For some, High School Musical is Star Wars.
In 2006, the success of the first film, High School Musical, both as a TV movie and as a fandom-worthy phenomenon, defined the Disney Channel landscape for years. HSM inspired two sequels, a spinoff, and a whole genre of DCOM copycat musicals with titles like Camp Rock, Lemonade Mouth, and Teen Beach Movie. In 2019, the franchise has enough of an era-defining legacy that Disney placed it alongside The Mandalorian as a priority to sell the service to a skeptical audience. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series has pride of place as the only other original non-reality TV titles on the site at its launch.
The 10 episodes of the first season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series follow the students at the “real-life” version of the high school seen in High School Musical as they put on a production of High School Musical for their theater program. The show takes the form of a mockumentary, following the drama club’s production, but also dives into the cast’s teen drama. They sing the songs from the original while auditioning and rehearsing, but also perform new songs they wrote in-universe. It’s a show-within-a-show, a mix of the new and the old.
On paper, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (hereupon abbrivieated to HSMTMTS) would be tailored to current Disney Channel watchers (9- to 16-year-olds, mostly girls), just like the original, since the cast is made up of current Disney Channel stars all in their late teens. Current Disney Channel viewers are picking up on it, excitedly responding to their favorite actors being on the Disney Plus original, but like that demographic, the teen leads of HSMTMTS were also just a little too young to actually remember the original the day it premiered. While today’s Disney Channel viewers might know of High School Musical, they have their own set of original Disney Channel movies from which to choose, from Teen Beach Movie to Zombies to the Descendants trilogy.
Instead, based on the first couple of episodes provided to critics, HSMTMTS is for the 20-somethings caught in limbo between Gen Z and Millennials, anyone born roughly between 1992 and 2000 who know their culture but cultural anthropologists regularly lump into one group or the other. These are the fans who watched the original High School Musical, but who were — and this is very important — not actually in high school yet when the films came out.
HSMTMTS in unabashed in capturing the energy of a Disney Channel Original Series, with its one-liner zingers, breezy plot and stakes, and endearingly cheesy themes. But the show itself is more refined than what actual teens are watching. The camera work is better, the acting’s more nuanced than the typical kid-sitcom over-the-top performances, and the vocal performances pay homage to the original, but strike a new chord.
HSMTMTS doesn’t take place in the mid-2000s like the original movie: Instead, it’s set nebulously in a time with smartphones and social media. Though it’s probably closer to 2019 than 2009, the students’ casual use of technology speaks to that in-between generation as well.
One pivotal plot point revolves around the fractured relationship between shy theater kid Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) and too-cool-for-theater Ricky (Joshua Bassett). They were a couple last school year, until Nini told Ricky she loved him, posting a cute ukulele song on Instagram to preface her declaration in person. Uncomfortable with the serious commitment, Ricky asked to “take a break” over the summer. Ricky thinks he can just slide into Nini’s life again as the school year starts, but she met a cute new boy at theater camp — EJ, who also happens to go to their school. To win Nini back, Ricky decides he wants to audition for the lead in the school play, so he can play Troy opposite Nini playing Gabriella.
This is typical Disney high-school series hijinks, told via a mockumentary style that’s never explained, and sometimes doesn’t make sense, given the show’s flashback scenes. But logical convolutions aside, the style works for the series, giving the solid teenage cast a chance to flex their skills.
Ricky is initially set up as unworthy of Nini’s affections, but the show quickly finds some sympathy for him. Bassett makes Ricky’s hesitant reaction to Nini’s proclamation of love feel genuine, and all the more heartbreaking when it comes out that the reason he’s so reluctant to reciprocate her feelings is because of his own parents’ failing relationship. The hyperfocus on high-school relationships seems very Disney Channel, but the nuance gives this show some more substance.
The production of the musical kicks off the plot and brings the cast of the show together to be cast in the musical. Nini and Ricky are the lead characters — of the show and the musical, since they land the parts of Gabriella and Troy respectively. But like any fun Disney Channel series, HSMTMTS has a whole kooky cast of side characters: Ricky’s best friend who goes by “Big Red”; Nini’s friend Kourtney who announces she wants to “smash the patriarchy”; Ashlyn, who lands the role of Ms. Darbus, and absolutely nails a power ballad in the show’s second episode; EJ, Nini’s current boyfriend who is not only a theater kid, but the water-polo team captain; and new girl Gina, who has Sharpay’s ferocity, but Taylor’s level-headed ambition.
All these characters could easily turn into flat tropes, and certainly most of the cast seems that way in the first two episodes. But solo mockumentary confessionals for Gina and EJ in particular give them more dimension than their roles as Nini and Ricky’s obstacles imply. Gina is set up as Nini’s rival, but her determination and obvious skill make her drive to snag the lead role believable. EJ is Ricky’s romantic rival, but the dude’s just so nice and supportive that it’s easy to root for him a little, too. The other characters have moments that pull them out of comedic relief stereotypes. When Ricky confesses that his mom’s been away for months, Big Red offers to hang out and talk about it. Ashlyn accepts the role of Ms. Darbus with such gusto that she immediately becomes endearing.
The generation that watched High School Musical on when it premiered in 2006 likely grew up loving Disney Channel, and looks back on their favorite shows fondly, even after growing out of it. While the original fans of High School Musical probably have standards for shows that go beyond what’s currently on Disney Channel, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series captures a sense of what endeared Disney Channel shows to them in the first place, but overcomes tropes and clichés for a more grown-up approach. It’s still not the high-caliber adult viewing of, say, The Mandalorian, but with all the shows set in the ’80s and ’90s, the 1992-2000 demographic deserves some nostalgic fluff tailored for them.