Just over a decade ago, the High School Musical craze was hitting a fever pitch with the 2008 theatrical release of High School Musical 3: Senior Year. After several years of steadily rising hype, this franchise, which began as a drop-in-the-bucket Disney Channel original movie, had become a pop culture sensation, helping to make a star out of its lead actor, Zac Efron. It owned the hearts and iPod playlists of every tween in the country (and many teens who may or may not have been too embarrassed to live in their truth back in high school). But the kids could only stay in high school for so long.
Enter Disney+, Disney’s new streaming service featuring a gigantic library of nearly every Disney and Disney-related property you could imagine. Disney+ is not just content with exploiting their vast catalogue of movies and television shows for subscriptions. They also intend on creating original programming, much of which will be built on top of the legacy of previously released properties such as the forthcoming MCU-spinoff miniseries and Star Wars universe-set The Mandalorian. As one of Disney Channel’s most successful brands ever, it’s perfectly natural for the new streaming service, which has thousands of hours of Disney Channel content, to tap into that High School Musical vein once more with High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. What is surprising is just how refreshingly effective it is.
This reboot lives in a world where the High School Musical series of films exists and is set at the school where they were filmed. A new drama teacher, giving major Kristin Chenoweth energy, comes to town and decides its high time the home of High School Musical perform the stage musical adaptation that hundreds of schools around the country have been doing since the films first debuted.
At this school, we are also introduced to our new Troy & Gabriella, the lead romantic pairing of the original trilogy. They are Juniors Nini (Olivia Rodrigo, Bizaardvark) and Ricky (Joshua Bassett, Stuck in the Middle), who are returning to school after breaking up over the summer when Nini left for drama camp and Ricky got cold feet about saying “I love you.” They each get their one best friend, Kourtney (Dara Renee, My Stepfather’s Secret) who is Nini’s patriarchy toppling bestie and Big Red (Larry Saperstein, Porno) who is Ricky’s secretly High School Musical-loving bff, and one scene with their families to flesh out who they are as people. What’s more important for this teen musical dramedy is that they are two parts of a love triangle with EJ (Matt Cornett, Life in Pieces), a Senior who Nini began dating at drama camp after she broke out of her shell following her painful breakup with Ricky, who really just thought they were putting things on “pause” for the summer.
These five main players are shortly joined by newly-transferred Sophomore Gina (Sofia Wylie, Andi Mack), who always gets the female lead in every play, partially due to the pressures of an unseen type-a stage mom. They run into her at the auditions for the play, which also happens to be the central set piece of the premiere. Nini wants to break free of the chorus and join EJ as the lead of the play, so they can be the perfect couple on and off stage. Meanwhile, Ricky wants to usurp EJ’s presumed slot as the male lead in order to win Nini back, and Gina has no intention of letting Nini snatch the lead from her grasp.
All this set up could have been labored while overly winky towards the slightly off kilter parallels these characters and stories have to the original film. That is honestly what I was expecting. Instead, creator Tim Federle leans heavily on the charm of his young ensemble to make you invest in the likable sextet of teens and not worry so much about the ways in which their stories do and do not intersect with the source material.
The shows biggest misstep comes in their aesthetic choice to film the series as a faux mockumentary a la Modern Family, complete with cutaway interviews that push the story forward and give the audience further insight into the characters’ inner-thoughts. This device is not only quite dated by now, first becoming popular after the success of The Office (which I believe began airing before most of these kids were born). It also robs the actors, whose talents far exceed the original trilogy’s cast, from the opportunity to simply react in the moment, while breaking the reality of a world that is otherwise easy to slip into.
Despite this aesthetic flaw, the bones of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is sturdy. It’s high concept premise and winning ensemble of likable performers makes this an easy watch for tweens, teens, and nostalgic adults who might be tempted to dip into the series to reminisce over their youth and that which they once loved.