In 2006, a Disney Channel movie called High School Musical debuted on the small screens across the United States. An athletic boy named Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) meets a brainiac girl named Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) while singing karaoke in a ski lodge, and they coincidentally go to the same school. They audition for the school musical unexpectedly getting a callback for the lead roles.
The movie blew up, becoming the most commercially successful Disney Channel Original Movie ever produced. Two subsequent sequels followed, and High School Musical was officially established as a staple of 2000s kids’ and teens’ culture.
Around 2013, rumors began to stir about a possible High School Musical reboot. There was even a casting call for potential actors to be part of the untitled High School Musical 4 Project. Six years later, in February 2019, they announced High School Musical: The Musical: The Series coming to Disney Plus. A sneak peek of the series premiered during the 2019 D23 Convention, to which attendees showed positive responses.
And yet, anticipation for the series largely remained mixed – would this be the High School Musical we knew and loved, or would it be something entirely unrecognizable?
First of all, the show isn’t part of the High School Musical universe. It takes place fifteen years after HSM was first released in the high school where the movie was filmed, which is still called East High. Therefore, it is a lot more realistic and it has different story beats than the original movies. There are no grand musical numbers that happen in the cafeteria or in the gymnasium as they do in the original HSM. Instead, the series takes on a mockumentary style that no one saw coming.
The show starts off with the new drama teacher, Miss Jenn, seeing her proudest moments on the screen as a dancer in the original movies. Her idea of directing a production of HSM where it was filmed becomes a reality at East High. The characters are believable and create drama in the most entertaining way.
For example, Miss Jen is pepping up a student by saying “Your generation deserves to make its own mark on this classic. Watch out, world.” while the STEM teacher, Mr. Mazzara realistically shuts it down by saying “And by world, you mean the great Salt Lake region”.
The audience meets the student body, a.k.a the East High Leopards. Olivia Rodrigo plays Nini, a shy chorus girl tries to tell her ex-boyfriend Ricky (Joshua Bassett) that she’s moved on and is now dating E.J. (Matt Cornett), the attractive theater jock she met at theater camp. Upset, Ricky tries to win her back by auditioning for the role of Troy even though he despises musicals. The cast is rounded out by Natalie the stage manager (Alexis Nelis), Carlos the choreographer (Frankie Rodriguez), and ambitious transfer student Gina Porter (Sofia Wylie).
There are distinct traces of all the characters from the original movies but pleasantly updated for a more modern audience. For example, E.J.’s overconfidence in his theatrical abilities is reminiscent of HSM fan-favorite Sharpay Evans. Just like Sharpay, he gets hit by reality when the role of Troy eventually goes to *spoiler alert* Ricky, who is playing opposite Nini’s Gabriella.
The second episode “The Read-Thru” delivers more quality comedic moments. For example, while Miss Jen is saying a speech before the first read-through, Carlos takes a selfie for his social media story. One of the best scenes in the series is when Nini befriends E.J.’s cousin Ashlyn (Julia Lester) by singing her original song with her. This scene gives Ashlyn a lot of dimensions. The audience learns that Ashlyn is insecure and gets overshadowed by EJ too often. This intimate scene reminded me of when Troy and Gabriella sang with Kelsey for the first time.
Meanwhile, understudies Gina and E.J. form an alliance to play the leads. Gina tries to make Ricky stay so that Nini will be intimidated by him which will make her quit the show.
This show is literally a game-changer for teen television and how adults see teenagers. For example, Ricky knows that his mother is having an affair behind his father’s back, and this knowledge makes him freeze when Nini admits her love for him because he rarely hears it in his household between his parents. This is a complex situation, one that’s not talked about a lot between teenagers and parents in teen shows.
Overall, the relatively unknown cast gives stellar performances. Rodrigo is a true rising star at just 16 years old. This series is the perfect home for Sofia Wylie, especially now that Andi Mack has been cancelled.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series has a lot to live up to, but if its first two episodes are anything to go by, the show will lead Disney Plus into the first weeks of 2020 proudly! WHAT TEAM? Wildcats – I mean, Leopards!