Cashing in on the success of one of Disney Channel’s most beloved hits? High School Musical: The Musical: The Series more than justifies its existence within the first episode alone, perhaps even surpassing the original.
Starring Olivia Rodrigo, Joshua Bassett, Matt Cornett, Sofia Wylie, Larry Saperstein, Julia Lester, Dara Renée, Frankie Rodriguez, Mark St. Cyr, and Kate Reinders
It has been fourteen years since High School Musical rocked the teenagers of 2006 with its infectious and glorious soundtrack, not to mention the downright Shakespearean romance between basketball superstar Troy Bolton (an aggressively fringed Zac Efron) and shy, academic decathlon genius transfer student Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens, in a blouse). Why was it Shakespearean? Because this is high school dammit and there is nothing more important than sticking with a clique because social acceptance is everything to teenagers. Huge, choreographed musical numbers made everybody wish that their secondary school experience was a little bit more like East High. Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale, the true protagonist) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel, who had a female love interest in the third film just to assuage twitchy parents that there weren’t in fact any gay kids dancing around on screen. Because, obviously, their musical theatre loving sons weren’t already probably like a little…well, you know) were villianised, even though current social media has realised that they were in the right all along, and Sharpay deserved everything. Oh, and Chad (Corbin Bleu) and Taylor (Monique Coleman) were there, purely to be Troy and Gabriella’s best friends, and dated, so that when they weren’t on screen they were at least together. It was a much simpler time. The most scandalous thing was when it was speculated that Vanessa Hudgens was going to be sacked from the final High School Musical film (High School Musical 3: Senior Year, which aired in cinemas!) because nude photos of her leaked. Ironically, if it hadn’t have been reported, then half of us wouldn’t have Googled it to have a look, so that media outrage was really quite ironic in retrospect! THINK OF THE CHILDREN, they scream, as all the children run towards what they were pointing at. I digress.
No Disney Channel franchise has really hit the communal public consciousness in the same way that High School Musical did. Every once in a while, there is just a glittering moment that seems to capture the imagination of a generation. Think Game of Thrones but really damn wholesome. So it’s unsurprising that Disney have been suspected of cashing in on the success of this franchise in order to coax viewers into subscribing to Disney+. The cynicism is fair. The rapid and alarming growth of Disney’s media empire is becoming eerily similar to the ruthlessness of Stalin’s Russia, but without the appeal of Communism.
However, the fears that High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (shortening it isn’t even easier) are merely a company running out of ideas are completely blown out of the water within viewing the first ten minutes of the first episode.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series follows the story of a group of teenagers who attend the school where the original HSM was filmed, as they stage their own performance of High School Musical, led by their incredibly eccentric drama teacher Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) – who starred in the original High School Musical (back row, on the right, and yes those are her own teeth). Perpetual chorus girl Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) is emboldened from her summer at theatre camp in which she once got to play the lead and is desperate to play the role of Gabriella, which she achieves after belting out a show stopping audition rendition of Start of Something New. This puts her in the sights of ambitious transfer student Gina (Sofia Wylie), who has to be content with being her understudy and playing Taylor instead. Also disappointed is Nini’s jock boyfriend, E.J. (Matt Cornett), who is used to running the school theatre department but is instead cast as Chad. The Troy to Nini’s Gabriella is Ricky (Joshua Bassett), who is desperate to gain back Nini’s love after they awkwardly broke up the summer before, due to his inability to commit to her even after she said that she loved him. This is peak drama guys.
But it gets better. The entire series is shot as a mockumentary, complete with awkward bouncing camera zooms, deadpan looks straight down the camera lens and delightfully hilarious talking head segments, generally entirely contradicting what the character has just said. Not to mention that half of the dialogue and the mannerisms of the cast are already pretty hilarious in the first place.
On top of the highly meta premise of this show, and the continual hilarious cutaways, the entire cast is phenomenally talented. These kids – and they are kids – and researching the actors has made me feel certifiably ancient (some of these kids were barely alive when the first High School Musical was released) – are absolutely incredible. They play their roles with such sincerity. The acting style is not as hideously over-the-top as the antics in the original franchise, and the mockumentary style is quite helpful at grounding the performances in truth. The parts are written with heaps more nuance than the two-dimensional characters in High School Musical, plus the format of a 10-episode series means that they can afford more character growth moments than a 90-minute TV film can do. Heaps of the songs are sung live on set, which is beyond amazing. Julia Lester and Olivia Rodrigo have a particularly anthemic and delightful duet towards the close of Episode 2.
Comparisons are also likely to be drawn with Fox’s hit Glee, which ran for six seasons even though everybody wishes it had ended after three, as a result of the inclusion of outcast musical theatre kids with quick quips and fast cuts between scenes. It’s a fair comparison to draw, and both have their relative merit, though it is worth pointing out that all of the singing occurs in organic moments within the series, through rehearsals, auditions or performances, instead of leaning upon metaphorical mental musical numbers. It makes the characters feel much more real when this is how they are performing, not least because most of those songs are performed live.
Overall, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is full to the brim of charm and heart, using the original franchise as a springboard into new uncharted realms. The comedy style is spot on, and delightfully endearing, and I would thoroughly recommend that you give it a go, especially if you are a fan of the original series (and of teenage musical comedies, in general).