If you managed to avoid the then-unprecedented mania ushered in by the Disney Channel’s 2006 juggernaut High School Musical, allow us to summarize. Starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, the made-for-TV musical hit follows a reckless young athlete who tears East High School’s delicate ecosystem asunder by daring to possess—cue thunder—additional hobbies. The story of a self-identified jock struggling to choose between his basketball team and his budding interest in musical theater (and, by extension, his brilliant girlfriend) was fairly dated even for its time. However, it spawned one of the most successful franchises in Disney’s history, generating three films, a historic (and enjoyable) theatrical release, international remakes, a spin-off, and a stage play. So when Disney announced plans to enter the streaming platform thunderdome, it wasn’t a matter of if the conglomerate would tap into one of its most successful properties for new content, but when and how.
Still, veteran fans tuning in to reacquaint themselves with the East High Wildcats in this age of reboots will instead meet the East High Leopards and threads of the Disney Channel Original Movie they once knew. Tim Federle’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is a meta reimagining that recognizes the incontestable impact of its source material while pivoting in a way that improves upon it for today’s audience. While the more prominent arc isn’t exactly revolutionary, this newest installment shows early signs of its ability to root itself in something a little deeper. And though the clunky title can feel like an act of aggression, damn, these kids are talented.
This mellifluous effort comes with a more self-aware spin: HSM: TM: TS centers on a fictionalized version of the very real East High School in Salt Lake City, where a majority of the franchise was shot. Jenn (Broadway alum Kate Reinders) arrives at EHS as a determined drama teacher and former HSM background cast member, equipped with a reverent mission to bring the stage production to the holy place where it all began. The series turns to Disney’s existing bench of young stars for its cast, with Bizaardvark’s Olivia Rodrigo, Stuck In The Middle’s Joshua Bassett, and Andi Mack’s Sofia Wylie playing a new generation of playbill hopefuls. Fresh from theater camp, Nini (Rodrigo) hopes to leave her well-worn place in the chorus and step into her own spotlight by auditioning for the leading role of Gabriella. In addition to a wave of ambition, Nini also returns with a new boyfriend, EJ (Matt Cornett), who appears to be just fine navigating high school as an athlete who openly loves performing. Imagine!
Their new relationship is contested by Nini’s ex, Ricky (Bassett), who insisted on “taking a break” for the summer. On one hand, immediately leaping into an unearned love triangle in a show’s nascency feels uninspired and unfairly prioritizes what is likely the least interesting aspect of Nini’s life. On the other hand, the inclusion of behind-the-curtains relationship drama is probably one of the most relatable tributes one could pay to the theater scene for many who were shaped by it. It also gives Rodrigo and Bassett chances to flex their handling of dramatic material, which is as praiseworthy as their music ability.
And they’re not alone: In the second episode, fellow castmate and EJ’s cousin, Ashlyn (Julia Lester) leads an emotional duet between herself and Nini that encapsulates what makes good musical theater so all-consuming. It’s an intimate moment that exudes vulnerability and—perhaps not as crucial but still noteworthy—very strong vocals from both actresses, and if this is just a hint of what’s to come, the audience is in for something special. Sofia Wylie is also granted the space to show off her proficiency in dance as Gina, the cunning-but-not-altogether-evil transfer student who has only known stardom. (And while we hope this doesn’t spoil much: For someone who expressly has little familiarity with the view from upstage, Gina exists visibly and unobtrusively in the background as the show’s most observant character. If that’s an intentional move by Federle, then that’s clever.)
Though any potential early comparisons to Glee would be understandable, music seems to be less of a vehicle for abstract concepts here and more of a literal element of the production it chronicles. Its documentary-style delivery makes it more reminiscent of Park And Recreation, from the fictionalized ambitions of this ensemble to confessional-like asides that give each person an authentic chance to show what they have to offer. It grounds High School Musical—originally highly dramatic by design—with moments that don’t require an abiding love of musicals to appreciate. More importantly, it manages to do this while paying great respect to the story that inspired it. Thus far, it still occasionally falls prey to certain fatigued tropes; for instance, is there really a pressing need to pit The Arts and S.T.E.M. against one another in 2019, even if Reinders and Mark St. Cyr are thoroughly watchable as opposing forces? But what Federle and HSM: TM: TS deliver outweighs the show’s potential hang-ups: a fresh take on an old favorite that genuinely wants to give its young audience the smart, fun content it deserves.