It's the end of the school year for High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, but we're sure not ready to say goodbye to our favorite East High Wildcats. As the series awaits a season 3 pickup from Disney+, changes are afoot as Nini, Ricky, Gina, E.J. and their friends (and, in some cases, their foes) gear up for summer vacation following a roller-coaster school year.
After a successful-ish spring production of Beauty and the Beast, the crew decides the results of the Menkies aren't important after all -- that it's the connection they've built along the way that surpasses any award. With that behind them, the high schoolers have a lot resting on their futures. There's Nini, whose professional songwriting aspirations may lead her to connect with Gina's producer brother, Jamie (guest star Jordan Fisher). There's Ricky, who may be exploring... something with Lily. Then there's Gina and E.J., whose friendship blossomed into something more as they sealed it with their first (off-screen) kiss. And then there's Nini and Ricky's bittersweet finale moment, where they acknowledged their breakup and where they stand now -- as friends.
Following the finale, creator/showrunner Tim Federle breaks down all the East High cliffhangers at the end of season 2 (both romantic and not!), what they could mean for a potential third season and more.
ET: In the season 2 finale, the Wildcats decide they don't need to find out about the results of the Menkies. Will we ever find out or is that part of the story over?
Tim Federle: My initial instinct is that that story is sort of done. It could be something fun to explore in the future, like if the results of the competition somehow became -- after that -- public, that could be interesting. But I think there was real resolution in the end: "We didn't get into this because we wanted a golden medal or a trophy, we got into this because we wanted to hang out with people who accept us and love us." So I think that's the bigger takeaway at the end of the finale.
There were a lot of loose threads at the end of the season, teeing up a potential season 3 -- one of which is the possible return of Gina's older brother, music producer Jamie, played by Jordan Fisher. Gina floats the idea that Nini needs to meet him as she begins her next musical chapter. Is that the plan?
Yeah. Jordan's so easy and fun to write for. He's just such an interesting performer. Anytime you introduce a new character that's really going to have legs, you want it to impact more than one character. Even though there's a direct connection between Jamie as a music producer and some of Nini's songwriting dreams coming to the surface, I'd also really like to see how Jamie and E.J. interact, and how Jamie impacts his little sister, Gina, now that they've been away from each other for so many years and they're back in each other's lives. I definitely think new characters offer a dynamic shift, which is what's exciting about Jamie as a character. And then Jordan as an actor, he's such an incredible singer and dancer. That gives us ample opportunity to explore that if we get a season 3.
You've said that many of the characters' arcs had already been planned out well before the start of this year. But with the trajectory of Olivia Rodrigo's real-life musical career taking off, it was interesting seeing Nini's journey on the show mirroring hers in real life, obviously on a smaller scale. Did that just come as a coincidence or did her aspirations inform the direction of the character?
It's a little bit reciprocal, but I'll be honest. Olivia wrote "The Rose Song" really early in our season 2 development process and I didn't even know at the time that she had a record deal. She kept a lot of stuff private for good reason and she's a great artist who has her own kind of journey. So, it was wild the number of similarities, especially for stories that we had written months in advance. It was a little bit like, "Oh my god, art imitating life." But some of it is just similarities; some of it is Olivia likes to write songs and Nini likes to write songs, and it happens to be something both share. Actually, it's funny because in season 1 when Olivia auditioned, it was always in the pilot, even before Olivia auditioned, that Nini wrote the song for Ricky. That was always introductory for this character. So even though fairly early on I found out Olivia and Josh both wrote songs, which is why they were asked to write a song for the season 1 finale ["Just for a Moment"], Olivia was very much cast as somebody for her role. I didn't know that much about her, didn't really even know she was a songwriter. She sang a Jessie J song for her audition. I did not know she had all of this and it's an incredible parallel what happened for both her and the character.
Gina and E.J.'s relationship has gradually blossomed into something more, and in the finale, we don't see them kiss but I assume they have their first kiss. Can you confirm?
Yeah, we can definitely confirm that.
Their connection was hinted at in season 1, but what was your thought process in putting these two characters together romantically?
The actors themselves have such chemistry with each other and are such close friends, and Sofia [Wylie] contains such depth and Gina obviously pines for Ricky and has unrequited feelings for somebody who is maybe not yet ready to show it back because he's still clinging to the past with Nini. I think for E.J., who went on such a season of self-discovery when he got rejected from [Duke and later accepted] and realized, "Oh, maybe life is not going to go exactly as I planned," I think he really opened himself up to the strength and bravery that Gina has that he hasn't seen in other people. They were just really fun to write for. And I think as actors, they embraced it and it was fun to watch come together.
How will their romance be received by their friends and by family?
I think the family and friend group mostly wants to see them happy. Jamie would be really defensive and protective. And I think that there's also a reality -- E.J.'s a senior and he's going to graduate. What's going to happen next? As with so many things, just when you get it right where you want it, it changes. There's definitely a lot of stories we're hoping to tell there. I hope we get to. I hope we get a season 3.
It also appears that Ricky may have decided to take the plunge and explore something with Lily with his phone call. What direction are you planning on taking them?
Lily's super charismatic and magnetic, and there's something undeniable about her. When there's something she goes after, it's hard for her not to get it. I also think with Lily, there's always something more than meets the eye for her. So I'm not sure exactly what that phone call is yet, other than it certainly opens up intriguing new dynamics between them.
Where do Ricky and Nini stand at this point? Are they on the same page about their future apart? They have their moment in the same room where they professed their love in the season 1 finale, but under vastly different circumstances.
I actually think they are on the same page. I think they both feel differently about it. Nini has fully accepted that there's an exciting other world of possibility when you don't center yourself on a guy and I think she's actually excited about that and obviously has nostalgia for this first relationship and her best friend from her youth. But also sees real possibilities. Ricky accepts it, he's read the room. She doesn't want to hear the song he wrote, it's time to move on. I just think it takes him longer to move on because Ricky is so afraid of change. But I think they respect each other and they respect that distance. They're still really young, so depending on how many seasons we go, I don't know exactly where it all ends up, but for now, they have a mutual understanding that they've got this club, the treehouse. They're the only two people who were ever in that treehouse and they'll always have that. And it remains to be seen if that treehouse actually gets torn down.
I have to ask you about Miss Jenn because there's something going on with her and Mr. Mazzara, but also Ricky's dad is still in the picture. Is there at any point where a decision will be made on which direction she'll be going romantically?
She definitely needs to pick a major, right? She is trying out too many classes right now. In future seasons, I would love Miss Jenn to figure out what it's like to actually settle down with somebody, and it's a variation on a refrain, which is I'm keeping my fingers crossed we get to tell that story.
The finale ends with a sign-off as the kids get ready for summer. Would you set the new season in between school years?
I've always wanted to do summer stuff because I think summer is a time of letting go and not having a curfew, and the rules kind of change. But some of it practically I have to figure out, like if we're shooting again this fall in Salt Lake City, it's really hard to shoot summer in Salt Lake other than summer. So some of it's just going to end up being logistical and financial, but I definitely think there will be a summer element if we end up going forward.
Do you have ideas on the next musical if you're still keeping in line with a fall production being the centerpiece of the next season? Or are you thinking about switching up with the format?
I think the format stays similar-ish, but I would really love to shake things up with the season 3 musical if we get one. There's really exciting possibilities and opportunities for a whole new sound that I think would surprise people. So I'm holding my breath and keeping my fingers crossed.
You've been kind of dipping into the well of the Dear Evan Hansen cast with Jordan Fisher, Andrew Barth Feldman and Roman Banks. Do you have your eye on more alumni from that production?
That is so funny. If you visit Evan Hansen, there's an open-door invitation. Three Evan Hansens is a lot! And they're all so talented that it would be fun just to write for those three. I think we're probably good on Evan Hansens, but I'm a massive Ben Platt fan, so we'll have to see.
Is there anything else you want fans to know?
I think people really got what this season was about and it was really fun to tell bigger stories and give Kourtney the limelight, give Kourtney a love interest. That was really satisfying. The main thing I'd want to say is thank you for sticking with us when we were off the air for a while for obvious reasons. It's been a joy to watch people rediscover it.