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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. Especially considering how illogical it is that only one stage manager makes an appearance.

And for a show with the word musical in its name, there’s a lack thereof. One of the main reasons as to why I fell in love with the show in the first place was the tight knit camaraderie the characters shared surrounding the show they put their hearts and souls into. And in a community like theatre, these relationships are important and impact a show more than one might think (best showcased in the season one finale). However, much like the rest of this season, the relationships were taken to another level (mostly romantically), therefore diminishing the musical storyline that was meant to push a character’s development forward. They ended up showing the rehearsal process a handful of times at best, all in favor of focusing on the drama of the relationships rather than the actual drama meant to be showcased onstage.

They’re Not Actually All In This Together

Sometimes, the development of a romantic relationship isn’t detrimental to a character’s growth; like EJ in season one. But the instant it becomes repetitive, exhausting, and takes up more of the show than intended, then it becomes a problem.

When Ricky and Ashlyn were cast alongside each other, they barely talked at all, leading me to question their on-stage chemistry (which in the end wasn’t shown in the slightest). Yes, there may have been one genuine conversation that took place between them, but it was concerning his breakup with Nini. Even when they broke their arms during a nasty impromptu tech rehearsal, they talked to the camera in the classic mockumentary style the show takes on rather than to each other.

Most of the issues I stated earlier were introduced in one episode, only to be resolved by the next episode with no inkling as to how it impacted a character and their plot. Most of the time, I let it slide due to time allotment, but I was particularly angry when they hadn’t zoned in on the conflicts that came with EJ being a senior, including his Duke University debacle.

EJ’s gradual development throughout the show was a reason I seemed to stay despite the first half of this season placing him on a shelf to collect dust. That was why I couldn’t handle a character so complex being shoved into a relationship in order to fit in with his friends, who had also been paired up. It didn’t make any sense to me that, in episode ten, almost five minutes prior to asking Gina out, he admitted he wasn’t ready for a relationship. Not only did it feel like I was being led on on Gina’s behalf, but it also felt as though the writers didn’t see any value to EJ unless he was involved with someone.

Gina and EJ. Credit: Disney

While there’s a chance they won’t develop EJ any further to focus on his fellow underclassmen, there’s still so much to explore with other characters and stories just waiting to be told. Perhaps the missing piece of Nini’s character development could be her culture, and the perfect way of immersing herself in her Filipino roots would be to host a debut (a Filipino coming-of-age celebration at the age of eighteen). Or, they could find a way to show that there’s more to Lily and her broken family than what meets the eye. Heck, even a glimpse of Ricky in therapy would be enough. The possibilities are endless for these characters, and all it takes is a little thought in order to flesh them out to their full potential.

Newsies Need Their Help Today

Now, understandably, for a show named after High School Musical, you’d expect to receive content based on its namesake. But many fans were left frustrated when it was announced in early 2020 that they opted out of the summery showtunes of High School Musical 2 for Beauty and the Beast in order to conform to the sophomore season’s plot of entering the Alan Menken Awards.

At first, the substitution was justified. Entering such a prestigious state-wide competition in which high school drama students put on a musical with songs featuring the work of the infamous music maestro Alan Menken, and winning fifty thousand dollars, would be the chance of a lifetime for East High. With the faulty budget Ms. Jenn seemed to bring up routinely throughout the show, and the main rival being Ms. Jenn’s competitive ex-boyfriend Zack Roy and the current students of their artsy alma mater North High, the show had you rooting for the East; not only because they were the main characters, but because they were the underdogs. However, the substitution took a turn when North High blatantly embodied the script of Bring It On and turned it into a Disney friendly environment, switching up from The Little Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast in order to take East High down, only for the whole competition to be left behind because the East High kids saw no more satisfaction in winning.

While there’s a mutual understanding of wanting to do things on a different note in order to remain fresh, this was on an entirely different level. The subplot made no sense to me whatsoever, seeing as how serious these characters, especially the ones on North High’s end, are about theatre. So why did they go out of their way to change their production for petty reasons even when Zack’s main priority was to win, with or without Ms. Jenn entering in the first place? If they were as realistic as one could be on a show, he wouldn’t be deterred. They even could have used this as an opportunity to spotlight more underrated musicals by Disney like Newsies, seeing as there was a single reference from it made during the Career Day episode. It also would have worked in their favor at the Menken Awards, since everyone else would have most likely done adaptations of classic tales such as Aladdin, Hercules, and of course, Beauty and the Beast. Even then, it would have been a waste seeing how this season ended.

Newsies on Broadway. Credit: Sara Krulwich of the New York Times

But fear not, because there are other chances to pursue this underappreciated musical in the future. As the show has officially been renewed for a third season, it has promises of taking place in the summer. That gives the production team enough time to write an easygoing storyline, and, in the classic HSMTMTS fashion, end on a high note in which all goes downhill. Not only would it set up the next season (set respectively in the fall semester), it could dive deeper than ever before. Mainly, it would dive into the realistic consequences East High should face for entering the Menken Awards, blowing up the school’s budget, and landing them in an impossible amount of debt trying to outdo the competition. And seeing as East High’s Principal Guttierez has set a vendetta against the arts on previous occasions, it’s the perfect way to set up the musical’s integrated subplot of strikes and show tunes into the rest of the season.

The musical itself can also make interpersonal connections, seeing as over the last decade, there’s been a disparity of funds given to the arts in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, & mathematics) activities. It’s an issue that is not only realistic, but spreads awareness to events that occurred in real life (on a more positive note). The Newsies storyline would resonate well with the kids as they’d be pushed aside, taken advantage of, and denied what they deserve at the fault of Ms. Jenn and the “relevant” East High extracurriculars. The one thing that’s helped them survive high school (albeit in a metaphorical manner) is being taken away. This would give them the drive needed to learn the lessons of true camaraderie and find their voice amidst an issue that needs changing. It’s just as the series intended; finding a way to express yourself through musical theatre, the only way these characters know how to. It’d only be a bonus to hear the iconic music be performed by the multitude of talent within this ensemble…and a cameo or two from a former newsie on (or off) Broadway wouldn’t hurt.

Overall, the cast, crew, and everyone in between have a lot of work to do to ensure that the show’s future seasons succeed in the same way season one has. But if there’s a possibility that the showrunner, Tim Federle, or even Disney is looking for fresh material in the writer’s room in order to lighten the load, they can always fall back on the deep discussions of super-fans. And of course, my own illusive ideas found in this article, and the many more in my mind just itching to come to life with a bit of collaboration. But for now, enjoy seasons one and two of HSMTMTS on Disney+ as we await season three’s big summer blowout!

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