In 2006, Disney Channel aired its game-changing teen movie musical, High School Musical, that had kids humming “We’re All in This Together” on their way to math class and fantasizing about breaking out in dance in the hallways.
Written by Peter Barsochhini, with direction and award-winning choreography by Kenny Ortega, it was an instant phenomenon that spawned two sequels, the second of which was the most-watched TV movie at the time it aired. It became so popular that Disney released High School Musical 3: Senior Year in theaters instead of airing it on Disney Channel — and it raked in more than $42 million its opening weekend, breaking movie musical records. It’s been just over 11 years since then, but in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which launches exclusively on Disney Plus on Nov. 12, the Wildcats are finally back.
Well, sort of.
Wildcat warning: Light plot details from the first two episodes of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series are discussed below.
A meta premise sets a high bar
In an extremely meta move, the new series takes place at the actual East High in Salt Lake City. So instead of the Wildcats, the students are the East High Leopards — the school’s real-life mascot — and they’re all fans of the High School Musical movies because they were filmed at their school.
When new drama teacher Ms. Jenn (Kate Reinders) joins the faculty and realizes the school has never put on a production of High School Musical, she’s excited to host auditions for the parts of Troy, Gabriella and all the other HSM characters we know and love. It’s a clever premise that allows Disney to tap into vats of HSM nostalgia (for better and worse) while also introducing a new cast of characters. (Zac and V-Hudg weren’t available, I guess.)
The show also utilizes a mockumentary-style format, with The Office–esque “talking heads” punctuating scenes and providing one-off jokes. At first it’s a little jarring — literally. The camera shakiness can be a little too much at times, but I quickly got used to it. And since there are so many characters, who are playing other characters, it’s a helpful technique that kept me from feeling overwhelmed and helped me get to know the newbies at East High quicker.
The new Wildcast, sorta like the old Wildcast
Some of the new characters you’ll meet in HSM: The Musical: The Series will feel very, very familiar. The Troy and Gabriella of the series, Ricky (Joshua Bassett) and Nini (Olivia Rodrigo), are basically facsimiles of their HSM counterparts. Ricky is a skateboarder who doesn’t really “get” musicals, while Nini is the hapless romantic with a penchant for breaking out in song. (She’s very popular on Instagram.) The only difference here is that the two have already dated, but after Nini tells Ricky she loves him and Ricky can’t say it back to her, the two go on a break and Nini starts dating East High schooler E.J.
Thankfully, the show subverts expectations with some of the other characters, and it’s all the better for it. In the OG HSM films, Sharpay and Ryan are the schemesters who would do anything for their time in the spotlight, but in the show, it’s Nini’s new boyfriend, E.J. (Matt Cornett), and transfer student Gina (Sofia Wylie) — cast in the production as Chad and Gabriella’s understudy, respectively — who team up to sabotage Ricky’s and Nini’s roles.
Nini’s best friend, Kourtney, is an energetic, hilarious, woke teen who says things like “I’m dismantling the patriarchy this year, and I’m not afraid to start with you.” She’s always a breath of fresh air when the Ricky-Nini-E.J. love triangle starts to feel tedious. And unlike Chad from the movies, Ricky’s best friend, Big Red, seemingly has not a drop of musical theater talent in his body. When he’s inadvertently assigned just to read stage directions, his performance is so humdrum and tired that the cast believes the production to be doomed before it’s even started.
There’s also a male Sharpay; Carlos, the choreographer, whose comedic timing is impeccable; and a character named Ashlyn (Julia Lester) who is cast as Ms. Darbus in the play but who has the quirky personality and songwriting chops of the OG franchise’s Kelsey.
Relentless fan service sometimes feels heavy-handed and exhausting
Like its self-referential title, the show embraces a playful tone and is best when it pokes fun at itself and deals in dramatic irony. So far, though (we were given the first two episodes to screen), the series leans more toward sticking to the status quo than offering anything new. Despite the meta premise, its archetypal characters, relationships and songs are lifted straight from the three HSM movies, which feels like nostalgia overkill. (Do we really need yet another rendition of “We’re All in This Together”? Do we?!) But a brand-new song toward the end of episode two gives me hope that the show will continue giving us new material as it progresses, because it’s really, really good when it does.
The new song, written by Ashlyn after Ms. Jenn says the role of Ms. Darbus should be more prominent in their production (because Ms. Jenn IS basically the Disney Plus show’s Ms. Darbus), might be the best ballad in all of HSM, thanks in part to Julia Lester’s voice and emotion. I listened to it...an embarrassing amount of times, and it’s a refreshing break from the well-worn anthems the audience can already sing along to.
And even though they’re singing mostly the songs we already know, the cast is very talented, with voices that might outshine the originals’ cast. Fans were critical of their D23 Expo debut performance earlier this year, but in the series — after being produced and polished, of course — the songs sound great. There’s not much in the way of choreography so far, but since the show is more grounded (characters don’t just randomly burst into song as they do in the movies), we don’t expect to see Kenny Ortega–levels of performance.
An HSM for the modern day
Something that especially stood out to me was the show’s focus on social media and current issues. Characters are often texting, on Instagram or on a computer, which is noteworthy not because it’s anything new — duh, all teens are on their phones, it’s 2019 — but because it takes away from some of the magic of the films. The films embraced a musical universe in which characters would randomly break out in song, dancing on the street, in the hallways, even on a golf course, while the show is more set in reality, almost in a Glee-meets-Degrassi way.
Hilariously, though, for a current-technology-heavy show, a character is seen watching the first movie via DVD, which feels so outdated and out of place that it has to be intentional. Right? In both episodes, characters hold up DVDs of the first two films to the camera, and I really hope this becomes a running gag. I guess the “meta line” was drawn at characters streaming the movies on Disney Plus.
I’m also curious to see if the aforementioned “woke” teen, Kourtney, is just there for comedic relief or if the very real issues she references will work their way into the show in a more dramatic fashion. It would be interesting to see the show try to tackle some more intense real-life problems than just young love and high school, but then again, it is Disney, so...
I really enjoyed the humor, playfulness and musical talent in the new Disney Plus series and felt that it fell in line with the movies, so existing HSM fans will for sure have something to look forward to. Newcomers to HSM, however, will likely feel as if they’re not in on an inside joke if they watch, since 80 percent of the fun is derived from its meta storytelling and references to the films; I’d say it’s worth watching at least the first High School Musical movie before starting the show. (All of the films will be available to stream on Disney Plus on day one, so why not?)
I, for one, can’t wait for more East High antics, new songs and bigger drama to unfold in the next episodes of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which is shaping up to be one of the best Disney Plus shows you’ll be able to watch come Nov. 12.