An Afternoon with the Stars of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES - Disneys High School Musical: The Musical: The Series stars Frankie A. Rodriguez as Carlos, Joshua Bassett as Ricky, Olivia Rodrigo as Nini, Dara ReneŽ as Kourtney, Matt Cornett as E.J., Sofia Wylie as Gina, Larry Saperstein as Big Red, Julia Lester as Ashlyn, and Kate Reinders as Miss Jenn. (Disney+/Craig Sjodin)
HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES – Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” stars Frankie A. Rodriguez as Carlos, Joshua Bassett as Ricky, Olivia Rodrigo as Nini, Dara ReneŽ as Kourtney, Matt Cornett as E.J., Sofia Wylie as Gina, Larry Saperstein as Big Red, Julia Lester as Ashlyn, and Kate Reinders as Miss Jenn. (Disney+/Craig Sjodin)
Image by Disney+ for The UCSD Guardian

Arts & Entertainment writers Natalie Tran, Marina Lee, and Deyshna Pai interview stars from the popular Disney+ series “High School Musical” The Musical: The Series” about their experiences on the show in anticipation of its Season 2 release.

It’s no secret that “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” has become a pop culture phenomenon since its premiere last year. As a mockumentary following a drama club’s reverence to the original “High School Musical” trilogy in Season 1, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” has earned success with current college students, who were elementary and middle school students during the original trilogy’s peak popularity in the late 2000s. While HSMTMTS might borrow inspiration from the original “High School Musical” series, the show takes on a distinct character that marks a shift from Disney’s past projects: the series’ queer representation, casting diversity, and equal opportunity spotlight for each of its characters allow audiences of a wide variety to find themselves in the characters onscreen, and there is much that resonates. With the premiere of HSMTMTS Season 2 on May 14, A&E had the opportunity to sit down with cast members Dara Reneé, Joe Serafini, and Frankie Rodriguez who play characters Kourtney, Seb, and Carlos on the show and interview them about their experiences as contributors on what is currently one of Disney’s most popular series as it heads into Season 2. 

The cast was excited to share their experiences working on Season 2, which picks up after their characters’ successful production of “High School Musical: The Musical.” According to Dara Reneé, she along with other cast members had a bet for which Disney musical their characters would be performing and were delighted to learn that it would be “Beauty and the Beast.” With the musical backdrop of the animated classic, fans of HSMTMTS will see their favorite high schoolers diving into a new semester of friendships, relationships, and competitions. Already, tension arises between main characters Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) and Ricky (Joshua Bassett), who rejoice in their rekindled relationship while finding themselves at odds with Nini’s decision to attend a performing arts school.

Reneé, Serafini, and Rodriguez expressed their feelings toward their characters’ arcs from Season 1 to Season 2. Throughout the process of developing their characters, each actor incorporated their own personalities to create more unique and fleshed-out characters. Their personal high school experiences, such as running theater shows, translated directly into their roles as high schoolers who feel pressured to perform well. Additionally, both Reneé’s and Serafini’s characters, Kourtney and Seb, were originally intended to have minor roles, which grew over time. To Reneé, Season 2 improved upon its development of Kourtney by giving her character an individual storyline, not relegated to the role of a “sidekick.” 

The cast also bonded over their comparisons between themselves and their characters. While they may have not been as well-dressed or popular as their fictional counterparts, the actors shared their characters’ love for all things theater.

“Carlos is a lot better dressed than I was in high school,” admitted Rodriguez, to the amusement of his castmates. But, like Carlos, Rodriguez wanted to be the student choreographer and director in high school and is also very passionate about dance. 

“At my kindergarten graduation… I wanted to be a backup dancer for Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin,” Rodriguez revealed.

Reneé felt similarly, finding both differences and common ground between her and her character Kourtney. While Reneé admitted that she was “not one of the cool kids” in high school  like Kourtney, she also loves fashion and makeup and was a part of her school’s costume crew.

Serafini also discovered himself in similar shoes as his character Seb, both with their passion for theater and musicals. However, “I was definitely not a farm boy. I mowed the lawn whenever I needed to,” Serafini laughed. 

“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” includes the portrayal of several queer characters, which is a breakthrough for both the franchise, and Disney as a whole. Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) has two moms, Ricky (Joshua Bassett) wears a “Pride” shirt from them, and Carlos (Frankie Rodriguez) and Seb (Joe Serafini) go to prom together, all in explicitly queer scenes that go beyond a mere cowardly coding of queer characters. With the positive inclusion of multiple queer characters, whose performances have earned the show a GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award for “Outstanding Kids and Family Program,” we asked Joe Serafini, who plays Seb, and Frankie Rodriguez, who plays Carlos, what it’s like being able to portray these queer characters in this new iteration of a well-known franchise. 

Rodriguez responded, “To be the representation I didn’t see as a kid, and I get to now do that for not only a new generation of kids, but adults who have reached out and said thank you for what you’re doing — it’s just so exciting and very touching.” 

Serafini then added, “Yeah, I agree completely with Frankie. It means so much to be telling these stories and I love the way that they’re handling the relationship. I feel like it’s just like any other relationship, and you know, at the end of the day, it’s just Carlos and Seb really care about each other and want to be good boyfriends to each other. It’s really sweet.” This very representation allows for an inclusivity that never feels like pandering, and provides a hopeful display of queer love for audiences of all ages.

The inviting nature of the show to both audiences new and old is largely helped by the show’s soundtrack. The show incorporates familiar tunes from the original “High School Musical” film that older viewers can recognize, but reworks them into fresh arrangements and character combinations that also provide something new. Additionally, the show includes several new songs that enhance character development and allow the cast members to display their songwriting prowess that both younger and older generations are able to vibe to. For example, Olivia Rodrigo, of “Driver’s License” fame and who plays Nini on the show, wrote original songs titled “I Think I Kinda, You Know,” and “All I Want” respectively, both of which went viral on Tiktok in addition to being well-received from the show itself. The music is able to advance plot, showcase talent, and provide a relatable portrayal of a high school musical theatre experience, all in a single series. 

During the interview, all three actors shared their lessons learned from their characters Kourtney, Carlos, and Sebastian. For Serafini, it was the importance of pursuing one’s dreams; for Reneé, it was that it’s okay to be vulnerable and to make mistakes; and for Rodriguez, it was the value of having a community. Such takeaways encapsulate what makes the show so special. After this past year, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” reminds us of the importance of our dreams, our vulnerability, and, most importantly, our friends and family. You can catch Season 2 on Disney+,  starting May 14.

Image courtesy of J-14.

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