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High School Musical: The Musical: The Series has gone sour

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Art by Jessica Calaguas

*Disclaimer: This review is based on my opinion(s), and therefore you may not agree, and are by no means obligated to agree with certain contents of the article. This article may also contain spoilers. Therefore, if you haven’t seen the show and would like to in the near future, don’t read any further to catch up on my thoughts of season one, or proceed with caution*

It’s out with the old, and in with the new — because after a year since the debut of Disney+, the streaming service’s highest grossing series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (aside from Marvel’s several miniseries) bopped to the top once more as its second season came to an end, alongside our summer vacations, on July 30, 2021. It was a proper homage to the sophomore High School Musical movie that started it all. Or was it?

As someone who has had the amazing opportunity to attend Disney centric events and meet the cast on numerous occasions, my eager super-fan self was more than ready to walk into season two, expecting a similar sprinkle of magic from its predecessor. Instead, what I got felt more like Cinderella’s fantasies fading whilst the clock struck midnight rather than the Beast’s climactic and thrilling transformation into Prince Adam.

The author with the cast of HSMTMTS. Photo courtesy of Daniza Guevarra.

While this second season was supposed to give characters a chance to fly, more often than not did they end up falling. But to be fair, there were several other factors taken into consideration that could almost justify the show’s subpar storylines and dainty dynamics.

Drivers License Sped Off Into Stardom

Putting on a high school musical isn’t easy, much less a professional production of a whole television series. But with a tight knit cast and a bunch of show tunes to move them forward, things were much more bearable. Unfortunately, all that went awry when the pesky pandemic hit, as not only did it change the flow and continuity of the series after a six month shutdown, it paved the way for cast members to find their own creative alternatives that impacted the world just as COVID-19 did (in a more positive manner).

Almost a year after the world of HSMTMTS went silent during the shutdown, their leading lady Olivia Rodrigo found her voice, releasing the debut single that shot her into spontaneous international stardom seemingly overnight; drivers license. Its infectious melodies and tear-jerking rawness were enough to pull you in (coming from someone who’s streamed the song on Spotify over five hundred times), but for a few fans of the show suffering from a drought of content, it wasn’t enough. What was once a simple soft pop ballad gradually grew into the fuel for the media’s burning hysteria.

Olivia Rodrigo’s Driver's License cover art. Credit: Geffen Records

When the song was fresh out of the audio files, there was speculation as to who broke Rodrigo’s heart while simultaneously attempting to decipher who the infamous blonde girl featured in her lyrics was. At the time, all “evidence” pointed to her co-star and on-screen love interest Joshua Bassett, who had been seen with Sabrina Carpenter not long after the song’s release. Although nothing was ever explicitly confirmed, it seemed to impact their relationship; both on and off the screen.

Now, let me clarify that I was never a fan of their on-screen relationship to begin with. From their severe miscommunication to the second hand embarrassment I suffered through with each scene they shared (and there were a lot; almost too many for my liking), this ship only intensified my irritation when it felt like Rodrigo’s song and rise to fame affected several arcs of their characters.

Season Two Ricky and Nini. Credit: Disney

Most people, including myself, use our love of a show to escape reality. However, with each week that an episode dropped, the line between fiction and reality was gradually disappearing. While casually slipping in a reference from Rodrigo’s second single deja vu, it certainly felt like deja vu in many moments, the main one being when Ricky (Bassett) broke up with Nini (Rodrigo) so that she could focus on her music and her life outside of high school drama, only to take a chance with a blonde girl that many of the East High thespians find themselves insecure about. It was a constant reminder of the drama that occurred, and while it caught the attention of new fans (who channeled their dislike for Bassett onto Ricky, thus harming the perspective of his characterization), it only made the show harder to enjoy on my part.

Quantity vs. Quality

With the show’s success, their massive audience and teenage demographic was enough to motivate them to shoot for the stars. While attempting to be bigger and better than their first season, they bit off a bit more than they could chew. Adding on four new cast members to take on the role of Ms. Jenn’s competitive ex-boyfriend and the current students of their alma mater North High, it was concerning to hear as soon as the news got out. Seven main characters plus four more up and coming in a new story equaled a not-so-secret recipe for total chaos (and not necessarily the good kind).

This similar formula was the downfall of several other shows. Albeit successful, their writing felt rushed and disoriented. The best example can be seen in the storytelling of HSMTMTS’ indefinite inspiration, Glee. A multitude of characters would be introduced each season, only to be seen once or twice and stay on the sidelines. There was no substance whatsoever when the focus was abruptly pulled back to a certain character. Seeing the North High subplot reminded me of the aforementioned teen drama, in which they hyped up these characters to be ambitious and deceitful, only for the real villain of the show to be Nini: another creative decision that seemed to cater to Rodrigo and her solo stans.

Putting a spotlight on her arc through the renowned Youth Actor’s Conservatory in order to give her character a chance to be someone outside Ricky had fooled me into thinking that my faith in Nini would be restored, only for her to come back within four episodes and the couple’s issues along with her. This arc of hers lasted the majority of the season, leaving little to no creative freedom for other characters I longed to see. And even when characters like Gina Porter and EJ Caswell, who held more structure to their stories, faced issues just as important (if not more) than their friends, they were resolved off-screen and swept under the rug by the next episode. It certainly didn't help their case that it’s second season was expanded by two episodes, both of which they ended up cutting almost three to six minutes from, cramming in multiple songs that were unnecessary and took up most of the time.

Needless to say, not all of it was as faulty as I made it out to be. With the savvier songwriting and the twists and turns of not one, but three Evan Hansens making an appearance on the show, it was certainly a season to remember. And while I have a glimmer of hope that HSMTMTS can redeem its characters and storylines to gain its magic back, there are certainly creative decisions that need to be made in order to do so.

The Moment To Begin Again

The first step towards the right direction would be to bring back the actual musical element. I’m talking awkward ice-breakers (even if everyone is aware of who they’re working with), painful read-throughs, crazy costume fittings: the whole shebang. And introducing more roles outside of the ones onstage wouldn’t harm anyone, would it? There’s more to a production than the actors, and the stage crew definitely deserves the appreciation.