Executive producer Tim Federele breaks down all the big finale moments with ET and looks ahead to the sophomore season.
Warning: Spoiler alert! Do not proceed if you have not watched the season finale of Disney+'s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
What is Nini going to do?
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series successfully pulled off its High School Musical theater production at East High (save for a few hiccups), but with the fall semester coming to an end, many of the East High Wildcats are facing massive life changes and romantic quandaries at the end of the freshman finale of the Disney+ series. Most notably, Ricky (Joshua Bassett) and Nini (Olivia Rodrigo).
So, how did season 1 end? After weeks of will they-won't they awkwardness and longing looks, coupled with a romantic detour or two, Ricky finally said the three words that have plagued him all season long, telling Nini "I love you," after the duo finished performing the school's High School Musical production together. Now a couple (hooray!), it didn't take long for Ricky and Nini's new relationship to face its first test: Nini sang and danced her way to a spot at a prestigious music school away from Salt Lake City. Will she follow her dreams, or will she follow her heart, or maybe she'll make both work? Meanwhile, Ricky's in the dark about all of this. Talk about messy.
ET hopped on the phone with executive producer and showrunner Tim Federle to get the scoop on how the ending of season one affects all the Wildcats, namely Ricky and Nini's blossoming relationship; how he's approaching the second season; whether High School Musical: The Musical: The Series will gradually move away from the High School Musical franchise; and so much more.
ET: Before we dive into the major events in the finale, since production ended before the season launched, what storyline, character or scene has produced a reaction from fans that you didn't quite expect?
Tim Federle: One thing I did not expect that I'm mostly delighted by is that we'd have rabid enough fans that they pick up on something like E.J. (Matt Cornett) texting during [episode nine] and right away there were fan theories that he's the person who flies Gina (Sofia Wylie) in, which he is. It's a reminder to me that it's such an educated media landscape these days with people who, when they fall for something, they fall super hard. I've been surprised by how carefully and closely people watch the show. I've also been really touched by and thrilled by the way the original songs sort of announced themselves and resonated with people.
I knew that the original High School Musical songs were bops, and knew that people would be excited to hear them again. What I couldn't have anticipated though is that a song like Olivia's song, "All I Want," would go viral on TikTok or that "Born to Be Brave" would become our top streaming YouTube song. It's so exciting to watch this new generation of Wildcats declare themselves and find their own audience. That also gives me the confidence moving forward to keep telling stories about them that aren't always so rooted in the High School Musical ecosystem.
You just mentioned something interesting. How are you approaching season two, now that there's the possibility for you to possibly veer off from the original High School Musical franchise and forge your own path with the show?
Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, I think the short answer is we'll always be built on the DNA of the original [franchise]. We're all at East High and ultimately, it's a musical and it stars young people, and it shares so many things in common with Glee and Grease and all of these sort of teen musicals.
For me, what I look at is the actors who we've got who are so talented and have so many levels. Somebody like Larry Saperstein, who's this surprise tap dancer; I look at him and I say, "What other shows could we do?" I feel like a high school drama teacher, where I'm looking at my kids and saying, "What would they be really good in?" And so, the way to keep telling these stories is, I think, traditionally, like all TV shows, trying to arc out their stories longer and go deeper into their backstories and their family lives and who they are in and outside of theater. And then when it comes to the hook of the show, seeing songs that you know but seeing them in new ways and hearing them in new ways. That's a fun, creative challenge to find another show for them to put on in season two -- and hopefully many seasons after.
Let's dig into where things are after the events of the finale. Nini gets the opportunity of a lifetime when she's offered a spot at the prestigious music school, but her face kind of says it all. What is going through her mind at that moment now she's faced with a choice?
Yeah. I think what's going through her mind is the same thing that goes through the mind of anybody who has ever said the phrase, "When it rains, it pours." At the very moment she has forgiven Ricky for falling apart on her all those months ago and accepted him back in her life and he's finally able to say the word "love," she's also, like you said, given this extraordinary opportunity. The first thing she's thinking is, "What am I going to do now?," which is the very question I hope the audience leaves wondering too.
The payoff for Ricky and Nini's relationship was worth the wait, when he finally said that he loves her. What helped Ricky to finally get to a place where he could be comfortable saying those three words to her?
Here's my theory, which is that it was hearing his mom say, "Sometimes people change." She has this conversation with him where he calls her out on bringing Todd, like she's the world's worst mom, but she basically says, "I think your dad would be happy for me that I'm actually happy." And that's one of those adult truths that's difficult. I think relationships are tough. And I think that Ricky and Nini are on the beginning of a lifelong journey of whether they stay together or eventually part together, learning what it means to go through the valleys and hills of a relationship. I think it was hearing his mom say a version of, "I wasn't happy with your dad, but I'm happy now" that actually made Ricky realize like, "What am I doing? I actually am happy with her and I've been trying to prove it all this time."
Though actions do speak louder than words -- maybe I take this more seriously as a writer -- but sometimes words actually do mean a lot. And these words are incredibly meaningful to Nini. She put herself out there for someone she had known since kindergarten and he messed up. I think in that moment, it's the moment of healing for both of them, and Ricky was able to be just as vulnerable as she was. And she accepted him in that moment.
So will Nini tell Ricky immediately about her offer?
That is such a good question that I can't wait for viewers of episode 2x01 to discover.
The character of E.J. has been a bit of a roller coaster all season. Sometimes he makes the worst decisions and sometimes he shows his empathetic side. And he's the one who bought Gina's plane ticket, so he has a heart. Earlier in the season, they seemed to have some sort of a connection brewing. Are you revisiting that particular pairing for season two?
It's one of the things that's interesting and exciting about working in this streaming space is that I don't feel like with any of these characters, they have to be the same character from episode to episode. I think the old TV model is kind of the Homer Simpson model, where you can tune into episode two or episode 222 of The Simpsons and you're always going to get the same Homer Simpson and there's a comfort to that. What's exciting with the type of storytelling that's happening today on all sorts of platforms is I'm able to take a character like Gina, who people very early on thought was this one-note villain, and who actually has a lot of nuance and backstory, as we all do.
And a character like E.J. who is, let's face it, this privileged white guy who is trying his best and oftentimes his best is really not even that great. He's also 17. I have to think of E.J. as somebody who takes two steps forward and one step back, the way most of us do as real-world people. So yes, to answer your question, do I see E.J. and Gina having further conversations and scenes in season two? I do just as much as I also see already-- We're turning in the sixth script of season two coming up and I already see such interesting combos all over the place, because these actors are so flexible and interesting that putting them in different pairings always leads to success.
The Ricky and Gina pairing really surprised a lot of people. It certainly surprised me. When did you get the initial thought that it'd be fun to see these two characters together?
We started the show with this traditional love triangle with Nini and these two boys [Ricky and E.J.] and I think that one of the techniques of trying to keep an audience on their toes is simply to surprise them by introducing somebody new. In this case it was Gina. To me, the real surprise of it was Sofia Wylie, and the depth and range and access she has in her life as an actor is phenomenal. When she shot that first scene with Joshua in the car outside her house at homecoming, I saw such a tenderness but also so much going on behind Sofia's eyes that made me say, "Oh my gosh, we have to keep writing. We have keep writing toward this."
Something as simple as Ricky singing her a song in episode 6 can mean so much. And that is another thing musicals give you, which is the power of song, which is so inherently emotional and can tell so many stories that the script never could. I know we've got some Rina stans out there, and I'm hoping this show has five or seven seasons so we'll see where they all end up.
It's hinted that Gina may be moving back to Salt Lake City via a "crazy" idea Ashlyn hints at in the finale. Any teases as to what that could be?
The only thing I'll say about that is it's hard for me to imagine doing season two without Sofia Wylie, so that's as much as I'll say on that topic. (Pauses for a second.) You're so good because you're so friendly and sweet and I know exactly what you're doing. You're only looking for every spoiler and I love you for it, but I can't give too much away.
I want the scoop! But I want to run through some of the other couples, like Ashlyn and Big Red. Their moment in the credits scene where he's tap-dancing and they kiss was so sweet. What are you looking to explore with them in season two?
I wanted theirs to be the final kiss of the season... And by the way, we got that in one take. We were up against the clock and it was midnight. It was one of our final nights of shooting and Julia [Lester] just improvised and threw those flowers down and made me laugh so hard but also made me choke up 'cause it was so beautiful. One of the things I'm excited about exploring with those two actors, but really with all our actors, is really expanding the show to be the ensemble dramedy-comedy that I think it was always meant to be. And again, without it being too scoopy, the story that I'm trying to tell that I don't always see on TV, are the stories of people who are inherently flawed because they're people, but who at the end of the day really tried to do the right thing.
I'm trying to portray young love as healthily as possible, but with all of the sloppiness and sadness that goes with it. For actors like Julia Lester, who is so brilliant as Ashlyn, what I love about her is -- Julia would say this herself -- she was so often cast as the super broad comic sidekick. When a character like Ashlyn gets to sing one of the best songs in the show in episode 2, the duet "Wondering," and I'm able to say to the audience, "I don't care who you are, you deserve your own love story," which is the message I believe in as a human walking this earth. I'm always excited when the type of people who have been traditionally in Hollywood sidelined to sidekick status are able to step into the spotlight as fully as they ought to in their own lives. And that goes for all of these characters who deserve their own A-stories.
And that could be said for Carlos and Seb too?
And Kourtney. Yes, absolutely.
Miss Jenn's love life is a bit of a mess right now and I'm very confused about where she is at romantically.
So is Miss Jenn.
Is she in her own love triangle with Ricky's dad and Mr. Mazarra?
Exploring Miss Jenn's romantic situation is a great headline for one of the things I'm approaching with this character in season two. I won't say anything more beyond that. I've known Kate Reinders since we were both in our early 20s and I did my first Broadway show with her and she was this super perky, bright young ingenue. As we've both grown up, approaching 40, we've grown into different people and she's a mom in real life now... At the top of the season, [Miss Jenn] came off as this one-note, chipper drama teacher, and showed depth and nuance when she meets Ricky's dad and when she sees these kids really step into the spotlight. I think you're picking up on interesting things and there's a lot more stories with Miss Jenn to tell.
Looking ahead, it's teased that there's the spring musical waiting in the wings. My question for you is, when will season two pick up? Is it going to be the spring?
Yeah... All I'll say is, with the young cast, I want to hold on to them as long as possible. So yes, storytelling-wise, we're not going to do Fargo; we're not jumping 20 years. But there's still a lot of nitty gritty for me to work out. So if I told you anything, that would be a lie. At this point, it's all still pretty flexible.
So you're not committing to Miss Jenn's tease that season two will be the spring musical?
I wrote it for a reason, but I'm not committing to it 'cause all sorts of shows pick up and pretend that they never said the thing they said.
Since High School Musical is in the show's title, are you kind of veering away from the HSM franchise for season two and beyond? Are you looking at it like season two will be High School Musical 2 and season 3 will be High School Musical 3, or are you abandoning that?
Definitely not abandoning. There are so many great songs in this entire franchise that I wouldn't be surprised if somehow we heard some of these, but in terms of expanding the universe, it's going to be hard for me to go past three seasons and all we did was High School Musical. And so I think even loosening some of the self-reference [would be nice]. There will always be the Zac [Efron] and Vanessa [Hudgens] generation. And we really tried hard, not only to not take anything away from that but rather to celebrate that moment in time. But to get to the end of the season and see the internet light up about Carlos and Seb and Ricky and Nini and Gina and Kourtney and Big Red and Ashlyn has given me the strength and confidence to truly lean into saying this is a new generation, both as an audience and as a group of actors. There's over a thousand musicals a year that get done at high schools across the country. So why shouldn't we have our pick?
No, we're not at the guest star stage at this point. I think it's always exciting to see those people pop up on screen. But at this point I'm looking so big picture for the second season that we haven't hammered that down yet.
Joshua and Olivia co-wrote a song together this season, and Olivia was able to write another original song. Are you looking at giving them more opportunities to write original songs in the new season?
The real conversation I had with them was when they got this song ["Just for a Moment"] in the show, I said, the one thing you have to promise me is that you don't become a diva in season two, where you won't leave your trailer if you have to sing somebody else's song. (Laughs.) The truth is there are so many great songs in the show... that I always have to look at the balance of workload for them. Olivia is still in school and has a lot on her plate beyond the responsibilities of possibly writing a new song. So at this point I'm not completely committed to exactly which direction that's going in, but it has been really exciting to watch "Just for a Moment" take off the way it has.
Are you looking to introduce new students at East High for the new season?
Yeah. We announced that Seb is stepping up as a series regular, so he'll be in every episode. I'm looking big picture at how we expand the show, so that definitely includes the idea of new characters. Exactly where they'll land or who they'll be is still in clay phase. But yeah, generally speaking in second seasons of shows, there are new faces and people to meet, so hopefully we'll get some of that in our show too.
To see original High School Musical cast member Corbin Bleu interview the cast for ET, watch the video below.
The entire first season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is streaming now on Disney+.
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