Season 2 of Disney Plus's popular High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is coming to a close, and, like a tale as old as time when you're putting on a production of Beauty and the Beast, the off-screen world was as rife with tension as the one on screen. Much of that off-screen tension came from the fact that they were shooting during the pre-vaccine portion of the pandemic and navigating that new world all together. But there were silver linings, namely watching leading lady Olivia Rodrigo become an internationally recognized pop star with her hit single "Driver's License" and subsequent album Sour.
Here, creator Tim Federle discusses creating this uplifting show at an uncertain time — and addresses how he came to cast not one, not two, but three former Evan Hansens in the process.
Why Beauty and the Beast as the high school musical for this season?
Well, it was the first matinee I ever saw on Broadway on my first trip to New York, and I have very fond memories of that score and the Palace Theatre and Susan Egan and Terrence Mann. I was crazy about it. Beauty and the Beast, also, metaphorically says a lot of things about the high school experience. Who loves me? Is the way I look OK? Am I trapped here? It all felt kind of right. Then I reached out to Tom Schumacher [the head of Disney Theatrical Productions], and he was like, "Yes! I'm a big fan of the show." I was just really lucky.
How did the pandemic affect production, and what is it like to shoot something with a musical component at a time when just talking to someone can get you deathly ill?
We filmed the first two episodes pre-pandemic, and then we shut down for two weeks, which became close to six months. Most of the season was shot smack dab in the middle of the pandemic, pre-vaccine, and it was really harrowing and hard, but also beautiful to come together and make something during that time. I thought about it every day. It was certainly like learning to swim by jumping into the ocean. Disney and all of the major studios have these robust protocols with masks and shields and testing, so it was like you were in the middle of a Covid ward, where on the sidelines people are wearing hospital gear. It's stressful. But we also learned that the protocols work. It proves if you wear a mask, you're not gonna get crazy sick. We were really lucky that we got through it pretty unscathed.
There were three past Evan Hansens in the cast this season — Roman Banks, Andrew Barth Feldman, and Jordan Fisher. Was that intentional?
[Laughs] Some of it was just kind of fate. Andrew Barth Feldman is such a mogul-to-be. He's just so crazy talented and smart. We have a writers room full of either totally not theater people or all-time theater geeks, and we sat around like, "Who from the Jimmy Awards could we cast?" Andrew was at the top of all of our lists, so I reached out and realized that he was a fan of the show. Roman Banks was submitted for the role of Howie, and he was just so special and idiosyncratic and different, so he earned it not because he was an Evan Hansen — I hadn't seen him — but he was such a great auditioner. And Jordan, who I had also not seen as Evan Hansen, was sort of a Disney kid growing up and had a great, wide-ranging career. He tweeted about the series and I picked up on that and went after him. It was serendipity. We're like the retirement home for Evan Hansens.
As season 2 was premiering, your leading lady, Olivia Rodrigo, became a major pop star with her album Sour. What was it like to watch her ascent?
I reflected on the fact that, a year prior, I was saying to Disney, "Trust me, let Olivia write a song." That's how fast modern media and modern pop and virality operates. Olivia was an unsigned singer-songwriter who put songs on Instagram, and then a year later she has the biggest song ["Driver's License"] and the biggest album [Sour] in the world. I was and I am so, so proud of her and I'm excited to watch her ascend the charts. Not even ascend; she lives at the top. Any producer of TV or film or theater will say this, but the reality of making something during Covid is…We were constantly trying to mitigate risk and avoid shutdowns and handle people's health in a really serious way. The "Driver's License" phenomenon was this exciting break from many months spent in a constant state of worry that people might get sick.
Do you see future seasons keeping the within-the-show productions in the Disney family, or would you want to expand out?
I hope we get future seasons. What was fun about season 2 was that it was the same but different. We were able to wink at High School Musical and expand the world. There are so many musicals that would be a blast to put on. Some of it is straight-up rights issues, like if we wanted to put up Hamilton. But Disney has some of the best music of all time and there's a lot we can explore there, for sure.