With High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, writer-creator Tim Federle knew he didn’t want to stick to the status quo. With his Broadway past (as a performer in shows like Gypsy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Little Mermaid, and Billy Elliot, and the co-book writer of Tuck Everlasting) and his YA book series (as the author of Better Nate Than Never, Nate Expectations), Federle wanted to fuse his love for theatre and young audiences in a fresh and edgy way for his first foray into television. No remake of the original. No patronizing allowed.
Federle had just missed the boat on the High School Musical generation. “I was the generation that grew up with Grease and Footloose and Little Shop of Horrors,” he says. But that’s doesn’t mean his love for HSM is any less than the kids who were obsessed with the Disney Channel Original Movie. “At the time I appreciated anything that made musicals seem 10 percent cooler to the general population.” And Federle hopes High School Musical: The Musical: The Series will do the same when it drops November 12 on Disney+.
The series follows the students of East High—the “real” East High—as a new drama teacher, Miss Jenn (played by Broadway’s Kate Reinders), realizes that the students who go to school where HSM was set have never put on a production of the stage musical adaptation of the Disney movie. The show is structured as a docu-style show about the kids of East High making the musical. (Yes, it’s meta. And yes it’s amazing.) “We didn’t want to try to capture lightning in a bottle twice,” says Federle. “It was really more about paying tribute to the original.”
Audiences get all the original HSM numbers—we are, in fact, all in this together—as well as original songs for characters like Miss Jenn and the cast of East High students going through all the backstage relationship drama, rehearsal struggles, and more that come with putting on a show.
Here, we spoke with Federle and Reinders (Something Rotten!, Wicked), about their experience creating and filming Season 1 and the start of something new.
Do you guys have a personal connection to High School Musical?
Kate Reinders: When I was in Wicked on Broadway, they were turning the movie into the stage version. We did a couple workshops. I was Sharpay by day and Glinda by night. I was living my dreams.
Tim Federle: I’m startled by this revelation. I had no idea.
The concept is brilliant and hilarious. Was this mockumentary take something Disney brought to you or you brought to Disney?
Federle: They were looking for a fresh take and I went in about a year-and-a-half ago and I had just binged American Vandal on Netflix. I loved that kind of docu-style, and I grew up with Christopher Guest. Waiting for Guffman is my all-time favorite movie. Right from the beginning [our show] was docu-style about a group of kids putting on High School Musical. They let me keep it as wild and irreverent as I’d hoped for.
I also love that it gives us the excuse to have all of the same sets.
Federle: Isn’t that wild? We have real teenagers and minors in the show [and] they really were starstruck by East High because they grew up with it. The question I get asked a lot is, “Do you worry that younger kids won’t know it?” And what shocked us is how many people still know High School Musical. It’s so a part of the soundtrack of America.
And yet this is the first time it’s a series. How different is it writing for the stage versus books versus television?
Federle: TV is super visual. Like Kate plays opposite Frankie Rodriguez, who plays Carlos, and a lot of the comedy in that pairing is just Frankie reacting to these things Kate says. On stage it's also visual, but it's about listening. There's a reason why you can have three people on Broadway do a play, and it's because of the text and the language. With books, you're sort of creating [a world]. You're the hair designer, and the makeup designer, and the casting director—you're everything. But what it lacks is that kind of immediate emotional connection that only music has.
Sounds like you’re loving TV.
Federle: TV has so far been the most exciting one to work in, because you get to tell so many different stories with 10 episodes. A lot of the characters that early viewers of the series will see and think, "OK, that's a side character," if they stick with the series long enough, they'll see Kate gets her own song, and people who are more traditionally sidekicks get their own songs. It's so exciting to write for TV, because you get to work on the fly. If you're supposed to shoot outside, but it's snowing in Salt Lake City, you're rewriting a scene to take place in the staircase. And so you're kind of firing on all cylinders. Then the reason I wanted to hire real theatre actors, like Kate, is because there's just no ego. It's like, "Just tell us what it is and we'll do it." And that's been the dream.
Does it feel different to work on a set surrounded by theatre talent?
Reinders: [I’m actually with] amazing up-and-coming theatre kids and I want to tell them, "This isn't real life. This is way more magical than the real world." And then I was like, "But Tim, this is their lives." Tim is really the difference that I've noticed. He is equal with everyone. He's a leader who is friends with everyone, and he wants everyone to shine. And he brings out the best in everyone.
You two are the Broadway professionals in the room. How does that affect your creative team and the kids in the room?
Federle: They were really starstruck by Kate, that she had played Glinda. That’s a real thing.
Reinders: One of our kids, Alexis Nelis [who plays Natalie], the first day she said, “Oh my gosh, I saw you on Broadway as Glinda when I was six!” And I was like, “Ouch.” But it’s not that I’m old Broadway; it’s more the responsibility I feel as being the mom on set and wanting to show them work ethic and support of their fellow actors and respect for everyone involved. I think that’s something you really learn in theatre. You learn that everyone backstage, everyone ripping your clothes off and putting them back on again—everyone is so important.
Federle: And you hang up your own costumes. I’m new to TV, so I only know this by rumor, but I think the TV world can feel sort of disposable. People are in and out. When you come from theatre, like Kate said, our natural inclination is to learn the names of the stagehands because you’re standing in the wings—if the show’s a hit—you’re hanging out with them for a year. Of course you’re going to ask about their kids! I felt it was my responsibility to know the on-set PA—who, also, in two years is going to be the first AD—you treat them with just as much respect as you treat the driver, as you treat the star of the show. One of the reasons I wanted to hire Kate, who gave a brilliant audition, was because I knew she would show up to set and know every line and have that kind of Broadway work ethic that I wanted the younger people in the cast to pick up on.
In what ways do you communicate the aura of the community not just to your cast but to viewers?
Federle: I really wanted to make something that felt more true to theatre than a lot of Hollywood stuff is. I watched every episode of Smash and loved it. There’s a place for that kind of programming that’s so larger-than-life. But as a real “theatre person,” being able to watch these people go through 10 episodes on the countdown to opening night with a tech rehearsal, a teacher who’s using proper terms like Stage Right and Stage Left, was important to me because I think theatre teachers have saved countless lives out there. My own theatre teacher texted me last week. If you are someone who has been fortunate enough to have a teacher see something in you that’s worth celebrating, even if it’s what other people pick on you for, you don’t forget that.
How else have your Broadway experiences influenced the show?
Federle: The Broadway influence on the show is ultimately that I knew that really talented singers who could really sing live can do something that touches an audience that autotune can’t. From Kate Reinders to our youngest cast members, they sing the songs live.
Kate, your character is much more realistic as a portrayal of a drama teacher than the overly formal Shakespearean-style Ms. Darbus parody. Tell me about crafting someone more grounded for this series.
Reinders: It’s on the page. I know Tim, so I can hear his voice in hers and I like to think I know what he means.
Federle: Kate’s also modest that, you know, she’s a super talent who can find a joke where others can’t. In Episode 3, Kate has this moment where she defends the students from a teacher who sees the arts as unimportant. I remember going up to Kate on set—because we did Gypsy together, the Bernadette Gypsy—and just saying, “Kate, you’re killing it. Give me the Sam Mendes take now.” And Kate was like, “Oh, you want the one that’s ugly? You want the one that goes to a really emotional place?” It’s like we had 10 versions of Miss Jenn.
What was the pinnacle of your own high school musical experience?
Federle: My first and last pinnacle was: I played Toodles in my Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, production of Peter Pan. And then I was never in another high school musical.
Reinders: My pinnacle was when I played Reno Sweeney at maybe 4-foot-10, maybe 90 pounds, I couldn’t walk in heels, nary a breast…. But I’ve actually seen the VHS tape of it and I seem be living the dream [knowing I] could never do this in the real world. No one would ever cast me as Reno Sweeney—and they would be quite right, but I was damn good in high school.
Federle: That’s the miracle.