When Sharpay Evans finally shouts halfway through the bop “Stick to the Status Quo,” she’s in a bedazzled pink blazer paired with white pants and silver belt. Ashley Tisdale made the scene famous in the 2006 Disney Channel movie. Her hair is teased and her nails are painted white.
In the new Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Sharpay isn’t any of these things. Actor Joe Serafini, who plays Seb, who plays Sharpay (the show is very meta), wears a silver blazer with pink lapels, shiny silver pants and a pink streak in his hair. Seb isn’t doing drag Sharpay. He’s a teen in 2020 having fun with his fashion.
“I don’t think Seb is really a drag queen, per se. He just enjoys wearing makeup, so it was a stronger choice to go in this direction,” Serafini tells MEL. Series creator Tim Federle adds, “Sharpay emerges as more of an icon than a capital-W woman in this retelling.”
Disney+’s surprisingly strong original series follows students putting on a production of High School Musical at the fictionalized high school where the original movie was filmed. While Seb was simply a recurring character this season, his take on Sharpay garnered attention for the gender-swapped casting. That Serafini cuts through minimal dialogue and background placement to excel in both roles is only further fabulosity. Just as Sharpay would want.
In the pilot episode, drama teacher Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) initially pegs Seb for the character of Ryan, Sharpay’s brother, who’s always been coded as gay — he wears fedoras and is obsessed with his campy sister. The resemblance is easy: They’re two bright-eyed and blond theatre boys. (Serafini says he actually played Ryan in a seventh-grade production of High School Musical). But choreographer (and Seb’s eventual love interest) Carlos, played by Frankie Rodriguez, interjects on his behalf, saying, “I think he’d rather read for Sharpay.”
When it came to the actual casting, Serafini didn’t approach the role of Seb as “Gay Sharpay.” He saw Seb as a talented, confident and honest teen. “Seb is just really into the fabulous energy that Sharpay has. He is who I was hiding inside in high school,” Serafini tells me.
In very Gen Z fashion, he booked the gig over an Instagram DM. In October 2018, a Disney casting agent messaged the then-junior at University of Michigan, asking if he’d send in a tape for a new Disney+ show called High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
Serafini initially self-taped for lead character E.J. Caswell, the egocentric big man on campus. The part would go to the athletic Matt Cornett. A month later, Disney slid back into Serafini’s DMs, this time asking him to audition for Seb. Less than a week later, he was in Salt Lake City, getting fitted in Seb’s normcore teen clothes for the first day of shooting.
Serafini credits Federle with helping him snag the role. “I guess — I mean, I don’t want to be too presumptuous — but Tim saw something in me that he wanted to, you know, keep track of,” he says humbly.
He’s not being too presumptuous. Federle saw himself in Serafini. The two first met in 2013 when Serafini’s troupe Pittsburgh CLO Mini Stars performed at the Gene Kelly Awards, honoring excellence in Pittsburgh-area high school musical theater. Federle was there to receive a distinguished alumni award.
They reconnected three years later, when Serafini was on a high school senior-year field trip to New York. Federle, who wrote the book for Tuck Everlasting, spotted Serafini across the street, waiting at the stage door for Something Rotten!.
“Joe reminds me of a younger version of me. This theater kid from a non-theater family who grew up in this very specific kind of suburb of Pittsburgh,” Federle tells MEL. So when it came time to cast the role of a wide-eyed true theater kid from a farm family, Federle thought of Serafini.
He spends the majority of his scenes with Carlos. The two attend Homecoming Dance together. It’s a landmark gay relationship that’s refreshing to see on traditionally staid Disney. In an attempt not to bait viewers, Federle says their relationship will be part of the Season Two storyline and may not be such a fairytale. “The baton I’m grabbing now as a storyteller in 2020 is that the central things about their identity as a couple is not that they’re both gay,” Federle says.
He wants to push past the after-school-special messaging that Glee or Love, Simon embraced. “To see characters like Carlos and Seb evolve and have as dynamic of a relationship as their straight counterparts is something someone like me, who grew up on Dawson’s Creek, never quite got to see,” Federle says.
It’s unprecedented for Disney to give airtime to two teens exploring their sexuality. Last year, GLAAD chastised Disney for having the “weakest history” of LGBTQ inclusion in film, passing off two women kissing in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker or three seconds of two men dancing together in Beauty and the Beast as queer representation. (Respect for C-3PO, of course.)
But Federle maintains Disney’s development executives encouraged him to tell High School Musical with gay characters. “It’s impossible to write a story about theater people and not include queer elements,” Federle says. “Even as I went up the flagpole and episodes started getting shot, there was great celebration and support.”
Because Seb looks like Ryan, plays Sharpay and explores a relationship with Carlos, many viewers assume Serafini is also gay. “It’s funny, because I keep getting asked this,” Serafini says. “I had very real relationships with women in high school, and I don’t think they were fake at all.”
There’s a tendency among gay men to position bisexuality as a phase. But Serafini would prefer you don’t assume he’s anything but what he says he is. “I actually do believe that I am bisexual — if I have to give a label,” he says. “Right now, I have a relationship with the boy and that’s good for me.”
Federle recently upped Serafini (originally slated for just a multi-episode arc) to series regular for season two, and they head back to Utah in February to start shooting season two. Unlike last year, Serafini won’t have to take time off school. He finished his college credits at the University of Michigan in December and will return to campus in May to walk in his graduation. “I’ve been at Michigan so long, it would be kind of sad if I had to leave it all,” Serafini says. “I’m really glad I was able to work it out.”
Or, as Federle puts it more bluntly, “Joe probably has the best straight-out-of-college job of all time.”