Interview: Two Dear Evan Hansen Alums Transfer to the High School Musical Universe
Andrew Barth Feldman and Roman Banks talk about Season 2 of the Disney Plus series.
Andrew Barth Feldman and Roman Banks made beelines from high school to Broadway, both debuting in the Tony-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen – Feldman at 16 and Banks at 20. Now reunited in Season 2 of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney Plus, the two agree that – even compared with the magic of the Great White Way – there's nothing like a high school musical.
After spending Season 1 mounting a production of High School Musical, directed by quirky drama teacher Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders), Tim Federle's teen-driven series is branching off from the HSM universe with a production of Beauty and the Beast. There are new characters, new conflicts, and a new school to rival East High. And – perhaps by the mystical powers of Evan Hansen – Feldman and Banks were thrown back together to relive the glory of a scrappy show where everybody gets a part and archetypes are made to be broken.
When were each of you cast in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and how did the pandemic affect shooting?
Roman Banks: So I left Dear Evan Hansen in January 2020 and about three weeks later I was blessed enough to get this job. It was right in the nick of time. The day Disney shut down all projects worldwide was my very first day shooting. It's been a crazy journey. I'm so glad we reached the finish line. And especially getting to do it with Andrew.
Andrew Barth Feldman: I also left Dear Evan Hansen in January of 2020 and found out that I had gotten the job right after Roman did. Basically because I begged. I was just obsessed with the show, so I asked if there might be a place for me. Then I taped for this character Antoine, and I was supposed to shoot in summer of 2020 and didn't end up shooting 'till the fall. But thank goodness I got to do it.
Was there any kind of Dear Evan Hansen connection to this project or was your casting pure coincidence?
Andrew: I mean, we heisted the whole thing.
Roman: A little bit of dirty money. [laughs]
Andrew: We became so close during Dear Evan Hansen. To then be cast in this show together was the greatest gift and felt like some kind of cosmic conspiracy. So it's the best. But it really was not planned. At least to our knowledge!
Roman: It's someone's plan, I guess!
Tell me a little bit about who each of you play in Season 2 of HSMTMTS.
Roman: So I play Howie. He is known as the bespectacled, adorkable high school junior who works at Big Red's family's pizza shop called Salt Lake Slices. He's essentially this kid who's very secure in his identity. How well that meshes with other people's personalities on the show is for everyone to see. But I love Howie. He's so much of everything I consider myself to be personified. I can't wait for people to meet him.
Andrew: And I play Antoine. He's a student at North High. He's a French foreign exchange student and he's here to shake things up. He's got a little bit of a flirty streak. Maybe it'll go towards Ashlyn, maybe not, I don't know, I could be making things up. [laughs]
One thing this show did so well in Season 1 and does even more of in Season 2 is break down character archetypes – which is something high school theater is naturally great at. Necessity is the mother of invention when you have to make a whole show out of a handful of kids, and you end up finding opportunities to reimagine characters in ways you otherwise wouldn't. Do you think professional theater should take inspiration from that example?
Roman: Oh my god, yes. Preach!
Andrew: I think there's a reason why this show won the GLAAD Award in Season 1. Because it laid the foundation for it to be a show for young people that exhibits diversity that isn't seen in a lot of shows for this demographic. And what's amazing about this season is that a lot of those things that were just sort of being established can now be really said out loud and brought to the forefront. So to be a part of that, to watch that happen, and to be able to uphold that, is remarkable and is something that needs to be done in professional theater – to sort of come outside of type, whatever that means, and tell stories authentically. I went to a really small high school, so it's like what you're talking about. You cast based on who wanted to do what, who could do what, not worrying about what people looked like or even necessarily sounded like. We made it work and told the story in the best way we could with the material available to us.
Roman: Yeah, I think one thing the show does so beautifully is show theater as a home to anyone who wants to be in the theater. We all just come together. We audition together, we do a show together, and we begin to know each other and learn about different walks of life. The theater welcomes all people so all people should be welcome to the theater. This show does a good job of not only showing that but showing that as just the normal, natural thing. And I can't wait for the real world of theater to continue to adapt that and just make it the way things are, because that's the way the world works. Theater should look like the world, right?
Andrew: That was such a fun thing about doing this. It really felt like we were going back and doing high school theater.
Roman: It really did!
Andrew: We were just having fun and coming together as a family. I felt so lucky to be welcomed in.
One of the things that remains a challenge in the world of school theater is striking a gender balance. What's your advice for inspiring more young boys to get involved with musical theater?
Andrew: I really mean this – show them High School Musical. I'm not just plugging the series here. I remember in kindergarten when all the kids were hitting each other, I was like, "Hey, let's play High School Musical 2!" That was who I was. And it created so much empathy – learning how to be totally uninhibited and being authentically myself. And that's something that very much extends to this series, especially in Season 2. Expression, and how you can find yourself that way. Those movies really created something special. There are still parents who are rooted in "Boys are a certain way and girls are a certain way," which is all a bunch of nonsense words, but these movies really created a culture of anyone can be whoever they want to be. I think it should be required viewing for everyone.
Roman: I think it's also [about] showing them themselves. You know? Show them West Side Story, show them Hamilton, show them something that they can connect to. Because that's what it was for me. For the longest time I just thought musical theater was not for people like me. I was very firm in that idea until I was able to see myself onstage. I think any child of color, regardless of whether they're in the arts or not, can probably recall the very first time that they felt represented — in a song, in a music video, a show, a movie, TV show, you name it. It's just a moment where people can really reflect and go, "Ah, maybe I can do that."
Miss Jenn, played by the amazing Kate Reinders, is one of my favorite elements of the show because she represents so many inspirational teachers. Who were some of yours and how did they help guide you?
Andrew: Ms. Partee was my theater teacher in high school who submitted me for the Jimmy Awards. She is Miss Jenn in every sense. Mrs. Orlep was my middle school theater teacher. Theater teachers are the best, not to mention teachers in general. I'll give a shout-out to Mr. Ebert, my middle school science and math teacher who changed my life. I could not do 2 2 before that and suddenly I was like a year ahead in math. Teachers can really make such a huge difference.
Roman: Yeah, teachers who really just take a moment to value a student's abilities in their life. Sharon Morrow [was] my high school musical theater teacher. There was a moment, I'll never forget it, where she pulled me aside before class— because I was a class clown. I always wanted to have the joke or say a witty comment. But she pulled me aside and she was like, "You have something very special that I've seen come through this program maybe once or twice." And she had been teaching there for 20 years. And she was like, "I believe that you can do whatever you want to do when it comes to this. But you need to be disciplined. And you need to respect the educators and me." And that really changed everything for me. Because for the first time I thought, "One: This is bigger than me. And two: Someone believes in me. Someone sees more in me than I might see in myself." I think the greatest way to get through to someone is never intimidation or scare tactics. I think it's love and respect. Because then you don't want to let that person down. You're like, well shoot, if they saw it in me it must be there, so let me try to follow that and explore that. I came back to the school and told her class that I was in High School Musical before it got announced. They went crazy and she just said, "I'm so proud of you." Those five words can just be all the difference in a child's life. "I'm so proud of you."