Disney+'s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, set to debut its fourth and final season August 9, has always been unusually meta. Rather than continue with the plot and story of the original Disney Channel film trilogy, series creator and Broadway alum Tim Federle had a, perhaps, unlikely idea: a series set at the actual school where the original High School Musical movies were filmed that follows fictional "real" students as they mount their own production of High School Musical's stage adaptation.
Granted, it's hard to explain. But none of that mattered once the show premiered in 2019. Federle created a series that was able to both honor and lovingly drag the original franchise, all while putting his own spin on the uniquely hilarious world of high school theatre. As anyone who has been in one can attest, there is maybe no place where the stakes are higher than when mounting a high school musical.
"I always thought Waiting for Guffman was the model," said Federle, talking to us just days before the SAG-AFTRA strike began, as did all the actors who spoke with us for this piece. (Waiting for Guffman is, of course, director Christopher Guest's seminal cult-favorite, mockumentary-style film about a small Missouri town mounting an original musical that they spuriously believe might just be Broadway bound.) "There's something really funny about people putting on a show, because it feels so high stakes when it's you. And it's actually just a show."
And, Federle knows this first hand. Being a big-time TV writer is at least his fourth career, following performances on Broadway in the ensembles of Gypsy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Little Mermaid, and Billy Elliot: The Musical; becoming a young adult novel writer, most famously of his Nate series; and writing the book to Broadway's 2016 musical Tuck Everlasting. Federle is a true theatre kid, and when he was assembling the team for his take on the High School Musical franchise, he looked for the same.
"The ethos for the show was always, always 'bet on the underdogs—and always bet on theatre kids,'" says Federle. "So many of my heroes in the world come from the world of theatre. Theatre people are the best people. We 'smile when we are low.' Theatre teaches you how to show up for your scene partner and perform even if you're in a bad mood." That ethos led to the show becoming somewhat of a talent incubator. What began as a cast of relative unknown young actors in 2019 is, as of 2023, a group that counts international pop star sensations Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett and Tony-nominated Broadway Into the Woods star Julia Lester among its ranks. "These were all kids who grew up doing theatre, and I think that that really paid off in the show because they brought not just that talent, but also that work ethic. Now we're chasing them around the world as they are nominated for and winning things and going on world tours," Federle shares proudly.
Julia Lester, poised to follow up her stage successes in Broadway's Into the Woods and Center Theatre Group's The Secret Garden with an Off-Broadway turn in a revival of I Can Get it For You Wholesale, naturally agrees. "I think the show from day one has been sort of set up to be this very authentic look into real theatre kids lives," she says. "I think just from day one, getting to be a part of this, and being a real theatre kid brought something to the show that I think sort of gave it its magic."
Federle has insured that this take on High School Musical is fully authentic to the theatre kid experience, which in 2023 means the show features several openly queer characters. In 2019, that seemed like a natural choice and easy to celebrate. In the political climate of 2023, it has become a brave, bold, and vital choice. Queer people and queer stories are the newest punching bag at schools across the nation, but the kids at High School Musical's East High are learning the importance of living their truth—and of finding and cultivating safe spaces. As many queer kids know, the drama club is often one of the better examples of that.
"I love the way our show has handled the queer storylines," says Frankie A. Rodriguez, who plays Carlos—one of East High's queer students—on the series. "It's all about we champion you for being who you are, and we encourage it. It's amazing to have not had that growing up and now literally be it. It's been very special." And it's not just the "real" kids of East High. In Federle's vision of the High School Musical franchise, the very queer coded but ultimately closeted Ryan from the original film series, played by Lucas Grabeel, has become officially queer, kissing his male partner on screen in the season's opening moments.
See Rodriguez as Carlos sharing a love duet with his boyfriend Seb (Joe Serafini) from an upcoming episode below:
"I hope those audience members who are questioning or discovering or hiding understand that there's always room for them at the table of theatre kids—whether they literally join theatre or not," Federle says. "The lesson of this show is if you can find one mentor to take your hand and say I see you, you're no longer alone, and the world needs you—you're going to find your people."
Speaking of Lucas Grabeel's return to the series, the show's fourth and final season is leaning even more into the meta spirit in which it was created. The eight episodes track the "real" kids of East High as they mount a production of High School Musical 3: Senior Year while a [sadly fictional for now] High School Musical 4 reunion movie is being filmed on campus. That last bit gave the series the perfect opportunity to bring in some exciting cameos from the High School Musical OGs, including Grabeel, Broadway favorite Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, Bart Johnson, and Kaycee Stroh.
But there's another High School Musical cameo that will—or at least should—be the most important to Playbill readers: Alyson Reed. Perhaps best known as the cell phone-hating, eccentric East High drama teacher Ms. Darbus, Reed is bonafide Broadway royalty from a generation or two ago. She made her Broadway debut in the original run of Bob Fosse's Dancin' and went on to appear in a string of Broadway shows. She starred as Marilyn Monroe in the short-lived 1983 non-Smash Monroe biomusical Marilyn, and Sally Bowles in the first Broadway revival of Cabaret, sharing the stage with Joel Grey as he reprised his Tony- and Oscar-winning performance as The Emcee. Reed also played Cassie on the national tour of A Chorus Line, and when the 1985 film adaptation rolled around, she was tapped to bring her performance to the screen.
High School Musical's young fans might not be as aware of Reed's pre-Ms. Darbus pedigree, but with true Broadway fan Federle in charge, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is, of course, making sure to change that. "When she was on set with the kids, they, of course, know her as as Ms. Darbus, but I sat them in a circle and I was like, 'We're going to pull up YouTube, and you are going to watch her do "Let Me Dance for You" [Cassie's big number in the Chorus Line film].' We watched her performance, and they were gagged." In Federle's High School Musical universe, Reed has taken her rightful spot as the franchise's biggest star and the most pivotal character of the High School Musical 4 reunion film.
"When she looks you in the eyes, you get chills," says Rodriguez of his scenes with Reed. "She should wear a crown 24/7. People should kiss her feet," adds Lester.
Federle has educated the children.