Created by Tim Federle, the 10-episode scripted musical series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (available to stream at Disney+) is an updated twist on the classic Disney Channel 2006 film, as it follows a group of students who are counting down the days until they get to perform in their school’s first-ever production of High School Musical: The Musical. With the spotlight on romances, friendships, and rivalries, the series is shot with hand-held cameras to provide a documentary-style feel, and there will be new songs in every episode, along with reimagined versions of favorites from the original movies.
During this interview with Collider, co-stars Olivia Rodrigo (“Nini”), Joshua Bassett (“Ricky”), Larry Saperstein (“Big Red”) and Dara Reneé (“Kourtney”) talked about their audition process for the series, the experience of working with each other once they were cast, doing the big song-and-dance numbers, the excitement of getting to do new songs, becoming a part of the Disney family, what they’re looking forward to watching on Disney+, their love for the Disney theme parks, and some of the crazy mishaps that have happened on the show.
Collider: How did each of you guys come to this? What was that process like?
JOSHUA BASSETT: I just got a regular audition from my agent and I went in. They had me playing guitar and do this scene. And then, they had me go in for a producer session. And then, there was just one more session, in front of all of the Disney executives. They had me sing an original song, which was cool, and then, I did the scenes. Then, I got the call, a week and a half later.
OLIVIA RODRIGO: Originally, when I got the call for High School Musical, I was a little bit apprehensive. It’s such a big franchise and legacy that it’s a lot of pressure. But after reading the script and talking with (showrunner) Tim [Federle], I realized how new and different it was, while still paying respect to the old movies, so I loved that, right off the bat. I went in and I read with Joshua, and we pulled together a little song. We sang “Count on Me,” by Bruno Mars, really quickly.
BASSETT: We had two minutes to figure it out. I stole a guitar from another girl auditioning for Nini, we figured out the harmonies, and then just went in the room and did it.
RODRIGO: The audition was really magical. And then, I got the call about a week later. It was a great audition.
LARRY SAPERSTEIN: I was in New York, ‘cause that’s where I live, and I went in for a regular audition. And then, the next day, I went down to Florida to visit my grandparents, and I was supposed to be there for four days. I was there for a day, and they called and were like, “Is there any way that you can be back in New York tomorrow for a call back?” And I was like, “Okay.” So, I found a really cheap flight and said, “If I get this, it’ll be worth it.” And so, I flew back for my callback and, a week later, I was in L.A., for the first time ever, screen testing with Josh. And then, a week later, I was called and they said that I got it. I was actually the last series regular cast in the show. It was a week before it started. I was cast on a Saturday, and I had to be back in L.A. on Tuesday, to do the first table read. It was crazy.
DARA RENEE: I auditioned for every other role, except for my own. They were like, “We don’t know what’s really popping for her.” They made me read Kourtney, who was only supposed to be in one episode, but I put a little twist on it and they were like, “You know what? You might be a series regular.
RODRIGO: She’s being humble. She was so amazing that they had to put her in every episode.
RENEE: I’m still shaking.
What was it like for you guys to actually just start working with each other?
RODRIGO: It’s absolutely insane. We get along so well. It’s crazy! We’ve had virtually no arguments, and no drama has gone on, on set. We spent six months in Salt Lake City, Utah together, filming the first season, and I think that was one of the greatest things that could have happened for our bonding.
BASSETT: We got there a few weeks before we started filming, and for two weeks straight, we were in a conference room together. They pulled us for fittings and whatnot, but we were just in a conference room, playing games for two weeks. By the time we got out of there, I knew them better than I knew myself.
SAPERSTEIN: They just really wanted us to bond, and I think it was such a good idea to have them do that. Now, we’re all the best of friends. We’re so close. We really do love each other so much, and it’s awesome.
RENEE: And I feel like we all have different personalities, so it just meshes perfectly ‘cause no one’s the same.
BASSETT: And we’re very supportive of each other and genuinely happy for each other. Every time we get a script, we’re like, “Oh, my god, it’s so great that you got a solo in this episode. It’s gonna be awesome!” With the dances, we were very supportive. We’d show up to watch each other film. We just genuinely love each other, and that’s something remarkable about this show.
SAPERSTEIN: We love each other.
What’s it like to do these big song-and-dance numbers?
RODRIGO: It’s a little bit daunting, especially for me, coming into this. I was not a dancer, but in the show, we have to put on these elaborate dancing, singing musical routines, which are actually one of my favorite things about the show. Somebody said that the show is like Glee mixed with The Office, which I love. I think the musical numbers really add so much charm to the series. They’re totally worth all of the hard work that we put into them.
SAPERSTEIN: Not to mention most of the musical numbers are in these iconic locations in the high school. The day that I walked into the cafeteria, for the first time, I was like, “Oh, my god, we’re here and we’re doing High School Musical.” So, when we do these musical numbers, it’s really great because we get to pay so much respect to the original movies while still making it our own new, fresh series.
RENEE: Also, this show is filled with a bunch of bops. We’re just bopping to some cool songs, which I’m really down for. I’m really excited that they sound really, really good.
BASSETT: I listen to our songs for the series, all the time, in my car. We all have them on a file, and I’ll just listen to them. They’re always stuck in my head. I love the old songs, but the new songs are just fantastic.
Is it scarier to do new versions of the old songs, or to do the brand new material?
BASSETT: It’s all exciting. I think scary isn’t the right word because we’re not trying to recreate the original songs. The way we do it is so meta and so self aware that we’re singing a song in rehearsal, or we’re singing it in other ways. We’re not trying to remake it because there’s no way of doing that, so we have our own thing. And then, the new songs are so exciting because we get to set the groundwork. We’re the ones who get to create it, which is insane.
RODRIGO: Yeah, it’s exciting. I always used to listen to Bop to the Top, on the way to school in the car with my mom, and it’s so exciting to think that maybe kids will be listening to our original songs that are in the show, and have that as a part of their upbringing. That’s really an honor.
SAPERSTEIN: With everything we do in the show, we pay so much respect to the original movies. Us, as actors, are fans of the original movies, but also our characters are fans of the original movies. It’s so exciting to be able to show that, and be a part of the fan base, in a way. It’s really cool. I think people will find that really relatable.
RENEE: It’s super fun to even be in the place where the original songs were films. Hearing it and walking through the cafeteria is mind boggling, and I’m just so grateful to be here.
Are there family and friends in your lives that have completely freaked out that you’re a part of this show?
RENEE: Oh, yes! My family, all 100 of them, in Baltimore and Detroit, are all rooting for me. They’re like, “Get it girl!” I’m really excited and like, “Hey, for $6.99, you can go buy Disney+.”
RODRIGO: All of my family and friends have been really supportive. Some them visited us in Utah, and it’s a nice supportive community. When you add that to the supportive community that we have on set, it’s really a family like nothing else.
You’re a part of the Disney family now and you’re on this new streaming service, Disney+. Are you looking forward to what you’ll be able to watch?
BASSETT: I’m looking forward to watching all of the Marvel movies, in order. And I’ve never seen Star Wars, so I’m excited to finally get to see that.
SAPERSTEIN: I’m like, “Oh, my god, we’re on this service with Anna Kendrick and Tony Hale, and all of these incredible people that I grew up watching, or I grew up being a fan of. Now, all of a sudden, I’m on the same platform as them. It’s just a dream come true.”
RENEE: I can’t wait to see Lady and the Tramp, with Janelle Monáe. That’s my mother, she just doesn’t know it yet.
Are you guys also fans of the Disney theme parks?
BASSETT: That was vital, in my childhood. That was a staple. My whole family would go. We’ save up to hopefully be able to stay at the hotels, and go for six days, at a time. Every year, we’d get annual passes. Disney was huge. That was like my childhood, basically.
RODRIGO: The entire company is just so filled with nostalgia, and we’re no exception to that. You watch the Disney Channel and you go to the Disney Parks, and you’re just overwhelmed by that feeling of welcoming. You reminisce about your childhood, and it’s a great experience. It’s cool to be part of that experience for people.
RENEE: I remember always going to Disneyland with my friends because we had somebody that worked there, so we could get discount tickets. We’d see the fireworks and go on roller coasters. Being able to work for a company that’s changed so many lives and has affected so many childhoods is truly amazing.
SAPERSTEIN: They’ve loved and supported us so much, since the beginning. I can’t be more grateful that Disney is such an amazing company with amazing people. It’s honestly a dream come true.
One of the challenges of this show, on the production side, is making sure everyone stays healthy and uninjured. Have there been any crazy mishaps?
RENEE: Yeah, we do have our occasional falls, a.k.a me. Not on purpose, though. We were doing one of our iconic numbers, which is mad good, and my knee said, “Oh, girl, you can’t do that move!,” and popped out of place. I popped it back in and was like, “I’m fine. I can dance again.” But Disney was like, “Girl, sit down.”
RODRIGO: For my first audition, I had Mono, too. So, I went in with Mono and they were like, “We couldn’t really tell if you wanted to be there, but it made us want you more.” So, it worked out for me. I was tired, and I guess it helps me get the part.
BASSETT: When Dara twisted her knee, it was the day before we shot one of our original numbers.
SAPERSTEIN: They didn’t know what they were ultimately gonna do, and I actually wasn’t originally slated to be in that number. They had me learn the number in about an hour, and I shot it the next day.
RODRIGO: It took us three days to learn, and he learned it in an hour.
SAPERSTEIN: But, Dara still has her moment.
RENEE: Yeah, I’m in the background. You’ll see me. I’m standing up with one of my legs on a chair. I was like, “I’m not even clumsy. What the heck?!” And it was in front of a hundred people.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is available to stream at Disney+.