. Frankie Rodriguez, who plays our resident High School Musical historian, tells the Advocate that his character, Carlos, is an explicitly gay teen. The pilot makes no mention of this, so presumably Carlos’ sexuality becomes apparent down the road.
It’s about fucking time. In the original, the flamboyant Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel), who rocks bedazzled caps and improvises jazz squares, was devoid of any sexuality. I saw myself in him. Who else wears floral shirts with a fedora and blazer? He was gay, we all knew, but Disney left it unacknowledged.
Grabeel told BuzzFeed in 2016 he read the first script and asked director Kenny Ortega if Ryan was gay. “He’s like, ‘Well, think of it this way: You have the opportunity to play a character who’s young, he’s into theater, he’s an artist, and let’s go at it from that point of view.’ He talked to me about his own life and he was like, ‘I see a lot of myself in Ryan. Yeah, I knew I was gay in high school, but I didn’t tell anybody.’ … It was about making it real,” Grabeel says. Ortega’s excuse was a stretch a decade ago, but today it’s ludicrous. In 2017, it was estimated 1.3 million high school students as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
We older Gen Zs latched on to Ryan’s sister, Sharpay, the rich-girl Paris Hilton wannabe with her eyes set on Broadway, for coded queer representation. In this spin-off, blonde twink Seb Matthew-Smith (Joe Serafini) is cast as Sharpay. Phillipe Thao, a culture writer in Chicago, tells me he’s “shook” over the casting. “I’m def looking forward to this new Sharpay,” he says, with one reservation: “I wanted things to stay the same and have them rewrite Ryan as openly gay in their version of the show.”
This is an unusual theme in the new HSM. For each tired Disney boundary the show breaks, it reinforces another. In High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Kourtney (Dara Reneé) is another sassy black best friend in the Disney canon. She’s the expected quippy comedic relief, but this time at least it’s (slightly) political. Her best retort: “So I say to my mom, ‘Looking this fabulous while also fighting for intersectional feminism is my summer job.’” Quickly, the conversation moves on before anyone can get too offended.
Refreshingly, the series is not afraid to poke fun at itself, a concept spiritual predecessor Glee could never grasp. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ new drama teacher Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) insists she was a background dancer in the original, while Mr. Mazzara (Mark St. Cyr) is the STEM teacher weary of the school’s musical obsession, pointing out their mascot isn’t even a wildcat like in the franchise. It’s a leopard, he says.
“It almost seems like they knew how much they’d get teased for this show, so they’re using it to their advantage with sarcasm and drama,” says Matt Gehring, a 23-year-old digital writer/producer for MTV. Gehring is a self-proclaimed Nickelodeon stan who prefers KeKe Palmer in True Jackson, VP to Vanessa Hudgens in High School Musical. But he’s impressed by the new series. “This is me kind of opening my heart up to Disney.”
For all its wokeness and cheekiness, High School Musical’s charm for longtime fans is almost inherent. We’ve attended the live shows. We played the branded board games. And we still have the collector’s items stored in some closet of our childhood homes. A generation grew up on Saved by the Bell. Others found their tribe on Degrassi. Maybe it was Full House. All those childhood classics now carry with them the Wikipedia-page entry of an ill-fated spin-off or two.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is Gen Z’s first piece of cinematic nostalgia. Unexpectedly, this actually feels like the start of something new. “That’s what was always missing from the original High School Musical: a meaning deeper than a high school love story,” says Gianluca Russo, a 22-year-old culture writer in Arizona. The new series “treats teenagers like teenagers — not some dumbed-down version that we’re often fed.”