“Do you see why we love the theatre, people?” an over-serious drama teacher once exclaimed. (Her name was Ms. Darbus and she is an icon for High School Musical lovers.) Well, Disney+ has given us a new reason to love the theatre: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
The Disney+ series, created by Broadway scribe Tim Federle, takes place at “the real” East High—where the original High School Musical was filmed. The students there have never put on a production of High School Musical: The Musical, but the new drama teacher, played by Broadway’s Kate Reinders, rectifies that toot suite. Filmed mockumentary style, the show features confessionals with the teens in the cast and teachers in the halls about the drama onstage and off.
Joshua Bassett and Olivia Rodrigo, play Ricky and Nini—the most shippable couple since Cory and Topanga. When HSMTMTS kicks off, the students are just back from summer break and Ricky and Nini are back from their own break. You see, Nini told Ricky she loved him (in the earworm of a love ballad “I Think I Kinda Ya Know”) but Ricky, reeling from his parents’ separation, couldn’t say it back and instead said they should take a pause. Nini went off to drama camp and found a new leading man; but now Ricky wants her back. When Nini sets out to audition for Gabriella in East High’s High School Musical, Ricky decides to win her back by auditioning for Troy.
The new series, which wrapped filming in Salt Lake City in August, has transcended the original—and its musical stage adaptation—with its purity of heart and musical theatre excellence. The cast, including Bassett (now 19) and Rodrigo (now 16), often sing live and give new meaning to no marking full out in showstopping dance routines. Over the course of nine episodes thus far, HSMTMTS has proven ridiculously relatable and sharply witty.
Before the Season 1 finale hits the streaming service January 10, Playbill spoke to Rodrigo and Bassett about life on set, creating fresh characters, writing original music for the series, and what to expect in Season 2.
Did you grow up with High School Musical or was it something that you were actually too young for?
Olivia Rodrigo: I totally grew up watching this film. I had High School Musical lunchboxes, and I had Troy and Gabriella Barbie Dolls and the whole shebang. I went back and re-watched all the movies once I booked the role with fresh eyes and a new mature perspective. It’s really amazing. I was just always such a musical kid and so watching Troy and Gabriella burst out into song on my TV was just such a magical experience.
Joshua Bassett: I was so young when I first saw it that I do not remember. I honestly started seeing it before I was capable of making memories.
Josh, were you always drawn to musicals as a kid, or more drawn to music?
Bassett: Definitely both. The music was my favorite part of the musicals, but I did everything from obviously High School Musical [as J.V. Jock #2]. I did Peter Pan, I was Peter Pan, but I also was Chip in Beauty in the Beast. I was the White Rabbit in Alice and Wonderland. I was a random tree in The Wizard of Oz. My dad is a musician, so that’s pretty much in my blood. My sister started doing musical theatre before I could even remember. When I was old enough to do it, there was no question. It was like, “Well, of course I’m going to do it.”
In the beginning of the series, Ricky’s friend Big Red says to Ricky, who is clearly a musician—carrying around his guitar—”I thought you hated musicals.” You are the kid who scoffs at musicals, but loves music. Do you think about the gap in people’s minds between music and musicals and how this series might ingratiate them towards musical theatre?
Bassett: I love that question because I think there’s a stigma in general about musical theatre, but specifically for guys. A lot of guys probably think, “Oh, musical? That’s lame.” But musicals are pretty awesome. One of my favorite things [was when] two eight and nine-year-old boys ran up to me and they were like, “Oh my gosh. I love your show. I sing all the songs all the time.” I just thought that was the sweetest, most awesome thing—to be inspiring younger boys to do it and not be afraid. What’s really cool is how people can see Troy Bolton, who plays basketball, who’s also in musical theatre, and now Ricky Bowen, who’s a skater and “Oh, he’s too cool for musical theatre,” but he does it for love and then finds out he loves musical theatre just as much.
Was your audition like a musical theatre audition?
Bassett: Well, the walls [were] paper thin. There’s like 10 people before me. You can hear them all belting out these insane showtunes. I was just like, “Oh, boy. Everyone’s going to have to hear me sing when I go in there.” [On my final audition] I actually sang three songs in that one: a Bruno Mars song [“Count on Me”] and then I sang a song that I wrote, and then I actually sang a another song that I had written for this girl to ask her to homecoming, on the ukulele.
Rodrigo: I went in and did the sides, and sang “Price Tag” by Jessie J, and they had me sing a song with Joshua, to test our chemistry, and we just love each other so much. So it was electric from that first audition.
Bassett: “Count on Me” ended up being the song that—once I got the role—they had Olivia and a bunch of girls come in and sing and read for the role of Nini. I was like, “Do you know this song?” She said, “Sure.” We literally stepped inside an office and I stole a guitar from a girl in the waiting room and we just worked out a quick rendition of “Count On Me” by Bruno Mars. She just figured out the harmony in literally one minute in a random executive’s office. Olivia knocked it out of the park and I think that’s when everyone knew it was the right fit.
Rodrigo: We really got to know each other after we auditioned, we spent six months in Utah together and that’s really great. He’s my best friend. To be able to work with him every day and sing songs with him, and write with him, and act with him, is just amazing. And he inspires me as a performer as well as just a person. I wouldn’t rather do it with anybody else.
Bassett: I don’t want to say it was fate, but honestly, part of me feels like there was something that just got us in the same place at the same time. We just instantly connected on multiple different levels. There was just magic in there.
Rodrigo: Funny story. I knew Joshua before, but he claimed that he didn’t remember meeting me, which he did many times, and I still give him crap for it.
What was it like to discover and form these new characters over the course of the season?
Bassett: The description of Ricky is basically me. I read it and I was like, “What? Who’s following me around and writing about my life?” The way he operates things and how he has problems with saying he loves people and all that stuff. I definitely can relate to that in my life.
Rodrigo: Nini was a character that was so similar to me already. It’s written very authentically. I actually think that the writers though, have taken some bits of my life and put it into Nini’s. If not, then they’re just like psychics and they are just good at writing and doing their job. I was on the phone with my best friend talking about how unconfident I had been feeling and she was talking to me and she said, “Oh, Olivia, you’ve never felt this way before you started dating guys.” Next week, Courtney goes [to Nini], “Oh, you wouldn’t have been this unconfident if you didn’t let guys have such a monopoly over your brain.” And now, Tim was asking me about some experiences that I had with growing up in creativity and he said that he was going to have Nini experience that in Season 2.
Josh, what do you most commune with in Ricky? And, Olivia, for you with Nini?
Bassett: He comes up with this outlandish plan to win [Nini] back and to last-minute go and audition for the musical and everything. Obviously, that can tie back to the homecoming thing. This girl that I wanted to ask to homecoming, she rejected three guys who asked her prior. I was like, “Okay. I’ve really got to go big or go home here.” So that night, I stayed up all night and I wrote the song. Then I bought her flowers. Me and my friends drove over to her house. I knocked on her door and sang the song. I just went for it. That mentality is what I definitely connected to with Ricky.
Rodrigo: Nini is very confused throughout most of the first season and I was definitely very confused filming the first season, as well. Growing up is just hard. And being a girl in the 21st century, not knowing what boys are good for you, and how to communicate your feelings, and if you’re good enough to have received all these opportunities that you have been given… I think that me and Nini are just sharing these experiences in real time, so it was really an honor to play that.
We grew up with princess movies and women who needed the man to rescue them and then we swung so far the other way with “I don’t need anyone,” so to see Nini negotiating relationships was refreshing.
Rodrigo: It’s definitely more realistic. It’s like, “Oh, I don’t need a man.” But it’s like, “Are you really going to do that?” Or is it, “I’m confident with myself and a man”? Is just like to be able to augment my amazingness?
What have you learned from inhabiting Nini?
Rodrigo: Nini handles tough situations with a lot of grace, and I think that I want to try to be more like her in that regard. She’s always kind to people and always knows what she wants and not afraid to say it. That’s a great thing to be confident in yourself that whatever life throws at you, you can handle it with love and respect.
As a musical series, you guys have experts in Tim Federle and Kate Reinders. What have you learned from working with them?
Bassett: Fun fact. Me and my siblings went to New York in I want to say 2016, maybe even 2015. We saw Something Rotten!. My sister saved the Playbill—they save all the Playbills. It turns out we saw Kate Reinders in Something Rotten! on Broadway years and years ago. Didn’t find that out until about halfway through the filming process.
Rodrigo: All of my cast members are teaching me about musical theatre. We did a press tour in New York and we all went to Dear Evan Hansen together and Jagged Little Pill. It was Matt Cornett’s—who plays E.J.—his first Broadway show and so all of us kind of got to teach him this is what happens. He was just so in awe.
Bassett: One of the really unique things about this show is it feels like we’re in a musical in the sense that we have the same kind of spirit, we’re this team effort. I think that mirrors the theatre community that you don’t often see in Hollywood. I always say Kate Reinders is the mother of the show. She is the emotional backbone for all of us because she has so much spirit in that world. [HSMTMTS] has the heart of musical theatre with the scale of a TV show.
And you guys often sing live! Was that nerve-wracking? Liberating?
Bassett: That was a thousand times more liberating. It’s funny. I booked the job and then my first session, I talked to the head of music at Disney and was like, “Are we going to sing live on the show? Because they did that for La La Land. They did a lot of live scenes and stuff, and I just think that it’d be really cool.” I was already pitching the idea. Tim is actually our biggest champion in that.
The chemistry crackles when you guys sing live—just like it did in Episode 8 during that emotional scene where we learn the origin of Nini’s name. What was it like shooting such an intimate moment?
Rodrigo: I actually have always been curious about the origin of Nini’s name and Tim had always been coy about like where it came from, but it’s one of his friend’s sister’s names, I think. This bond that Ricky and Nini have is just so sweet and loving and they’re with each other as friends forever. You know they’re friends first and they are there for each other.
What was your favorite scene to shoot in Season 1?
Bassett: My favorite scene to shoot in the show so far was in Episode 10. It was one of the best moments I’ve ever had in my acting career. It was liberating and exciting. Tim actually gave me the freedom to improvise. They kept the tape that I improvised on, so I’m expecting a writer credit. No, I’m just kidding. That scene was very special to me. I think people are going to love it.
Rodrigo: I love doing group scenes cause I get to hang out with everybody and we’re all just such a big family. There’s so much laughter and love. Filming “Born to be Brave” was amazing and all the other cast members came to watch and it was like 11 o’clock at night but they came on their day off to come watch us film this number and my best friend was in from L.A. She flew in for this number and afterwards it was 1AM and we all went to IHOP. It was one of the most magical days of filming.
What this teaches me is that it is a universal truth that after you do a musical you go to a diner.
Rodrigo: They actually make a joke about that as the last episode.
You both wrote songs for Season 1. Olivia, I came across that song that you wrote when you were six and I’m like, “She was writing songs when she was six?” Was it always second nature to you both?
Rodrigo: I have old notebooks, just chock-full lyrics that I’ve written when I was super young and you could barely read and write. I love singing and expression and emotion. It’s really cool that I get to write for the show on such a large scale. I can’t believe they let a teenager do that.
Bassett: I was constantly creating ... Most of them were just jokes and me and my sisters being goofs, but I was constantly at the piano, coming up with these dumb short snippets of things. Just allowing myself to do whatever I wanted. It didn’t matter. No one was going to hear them. I did not know what I was doing. I could fake it enough, although I still don’t know what I’m doing, by the way.
Olivia, you wrote “All I Want” on your own. Were you given the context of that song before writing it?
Rodrigo: We filmed that song as a reshoot, so we filmed all 10 episodes and then Tim came up to me and said, “I think Nini might need a song in Episode 4.” They let me do it because nobody is going Nini like I know Nini.
Do you start from lyrics? Do you start from music?
Rodrigo: It changes from song to song. Usually for me they come at the same time. I’ll find the chords that I like and then put lyrics to them and maybe a thought.
You wrote “Just for a Moment” for Episode 9 together, but I know you wrote it early on in the season before you knew where the song or the story would go. How was that, writing blind?
Rodrigo: We were just shooting in the dark a little bit and it was a strange experience. That was the first time either of us had co-written a song. I would kick out stuff on the piano and send a voice memo to Josh, and he would do the same. We finally decided on a melody that we liked, and then came together and camped out in my apartment for a day and wrote all the lyrics. He wrote his character’s lyrics, and I wrote Nini’s lyrics. We were a little bit stubborn and it was hard to work with each other sometimes. It was such a great learning experience. I’m so inspired by Josh and I learned a lot from him and I hope that he learned something from me.
What skills have you been honing in the songwriting process now, working in a professional environment?
Rodrigo: It’s definitely a whole different ballgame, writing for Disney and I’m writing knowing that the song that I write is going to be consumed by people. Writing something with that knowledge is a little bit daunting, at first, and it’s kind of hard to be vulnerable when you know that people are going to listen to it.
Bassett: I think the important thing is to just not take it too seriously. I think people put this expectation on themselves. “I need to write a hit. I need to be honest.” Just be honest and be yourself. Don’t put any expectations on the product. Everything will work out.
Looking back at season one as a whole, what is most important for you to carry in to Season 2?
Rodrigo: We filmed Season 1 in such isolation and we didn’t really know what was going to happen to the show. We knew that we felt super passionate about it. After seeing the response, I love seeing people really resonate with the themes that I find really important, like LGBTQ representation, truthful teenager stories, with people that might not look like she’s the average movie star but actually look like a real teenager that one would see at their high school.
Bassett: I think what’s really neat about this cast is that you would not believe the hidden talents that everyone in this cast has. It is mind-blowing. Every single day on set, we’ll find something out about someone. Like, “Wait. You do this, too?” So I think as Tim and the writers found that out more, I think they’re going to write more things that cater to us as actors that we can incorporate into our characters. I’m really excited to help shine the spotlight on everyone else.
As the next chapter of the High School Musical anthology and canon, what does that feeling and what do you hope the impact of it is on other kids now or other audiences in general?
Rodrigo: High School Musical and musical theatre, in general, has always been a safe haven for people who have felt like outcasts or felt weird or different. This show acts as just yet another place for people to feel they belong and for people to feel represented. I think that’s a really lovely thing and I’m really happy that we get to portray that.
A Sneak Peek at High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+
This interview has been edited and condensed from two interviews for clarity.