I don’t think I can fully convey the contempt that swept through this newsroom when Disney announced one of its launch shows for Disney+ was going to be “High School Musical: The Musical – The Series.”
First off: the title. The CMS for this website has a headline character limit, y’know? And that title takes up about 85 percent of it. A colon and a dash? Stop it. Second: Oh my God, another spin on “High School Musical?” Humanity really isn’t going to top Zac Efron pirouetting around a golf course in “High School Musical 2.” Third: end-stage capitalism. Are there no new ideas in this world? Disney now owns everything and now they’re re-franchising another franchise? Help. Fourth: the hashtag — which is, for the record, #HSMTMTS.
So imagine my delighted surprise when at 10:16 in the first episode — yes, I wrote the timestamp down — high school fashion queen and named-after-a-Kardashian Kourtney (Dara Reneé), while holding court in the lunchroom, says: “So I say to my mom, ‘Looking this fabulous while fighting for intersectional feminism is my summer job.’”
And with that one line, I was won over. This is, obviously, not your “High School Musical.” Or your “High School Musical 2.” Or even your “High School Musical 3: Senior Year.” It’s “Glee” as envisioned by Christoper Guest. “High School Musical: The Musical – The Series” is good. It’s sweet and funny and charming, and God bless Disney for being the world’s most efficient factory at churning out cherubic teenagers who can sing the house down.
The credit for this goes to showrunner Tim Federle, who not only convinced Disney to do a mockumentary take on one of their beloved cash cows, but pulls off the required sweet-tart execution perfectly. Federle was the co-librettist for the Broadway adaptation of “Tuck Everlasting”; he also co-wrote the screenplay for 20th Century Fox’s “Ferdinand” — honestly, a smartass take on “High School Musical” is the obvious next step in his evolution.
In the first two episodes screened, the structure mimics the others in the “HSM” franchise — our pore-less Romeo and Juliet in this version are Ricky (Joshua Bassett) and Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) who have loved, and lost, and loved anew but still need to put on this damn school play. The whip-smart writing in these episodes by Federle and Oliver Goldstick shines by undoing a thousand tropes — both those from every teen show ever, and those established by the predecessors in the series. The character of Sharpay (memorably played by Ashley Tisdale earlier in the canon) is now played in the show-within-a-show by Joe Serafini. This is progress and progressive, Disney-style. (Nini even has two moms!)
And in all earnestness, these kids can sing. A piano duet, “Wondering,” sung by Rodrigo and Julia Lester, who plays songwriter Ashlyn, at the end of Episode 2 is a classic showstopper. They are interrupted while nonchalantly singing centerstage! The lighting is direct yet diffused! The camera swoops around them Michael Bay-style! Amid all the Easter Eggs to the original movie series and social media in-jokes that litter HSMTMTS, it’s a pure moment. In a competitive TV landscape, sometimes it just takes a showy display of two kids with baby Adele-esque talent to remember that, with Disney, you can always bet on it. (Sorry, had to do it.)
“High School Musical: The Musical – The Series” debuts Friday, November 8 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC, Freeform, and the Disney Channel; it will thereafter stream 10 episodes as part of Disney+, which launches Nov. 12.
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