How Broadway Got the Keys to Disney Plus With High School Musical: The Musical: The Series
Show runner Tim Federle and star Kate Reinders talk about reviving one of Disney's most beloved properties with authentic Broadway spirit.
Disney is diving into the wonderful world of streaming with a reboot of the property most obsessively loved by Disney millennials: High School Musical. Maybe "reboot" isn't exactly the right term, seeing as the series creator and show runner Tim Federle insists on reassuring fans that he too considers HSM royals Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens thoroughly "irreplaceable."
A Broadway chorus boy (Billy Elliot) turned novelist (Better Nate Than Ever), librettist (Tuck Everlasting), and screenwriter (Ferdinand), Federle brings his expertise and passion for putting on a show to the new Disney Plus series, which follows a group of teens at the real East High as they put on their own production of High School Musical. Think Waiting for Guffman, but if the citizens of Blaine actually had Broadway chops.
Antithetical to most onscreen musical projects, Federle convinced the network to allow most of the show's singing to be done live. And, in a twist of theatrical karma, he also had the opportunity to cast his old friend and fellow 2003 Gypsy revival alum Kate Reinders (Something Rotten!) as East High drama teacher, Miss Jenn — a woman with some sidelined Broadway dreams and a second chance at a fulfilling career.
Both Federle and Reinders know a thing or two about the ups and downs of life onstage, as well as the life-affirming joy a high school production can bring to a group of teenagers. So it's only fitting that this second act of sorts that brought them both to Hollywood is just a big love letter to Broadway.
Tim, how did you come up with the idea for High School Musical: The Musical: The Series? Did Disney reach out to you, or did you pitch it to them?
Tim Federle: I caught wind that they were interested in developing the title. I think Disney knew that High School Musical made an impact on a generation and they wanted to reexplore it without it being a direct remake, because the originals are perfect as they are. I grew up with Waiting for Guffman and The Office, so when I went to them I was like, "What about a group of kids who are actually putting on High School Musical so that we can watch all of the hilarity and heartbreak that goes on backstage?" We shot it sort of documentary-style to differentiate us from the original movies and also to give an insight into their individual points of view. That was the pitch from the beginning, and when I see the finished product, it's nice that I still feel like we were able to hold on to that concept.
What elements of the world of musical theater do you want to make sure came across in the show?
Tim: There's a lot of media that portrays show business stories as cutthroat and competitive. And those are really fun. But I also wanted to bring the spirit of joy and release. What theater was for me when I was in high school was the one place where I really felt like I found my tribe. Over the course of 10 episodes we have some of those story lines of the scheming understudy, but I think what emerged was the story I really wanted to tell — about what happens when the mean girls set aside their differences and are ultimately there for each other.
For me, that was full circle, because I was a chorus boy in the Gypsy revival that Kate Reinders starred in. Fifteen years later to have an opportunity to give an old friend a job because she earned it fair and square was so meaningful.
Kate, what was the process of auditioning for Miss Jenn like for you?
Kate Reinders: My agent sent me an email saying, you have an audition for this new High School Musical project, and it's the character of Miss Jenn, who could be I believe it was ages 25 to 45, any ethnicity. It was one of those wide-open-she-could-be-anybody kind of things. But then as I read the description I thought, "Well, she's me." Tim told me it was his partner at the time who saw my tape first and said, "There's this girl and I like her." And then Tim of course was like, "I've known her forever!"
How do you think you and Miss Jenn are similar?
Kate: She's from a small town, she has big dreams of being an actress, she goes to New York, and she is met with ups and downs and a lot of reality. That's sort of the story of my life, and probably lots of other New York actors. But she also still has fire in her and still loves theater and is finding this new passion for teaching kids about it. That's actually something that I've kind of started to realize in the past few years too as I've worked with some younger actors. Miss Jenn loves the kids, and the more she gets to know them, the more they teach her about herself and about how she's actually found something beautiful in what at first she thought might have been a failure.
Tim: I think Miss Jenn is moving into a new phase in her life where she's figuring out her own next steps after what for her was frankly a failed career on Broadway. Kate is obviously a very different story because in her early 20s she was on Broadway right away. But it had sort of come back to me that Kate and I are basically the same age and we're moving into this period in our lives where you're figuring out what your big next move is going to be, and what statement you want to make after your dreams came true. So I was really moved, not just by the perky hilarious big Broadway voice that she brings to every project, but also the pathos and humanity and that feeling of second chances that I think you get as you grow out of being— in my case a chorus boy, in her case an ingenue.
Did either of you have a Miss Jenn in your life?
Kate: I went to a tiny Christian high school and we didn't actually have a theater department. But we did a spring musical that my choir director directed, and he was a great influence in my life. He did a couple of productions and one of them was Anything Goes. I played Reno Sweeney when I was a sophomore. I was probably about 5 feet tall and 95 pounds and had no boobs anywhere and definitely could not walk in heels. But I really sold it. I sang that "Blow Gabriel Blow." [laughs] And that's the beauty of high school theater! Nobody would ever cast me as Reno Sweeney now. But yes, I did play her, and I played her damn well.
Tim: I had a Miss Jenn in middle school. She ran this local theater arts school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and she was the first adult to say to me, "I know boys don't always dance, but I think that you've got something, and if you can put up with the kids bullying you in middle school and come to dance class after school every day, I will give you a space." I never forgot that. And she still texts me. She's gonna die when she sees the show.
Any memorable high school performances for you, Tim?
Tim: I had a remarkably impactful turn as Tootles in a high school production of Peter Pan. And then I thought I was all that because I was going down to Pittsburgh to take class with the college kids. So my second half of high school I didn't do the high school show because I was taking dance classes at night. Now I look back and think I missed out on so many fun times with peers. For me, this show is about creating an environment where I bring a group of kids together and give them the best time ever, because that was my favorite time in life. I think I've never had more fun than when I wasn't getting paid to do it.
Having the actors sing live instead of lip-synching to a track really helps give the show that sense of authenticity.
Kate: That was something that Tim felt very strongly about. I think everybody was skeptical and thought it couldn't be done. And he was just like…Yeah? Look here.
Tim: It's kind of a Broadway thing I brought to it. In episode 2, there's a duet at the piano — two young ladies sang that song like 20 takes in a row live and you feel the difference when it's not lip-synched and autotuned. I understand the tendency to want to control everything. But at the end of the day, in a sort of Tik Tok Snapchat universe where so many young people are putting their lives out there unfiltered, we just want people to see real teenagers with real acne. What's aspirational is that they're authentic. Kate: The greatest thing about this show is that it's all the different parts of things that I love in one place. So it's music, theater, TV, a little drama, a little comedy, and surrounded by a bunch of kids that are keeping me young.
Tim: For most people who are finding out about Disney Plus I say, come for Star Wars, stay for us. But I think the Broadway community might actually come for us, and that makes me really happy. Come for us, stay for Star Wars.