Have you ever wished someone filmed a movie at your high school? The Salt Lake City school East High served as the filming location for “High School Musical,” a Disney Channel Original Movie, which became an overnight sensation. With two sequels, the movie was a prominent piece of IP for Disney and many millennials. Disney+ looks to trot out every possible franchise they have the rights to for this November 12th launch. While “High School Musical” may not seem like the freshest material, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” feels new, exciting, and stuffed with fun.
It’s not just stuffed with fun; there’s a lot of storytelling devices at play here. Not only does the show wholly lean into the meta-nature of the premise, but it also employs a handled documentary-like storytelling angle. The doc angle has been done before (and better), but the meta concept in the show works due to one hilarious, shrewd observation. Gen-Z doesn’t care about “High School Musical.” The 2006 Zac Efron-Vanessa Hudgens Disney Channel Original Movie remains a staple of Millennials. However, DCOM’s lightning in a bottle moment has come and gone. Though it launched the careers of Efron and Hudgens, the movie lacks cultural cache outside of viewers who were in the right age demo in 2006. What does it mean to update “High School Musical” for a new generation, when that already felt like a rough update of “Grease?”
The tongue in cheek nature dresses up the fairly simple set-up. Ricky (Joshua Bassett) starts the school year hoping to get back with his ex-girlfriend, Nini (Olivia Rodrigo). However, while at summer drama camp, Nini found her leading lady voice and a new man in her life, E.J. (Matt Cornett). With this newfound confidence, Nini looks forward to auditioning for the school musical this year with hopes of getting the lead. Knowing the show is “High School Musical,” Ricky auditions to try and win Nini back.
The show gently mocks the millennial teacher, Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders), who feels compelled to share her high school touchstone with this new generation. She was a backup dancer for the original movie and desperately reminded herself that she was part of this cultural moment. Miss Jenn’s adoration for the show is as endearing as it is funny. The same could be said of the show’s student choreographer, Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez). He lights up the screen with his enthusiasm. Even if they don’t convince the students of the merits of “High School Musical,” they’ve convinced me to watch more of them.
While the show focuses on this love triangle, it also fills out the supporting cast with many memorable faces. Sofia Wylie stands out as Gina, a triple threat transfer student who holds many secrets close to the chest. Dara Renee steals all the scenes she is in as Kourtney, Nini’s truth-talking best friend. While the show teases exciting developments with Gina, one wonders if Kourtney will get lost in the ensemble. Renee delivers every punchline she’s given. Yet, is Kourtney ever going to get more to do than just be the sassy best friend? The same could be said of Ricky’s best friend, Big Red (Larry Saperstein), who provides comic relief, but little more. The central trio is engaging enough. Still, the show is really going to come alive if it develops its ensemble.
Despite having “Musical” in the title (twice), there are very few musical moments. When there are songs, most of the time, they are from the original production. Yet, abiding by the diegetic rules of muscality/song it sets up, there’s at least one strong original song. Miss Jen challenges Ashlyn (Julia Lester) to craft an original ballad for her character in the show, Ms. Darbus, the drama teacher. Lester boasts a beautiful voice and fantastic piano skills. Her performance at the end of episode two makes one excited to see more as the show progresses.
The show presents a refreshingly modern look at high school students, particularly in comparison to “High School Musical” in 2006. Nini has two Moms. Kourtney talks about feminism. Miss Jenn praises a male-coded student for expressing their gender and audition for the role of Sharpay. As progressive as these things may be, none of them become story-lines. Instead, they serve as important texture and window-dressing for the show. The world has changed, and this new generation has a more insightful understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ issues, gender fluidity, and feminism. Even if “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” never gives us an issue-driven plot, the show reflects this new world. In many ways, this feels more radical than any “issue of the week” episode of “Glee.”