After four seasons and the making of a superstar, the Disney+ series comes to an end. Its creator and showrunner unpacked the series and its finale.
By Ashley Spencer
This interview includes spoilers for the fourth season of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”
Tim Federle had never worked in television when he pitched Disney a somewhat bold new take on “High School Musical.”
“I knew I couldn’t promise a big flashy show, so I basically said: ‘Mockumentary — “Waiting for Guffman” style,’” said Federle, who created and oversaw “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” “All the execs laughed in the room. They’re like: ‘It’s crazy. It’s too meta.’ And I was like, ‘Is it too meta that it just might work?’”
It worked. With the arrival on Wednesday of its eight final episodes, “HSMTMTS,” as fans call it, wraps up a successful four-season run on Disney+. Federle seemed at peace with how it ended.
“Disney knows my dream was that the show would be the new ‘Degrassi,’ like 12 seasons, 100 spinoffs,” he said. But he had written the Season 4 finale to end like a series finale, just in case.
“Unless you’re ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,’ you are really lucky to go beyond three seasons,” he said. He was, he added, “reading the room.”
When the original Disney Channel movie “High School Musical” premiered in 2006, it became an outsize pop-culture phenomenon, yielding a chart-topping soundtrack, a concert tour, a stage show, an ice show, two sequel films and a merchandise empire.
After the theatrical release of “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” in 2008, Disney looked at ways to reboot the franchise on the small screen. None materialized until Federle’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” premiered in 2019. The show took a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential approach, following a new group of theater kids who go to East High, worship all things “H.S.M.” and frequently break into song.
When Federle pitched the series, he had performed on Broadway and written books, including the middle-grade novel “Better Nate Than Ever” and a cocktail recipe book. But his only Hollywood credit was co-writing the 2017 animated film “Ferdinand.”
Now, he has an overall deal with Disney Branded Television, and the once relatively unknown cast members have become stars in their own right. Julia Lester is a Tony nominee for “Into the Woods”; Joshua Bassett embarked on a solo tour; and Olivia Rodrigo, who departed “HSMTMTS” after three seasons to focus on music, is a pop superstar and multiple Grammy winner.
“When we dropped Olivia singing ‘The Start of Something New’ in that first episode, I remember a number of comments on Instagram being like: ‘She’ll never hold a candle to Vanessa Hudgens’s voice!’” Federle said. “Now, you see stuff that’s like, ‘I want Olivia Rodrigo back!’ Nostalgia happens quickly.”
The final season of “HSMTMTS” adds an extra layer to that nostalgia. As the East High students put on a production of “High School Musical 3,” a film crew arrives to shoot “High School Musical 4: The Reunion” on campus. The original “H.S.M.” cast members Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, Lucas Grabeel, Bart Johnson, KayCee Stroh and Alyson Reed all have cameos.
But the new class remains the heart of the series in its final episodes. Gina (Sofia Wylie) lands a life-changing movie role. Ashlyn (Lester) and Maddox (Saylor Bell Curda) confront their feelings. And Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) must choose between performing in a national tour of “Wicked” and keeping the school theater program alive.
Speaking from his home office in Los Angeles, Federle, who also wrote and directed the two-part finale, looked back with gratitude on wrapping the series on his own terms. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Now that the show is over, do you feel you were able to accomplish everything the way you wanted?
The only bucket list item in the history of the show that didn’t happen is Zac [Efron], Vanessa [Hudgens] and Ashley [Tisdale] being in the show.
I’m guessing you reached out to all three asking if they could do cameos?
Only every season. All of their reps were very gracious, but I could tell with schedules and other obligations, it was not going to happen. Ashley Tisdale personally called me and was like: “I want you to know two things: I love the show. And I’m literally launching a brand and I’m a new mom, and I can’t get to Salt Lake.” I was like: “I’m obsessed with you. The cast is obsessed with you. It’s enough that you called me.”
Did you consider having Olivia Rodrigo come back for the finale?
Of course. Something was going on at the time and the schedule was tough. She’s such an important part of the show, and my goodness, how lucky am I? We got a generational songwriting talent playing a fork in “Beauty and the Beast” [in Season 2].
In the finale, Ricky (played by Joshua Bassett) finally asks the offscreen mockumentary crew, “Who the [expletive] are you guys?” So, who are they?
It ended up just being a camera style. A Disney+ executive had this idea in Season 1 of, “What if we got Zac Efron to turn a camera around at the end of the season and reveal he’s been shooting this all along?” It’s a great pitch, but I was like, “I don’t think we want the vibe of like, Zac is now a documentary filmmaker who’s following these students around as they have breakups.”
Kenny Ortega has said it didn’t feel possible to address Ryan’s sexuality when he directed the original films. You confirmed the character (played by Lucas Grabeel) is gay in the Season 4 premiere. What were your discussions with Disney around making that official?
It was not asking for permission; it was more like: “Hey, you asked me to do a modern ‘High School Musical.’ I think this feels pretty modern.” And I got no pushback whatsoever. You’d be surprised by how little pushback I got over the years on anything that might be considered slightly beyond the reach of quote-unquote regular family content.
Disney is sometimes criticized for having blink-and-you’ll-miss-it queer representation, but you had multiple fully fleshed out queer relationships on this show.
I didn’t know how to tell a story about theater people without telling a story about a lot of queer people. When I was in high school, I was surrounded by queer people in play practice and also, nobody was out of the closet. I came of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Like many men of my generation, I associated my burgeoning feelings with a potential death sentence. Which is a long way of saying, what really would have helped me feel less lonely in high school is to see happy, healthy, queer relationships onscreen without a lot of drama.
There’s a scandal this season when we learn that Seb (Joe Serafini) cheated on Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez)! I was shocked.
Ultimately, I didn’t want to create a queer fantasia where nothing bad ever happens. I did have a version of the last episode in my head that was going to jump 15 years into the future, and Seb and Carlos were going to get married. Then my co-E.P. Zach [Dodes] said to me: “The show is called ‘High School Musical.’ Maybe we leave it in high school.’”
The finale left the door open for a potential spinoff. Have you had discussions about that happening?
Nothing official. These actors have an opportunity now to really stretch. I don’t think they want to stay in high school forever, and as much as I would love “Ricky and Gina: The College Years” on Hulu, it may be time for them to sing some new songs.
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