SEASON REVIEW: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (Disney+, 2019)

I’ve been a Wildcat since 2006. High School Musical was a national event in my house. I went to the High School Musical on Stage! show in my Limited Too outfit. I saw High School Musical 3: Senior Year in theaters on opening day. And I cried when Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens ended their real-life relationship. #RIPZanessa.

When High School Musical: The Musical: The Series was announced I was a little bit skeptical. It wasn’t my High School Musical and none of the original creators were tied to the series. Then, I attended the D23 Expo in Anaheim, California in 2019 and got to see the cast perform and introduce us to their characters. I’m not gonna lie, hearing “We’re All In This Together” made tear up but I was still skeptical.

I mean how on earth could a show called High School Musical: The Musical: The Series be any good if they couldn’t have even come up with a creative title? Well, let me tell you, I was wrong. Not about the lame name (I’m still not a fan of that) but the show quickly became a must-see for me.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series was created by Tim Federle and airs on Disney+. HSMTMTS, as fans have abbreviated it, follows a group of East High drama kids as they put on a production of High School Musical, chosen by East High’s new drama teacher. The show is a mockumentary and juggles the teenagers’ lives outside of school with the crazy world of high school theater. It features a mix of High School Musical songs and original songs written for the series.

The show features Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett who play Nini and Ricky our new leading couple. Along with them are our “wonderstudies” Matt Cornett who plays E.J. and Sofia Wylie who plays Gina. Larry Saperstein (Big Red), Julia Lester (Ashlyn), Dara Reneé (Kourtney), and Frankie Rodriguez (Carlos) round out our main high school cast. Of course, a show set in high school needs some teachers. That’s where Kate Reinders who portrays Miss Jenn, the new East High drama teacher and former background dancer in the original High School Musical and Mark St. Cyr who plays Mr. Benjamin Mazzara, the STEM teacher who is anti Arts come in.

Now that the series has officially aired its final episode for the season, it’s time for my review.

As always, spoilers are ahead. You’ve been warned.


Favorite Episode: 1×08 – “The Tech Rehearsal”

Image Source: Disney+/Fred Hayes

Picking my favorite episode proved to be insanely difficult but after much deliberation, I decided that “The Tech Rehearsal” is my favorite episode.

“The Tech Rehearsal” centers around the tech rehearsal, obviously. The cast shows up to the East High theater for tech rehearsal only to find that their beloved theater has been set on fire and deemed unsafe by the fire department. As the popular saying goes, “the show must go on!” Thanks to Carlos’s uncle they are able to move the production to the abandoned El Ray theater downtown, much to Miss Jenn’s dismay.

Once they arrive at the theater disasters continue to strike. E.J. gets his hands on Miss Jenn’s audition notes and discovers that he didn’t get the part of Troy Bolton because he has difficulty connecting to the material. Nini and Ricky are banished to the attic of the theater to rehearse a scene but end up reminiscing about their friendship. And the crew scrambles to get the theater for their production. Oh yeah, and Lucas Gabreel (aka Ryan Evans) guest stars during Miss Jenn’s dream.

So, yeah, a lot is going on in this episode.

The reason why it’s my favorite is because of the dialogue and the connections the characters have with each other.

I’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit that I am a 23-year-old who squealed in delight watching Big Red and Ashlyn flirt with each other. Their one-liners were honestly the cutest thing ever. Hallmark movie-level cheesy? Yes. But, oh so amazing regardless.

Another reason I love this episode is the scene with Nini and Ricky when they realize unlike their characters, they do have a history with each other. Nini is rehearsing Gabriela’s line where she tells Troy that singing with him felt like kindergarten where it was so easy to be friends with someone because you could be yourself. The line reminds Ricky of his past with Nini and the fact they actually did meet in kindergarten.

The two go on to reminisce about their early friendship and it becomes clear that these two kids are so not over each other. It’s the classic best friends to lovers to exes troupe and I love it.

It’s also a really authentic scene. Their reminiscing happens organically. When they first start remembering it’s playful and fun but as they continue it quickly turns to remorse as they realize that they miss each other, in more ways than they thought.

“The Tech Rehearsal” also lets Kourtney take center stage as she belts out a song on stage while Big Red tries to work out the lighting kinks. Kourtney’s “fifteen minutes of fame” moment causes her to realize why Nini is so passionate about theater.

I do have one complaint with this episode and that’s that I wanted more of a technical aspect to it. Yes, there was some with the crew trying to figure out how to work everything in the decrepit theater but it didn’t feel like a tech rehearsal. It’s a really knit-picky critique but I needed to say it.

Least Favorite Episode: 1×01 – “The Auditions”

Image Source: Disney+/Fred Hayes

Thankfully I have a policy to never judge a show by its pilot episode. If I didn’t have this policy, I would have stopped watching High School Musical: The Musical: The Series immediately after the first episode.

“The Audition” is set at the start of the school year. Ricky returns to school to find that his ex-girlfriend Nini (they were on a break) has come back from summer theater camp with a new boyfriend, senior “it” boy, E.J. Things are awkward as expected. The students all enter the gym where they are introduced to the new drama teacher, Miss Jenn, who announces that East High will be putting on High School Musical as their fall production. Nini, of course, decides to audition for Gabriela and E.J. plans to be Troy. Determined to win Nini back, Ricky, who’s been anti-musical his entire life, decides he’s also going to audition. The drama unfolds and the episode ends with the cast list being posted — Nini and Ricky have been cast as the leads.

As I said, going into the first episode I was skeptical. High School Musical was my childhood and I didn’t want that to be ruined. I was afraid HSMTMTS was going to be too gimmicky and rely on nostalgia to gain its fan base.

Unfortunately, my worries were confirmed when the first episode aired.

I felt that it relied too much on nostalgia. It was super cringy. And I couldn’t accept the fact that someone else was singing High School Musical songs. Obviously, I got over those initial concerns but that doesn’t change my opinion about the first episode.

It’s honestly not a bad episode. It does what a pilot is supposed to do. It sets the tone, introduces us to the characters, and lets us know what the series will be about. I just wasn’t ready for all those questions to be answered when I watched the pilot.

Favorite Character: Ricky Bowen

Image Source: Disney+/Fred Hayes

Ricky Bowen stole the show and my heart.

Ricky got off on the wrong foot in the first episode. He’s pretty self-entitled and jealous when he finds out that Nini found someone else while she was at theater camp. Ricky feels like they weren’t supposed to see other people despite being on a break — sounds like Ross Geller to me.

Thankfully, over the course of the season, Ricky works through his feelings and sheds that Ross Geller, self-entitled attitude. Though he’s sad that Nini has moved on from him, he’s more upset that he’s lost her as a friend since the two have been inseparable since kindergarten.

He really goes through a huge character development transformation. Sure, he tried out for the musical in the hopes of winning back Nini but by the end of the season, he’s cultivated a new love for theater.

He found a home away from home and true friends who will be there for him no matter what. Plus, he gets to have Nini back in his life which is the ultimate win for Ricky.

One of the things I really loved about Ricky is his ability to be vulnerable. He’s definitely a character who wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s easy to tell when he’s angry, upset, and happy. We see him cry when he finds out that his parents are getting a divorce. We see him struggle to come to terms with the fact that his mother has moved on so quickly.

And he’s not only vulnerable in the safety of his house but, he’s also vulnerable in public. In episode nine, we see him visibly upset when he discovers that his mom has invited her new boyfriend to his opening night without telling Ricky.

Another reason I love Ricky is that he’s not afraid to confide in others or ask for help. He shares his feelings and frustrations about Nini to Big Red who listens to his endless rants and doesn’t complain. He confides in Gina when he learns that his parents are splitting up. And when everything is going wrong in the middle of the production, he reaches out to Nini because she’s the only one who will make him feel okay.

Ricky is what every teenage boy (fictitious and real) should aspire to be.

Least Favorite Character: E.J. Caswell

Image Source: Disney+/Fred Hayes

E.J.’s character is really interesting. He’s described as being a “jock-type theater enthusiast” which is basically Troy Bolton. Given this and the fact he’s just finished a summer at theater camp where he played the lead, he feels like he’s a shoo-in for the lead role. Of course, that doesn’t happen and E.J. spends the rest of the season being #bitter.

He’s upset that he didn’t get cast as the lead and instead is cast as Chad and he’s worried that Ricky is going to steal Nini from him. Of course, no one can steal a person from another person but E.J.’s behavior makes it pretty easy for Nini to realize that he’s not the one for her.

E.J. is a typical jealous-paranoid boyfriend. He’s so worried about losing Nini that instead of showing her all the reasons why she should stay with him, he instead drives a wedge between them by being manipulative.

Ricky may start off as the Ross Geller, but E.J. quickly takes over that title.

E.J. does begin to evolve over the season but it’s a more gradual and cringeworthy transformation than Ricky’s is. E.J. apologizes to Nini for what he’s done to her and telling the truth gives him such a rush that he begins confessing to every little thing he’s done wrong through social media posts. This causes his social media followers to plummet and makes him severely insecure. How Gen-Z of him.

With his self-esteem already in the dumps, E.J. makes things worse for himself when he snoops in Miss Jenn’s binder and learns why he wasn’t cast as Troy Bolton. E.J. then tries to prove her wrong which doesn’t go well either.

Honestly, E.J. only has two redeeming qualities at the end of the season. One, he did eventually leave Nini alone. That’s a pretty big one considering fictional and real-life men tend to continue to pursue a woman even when they’ve said no a hundred times. I appreciate E.J. for respecting Nini’s wishes and backing off.

The other thing I really did love about E.J. was that he was (most likely) the one responsible for getting Gina back to East High for the opening night. This is one of the first times we see him be truly selfless. There’s nothing in it for him. Gina’s presence doesn’t affect him or his performance. And yet, he knows that his cast is missing Gina — and he probably is too.

When E.J. flies Gina out for opening night, we finally see him embrace the “We’re All In This Together” motto.

My hope for E.J. going forward is that we continue to see him mature and grow into a generous person instead of one that is so caught up with his own issues that he doesn’t care about anyone else.

Favorite Pairing: Ashlyn and Big Red

Image Source: Disney+/Fred Hayes

Bet you weren’t expecting that one.

Listen, I love Nini and Ricky. They’re my favorite troupe come true (childhood friends to lovers), they understand each other on a deep level, they’re always there for each other, and they’re just downright adorable.

It’s hard for me to say they’re my second favorite couple because I really do love ‘Rini,’ but Ashlyn and Big Red really won me over.

To me, Ashlyn and Big Red embody what a high school love story should be. They’re innocent and playful. Half the time they’re unsure of if they’re flirting with each other or just being friendly.

Honestly, their dialogue is what really sealed the deal for me that they were my favorite pairing. They’re always so sweet together. They make the most subtle compliments sound like true poetry.

Big Red: “How do you light up an entire room?”

Ashlyn: “You walk into it.”

I mean, come on! How cute are they!

Sure, Nini and Ricky got each other cute and heartfelt gifts but Big Red got Ashlyn a giant bouquet of flowers! And they weren’t even a thing!!!

And then there’s the end credit scene during episode 10 that completely sealed the deal.

Big Red and Ashlyn understand each other. They’re both the underdogs of the series.

Ashlyn’s outgoing and talented but she’s never even talked about in regards to being the lead. She’s constantly in the shadows of her cousin E.J. who jeopardizes her friendship with Nini and the rest of the cast. And she doesn’t really mind. She stays in her lane, writers her music, does her thing, and really, is just happy to be involved.

Big Red ended up on the crew for the production because he had no other place to be. Ricky is his best (and only) friend and the only way the two of them could spend time together after Ricky gets cast was to join the production. It’s not what he thought he would be doing but he learns to love it — just like Ricky does. Big Red excels and ends up coming out of the production with a group of friends who truly love and care about him. I also love that through his character we got to see some of the tech side of high school theater. As a former high school technical theater kid, I loved that about the show.

Even though Big Red and Ashlyn aren’t an official thing yet, I ship them 110%. I can’t wait to see them develop and hopefully explore a relationship in season 2.

Complaints

Image Source: Disney+/Fred Hayes

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series really took me by surprise because I fully expected to hate it. I’m glad I didn’t. Given this, I really don’t have many complaints — they’re more knit-picky things.

I was sort of disappointed that we didn’t get a dress rehearsal episode. After the disaster that was the tech rehearsal, it would have been nice to see them get to practice one time through in the gym where opening night would be. If they would have done a dress rehearsal it would have given us a chance to see more of the High School Musical production. Or, if the creative team didn’t want to make the series longer, the dress rehearsal could have even been just the first act and then the second act could have been the opening night episode. I just feel that a dress rehearsal is an important part of theater and it was a shame we didn’t get to see this cast go through the dress rehearsal struggle.

I was really sad the characters Kelsey and Ryan didn’t get attention in this production. Kelsey’s role was completely nonexistent in this production. On one hand, I understand that the cast was already huge and adding a Kelsey would have made it larger. But I still missed her. It’s also worth noting that Ashlyn’s character is very similar to who Kelsey was in the film. Perhaps, the creators felt that they didn’t need to cast a pretend Kelsey because the show already had a Kelsey-like presence with Ashlyn.

If Ashlyn embodied Kelsey, then Carlos embodies Ryan. Carlos was the choreographer and Miss Jenn’s right-hand man. Ryan is very into choreography and is always willing to help Miss. Darbus in the originals. Plus, in High School Musical 2, he acts as the choreographer for the talent show.

Unlike Kelsey, who was nonexistent in the production, there was someone playing Ryan but we never learn anything about him. I think it would have been fun, fresh, and interesting if Seb would have played both Sharpay and Ryan. Truthfully, that’s what I thought was happening since he sang both parts of “Bop to the Top.” They could have split him and had one side of his wardrobe/make-up Sharpay inspired and the other side Ryan inspired. A missed opportunity if you ask me.

I wanted more character development for some of our characters. Ashlyn is so interesting and she mentions she does all these other things outside of just theater but we never get to see her beyond the walls of the theater. I hope we get to learn more about her home life and her other hobbies in season 2.

I also wanted more development when it comes to Seb and Carlos’s relationship. Yes, I am ecstatic that Disney went there and made a same-sex couple canon (something the original films were never able to do) but it’s not just enough for them to exist. They need screen time. They need a story. I want Seb and Carlos’s relationship to be just as important as Nini/Ricky and Ashlyn/Big Red. Fingers cross season 2 redeems themselves.

Another knit-pick, I wasn’t a fan of the changed “We’re All In This Together” choreography. The dance in the original is so iconic. I can still do it 14 years later! I felt betrayed when they didn’t do the exact choreography. I appreciate the show wanting to bring a new take to the production but this was one thing that shouldn’t have been changed.

My biggest critique isn’t about the plot of the series but the title as a whole. Even though I love saying High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, it’s the dumbest name ever. It’s clear that they were trying to cash in on the original High School Musical pandemonium. I’m sure it worked, but I also think it narrowed the reach the series could have had.

Not to mention it’s going to complicate season two. The series title makes sense for season one because they are putting on a production of High School Musical: The Musical but what happens when they are not putting on a High School Musical production? Tim Federle, the creator, already confirmed that season 2 won’t be about the beloved franchise. So now what?

Personally, I think the show should have been called East High Drama or something like that. It would have resonated with High School Musical fans but also wouldn’t have put the show in such a box.

I’m interested to see if the series will be renamed ahead of the second season. Or if it’ll be named something like High School Musical: (INSERT NEW MUSICAL NAME): The Series instead.

Praise

Image Source: Disney+/Fred Hayes

Obviously, there were a lot of things I loved about the High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. I could probably go one for days, so I’m gonna try to keep this list reserved for the highlights.

I absolutely loved the fact that the show was able to distinguish itself from the original films. I loved that they included original music and I loved it, even more, when I found out that Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett got to write “Just for a Moment.”

Another thing I was really excited about is that they didn’t really drag on the “love triangle” too much. It was there in the first few episodes but after E.J. betrays Nini, she breaks up with him and that’s that. Sure, both boys are still actively pursuing her but she’s not pursuing either of them. It’s still a love triangle I guess, but it doesn’t feel like a cliche one.

I loved that they allowed Seb to play Sharpay. I thought that was genius and amazing. It’s a shame that they’re not going to do High School Musical 2 because he would have killed “Fabulous.”

I applaud the show’s attempt to be diverse and inclusive. The characters are diverse in race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation but they’re also not defined by identities. I do think they could have done a bit more in terms of the LGBT inclusion but I applaud the moves they did make. The Homecoming scene between Seb and Carlos was everything.

I mentioned above that I liked that they included a technical aspect to the show. It could have played a bigger part but I’m glad it was mention to some extent.

One of my favorite moments of the entire series was the “Breaking Free” performance at the end. It’s such an iconic moment in the original film and I was worried it was going to fall flat in the series. It did not! Having the roles switch was genius. Instead of our Gabriela being the timid one on stage, our Troy is. Gabriela must coax him into joining her onstage. I think this move really embodies the series. We’re meant to believe that Nini = Gabriela and Ricky = Troy but they’re both more complex than that. I also felt it was very reminiscent of the “This Is Us/Gotta Find You” moment from the DCOM Camp Rock. Regardless, I loved it!

Oh, and I can’t forget Ms. Darbus’s original number. Though I did feel it was oddly placed, I thought it was an amazing song and a wonderful moment for Ashlyn to shine.


Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. I am definitely a fan of this new era of Wildcats and can’t wait for season 2. Speaking of season 2, Disney+ announced that High School Musical: The Musical: The Series will return with new episodes in Fall 2020!

For now, you can stream the first season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+.

What did you think of the High School Musical: The Musical: The Series? What was your favorite and least favorite episode? Who do you ship? Will you be watching season 2? Let me know in the comments or by tweeting me @3RsBlog.

Featured Image Source: Disney Channel/Image Group LA

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