East High: the glorious film set of the iconic “High School Musical” trilogy. The bright red seats of the cafeteria are calling your name. You begin to hear “Stick to the Status Quo.” You follow the sound to the rehearsal room, where a group of theater kids is rehearsing the song. Yes, East High is putting on a production of “High School Musical.”
Thus proceeded the central plot of the first season of Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (HSMTMTS),” whose abundant name recognition among millennials and zoomers set high stakes for its production. Ultimately, the debut not only filled but outgrew the trilogy’s big shoes, and the series was renewed for a second season a month ahead of the first season’s release in November 2019.
As with many other TV shows, COVID-19 put a pause on the second season’s production, which began in February 2020 but did not resume until this past November. Still, Disney’s team of health experts and a dedicated cast managed to turn out a 12-episode sophomore season, which is set to release on May 14, 2021. On April 19, Disney held a press conference call with two of the shows’ stars, Joshua Bassett (Ricky) and Matt Cornett (E.J.), to discuss the show’s debut and promote its new season.
Both Bassett and Cornett remarked that they were initially skeptical of the show’s premise, given the towering precedent of the High School Musical Trilogy.
“When I first heard about the show, I thought, ‘That’s going to ruin High School Musical,’” Bassett said. “Then as soon as I read the script, I was like, ‘Oh, I get it — this is completely different.’”
Basset also described the pressures that come with being an actor, particularly those that have been intensified by working on a series carrying the “High School Musical” name.
“A lot of people will ask when you’re on a show like this, ‘What’s some advice? How did you get here?’ And I’m like, ‘I have no idea; I’m absolutely faking this as I go, and so is everybody else — don’t let them fool you,’” Bassett said.
Similarly to characters undergoing self-doubt and self-discovery in the series, Basset mentioned feelings of impostor syndrome when filming the conclusion of the first season. He often questioned whether he deserved his success, and one day on set discussed this pressure to live up to others’ expectations with showrunner Tim Federle. At this challenging yet monumental moment, Federle consoled him by telling him that countless actors thrive by a “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality.
Basset added that overcoming these feelings requires believing in oneself. “All it really takes is believing ‘I will figure this out, I can do this, nobody really knows what they’re doing, I’m gonna own it, and I’m just gonna go for it,’” Bassett concluded.
Indeed, the show’s mockumentary style and contemporarily based milieu surprised many fans. Yet its impressive original soundtrack and heartwarming performances from its young talent have distinguished HSMTMTS in the entertainment industry.
As Cornett describes it, “[The HSMTMTS cast] got to pay our respects to the films but also branch out and do our own thing, with our own music and our own stories.”
Not only has the cast bonded through their televisual co-creation, but Bassett and Cornett professed that the shared navigation of COVID-19 production challenges counterintuitively brought the cast closer together. Despite not being able to see each other in more casual settings off-set, their time filming in Salt Lake City had its fair share of intimate moments. Bassett and Cornett each recounted spontaneous occasions with Joe Serafini at the piano, the cast performing miscellaneous Broadway songs and — when they were lucky — someone on camera to capture the magic of it all. Bassett admitted that one recording of the cast singing Ben Platt’s “Grow As We Go” always makes him particularly emotional.
“It was such a special, beautiful moment — the cast dynamic really is just like a second family that we happen to get to do stuff on camera with,” he said. “It’s the best job in the world.”
Bassett emphasized that the actors’ passion for the material and remarkable group cohesion motivated them to make any and every effort toward a successful second season. And when it came to promoting the material premiering on May 14, neither Bassett nor Cornett had a shortage of praises.
“It’s bigger and better in every way,” Cornett raved. “Whether you have seen the first season or you haven’t, you can still enjoy the second season. There’s still something for everybody.”
Bassett affirmed the show’s relatability and expansive narration.
“Season two really is just double the everything: double the singing, double the dancing and double the drama,” he said. “We really expand the universe and go further into all these characters that everybody loved from season 1. Anyone who even remotely liked season 1 is going to be in love with season 2.”
The series has been lauded particularly for its diverse cast, including Filipina actress Olivia Rodrigo and several characters of color — Gina (Sofia Wylie), Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez) and more — who are celebrated for but not essentialized into their various racial identities, socioeconomic statuses and sexualities. HSMTMTS was even awarded the Outstanding Kids & Family Programming award at the 31st Annual GLAAD Media Awards, which “honors media for fair, accurate, and inclusive representations of LGBTQ people and issues.” Even so, its diversity efforts fall short at times. Courtney’s character perpetuates the Black sidekick trope, and the show centers on white-passing leads. While its praise and awards signal support for its diverse cast and characters, the show and Hollywood have a long way to go. Still, many viewers — especially young viewers — find solace in these genuine albeit imperfect efforts toward diversity and inclusion.
“[The writers] are normalizing a lot of things that might have been a bit taboo 10 years ago,” Bassett reflected. “It’s really special to be a part of something like that, where people can find comfort and a bit of an escape in a couple hours of entertainment.”
In the upcoming season of the show, the East High drama club is putting on a production of Beauty and the Beast as part of a statewide theater competition — a significant source of the show’s explosive drama. As rivalries and conflicts overtake them, though, the characters come to learn that their ties to each other eclipse any bad blood introduced by the competition.
“It’s just a matter of not letting shiny things blind you and hiding what really matters — and that is just having your people,” Cornett reflected.
Ultimately, the show reminds viewers of the immense value of the unique people who surround them: though the show focuses on high school students, its central themes are indiscriminately impactful. Bassett sheds light upon this panoptic insight.
“Like any art, a lot of this writing is very authentic,” he said. “As long as you’re speaking truth, even though it’s technically fiction, that universal truth resonates with people.”
Season 2 of High School Musical The Musical: The Series will be available May 14 on Disney+.