‘High School Musical’ returns as East High School and Salt Lake City finally get to play themselves

(Photo courtesy Craig Sjodin/Disney+) “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” stars Mark St. Cyr as Mr. Mazarra, Dara Reneé as Kourtney, Larry Saperstein as Big Red, Joshua Bassett as Ricky, Frankie A. Rodriguez as Carlos, Olivia Rodrigo as Nini, Julia Lester as Ashlyn, Matt Cornett as E.J., Kate Reindeers as Miss Jenn and Sofia Wylie as Gina.

Salt Lake City’s East High School is playing itself in the latest iteration of “High School Musical” — the first time the narrative will identify the iconic school building’s actual location.

“It’s like Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and somehow Salt Lake City has East High,” said Tim Federle, the showrunning executive producer of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” which previews Friday on ABC-Ch. 4, the Disney Channel and Freeform, and starts streaming on the new Disney+ on Tuesday, Nov. 12.

Federle was joking, but not entirely. In the 13 years since the original “High School Musical” premiered on the Disney Channel, the building at 840 S. 1300 East has become a mecca for fans.

“We have not had a day — whether it’s in the morning or at night — when somebody doesn’t run up to the front of the school and say, ‘Mom, take my picture!’” Federle said on the third-to-last day of production in late June.

(I headed up to East myself to be an extra in Episode 10. But more on that later.)

The original “HSM” flew in under the radar back in 2006. It was just another Disney Channel TV movie until it exploded into pop culture, turning Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens into stars and spawning two sequels and boatloads of merchandise.

“‘High School Musical’ became this billion-dollar international franchise built on the back of this very small movie with humble ambitions that really broke through to a generation,” Federle said. “I think it’s exciting that we’re re-exploring a franchise.”

Exciting and a bit intimidating. The new series will be one of the programming cornerstones when the Disney+ streaming service debuts on Nov. 12.

“Yeah, us and ‘The Mandalorian,’” Federle said drily, referencing the first live-action “Star Wars” series.

The premise

“HSM:TM:TS” is neither a sequel nor a reboot. It’s set in the real world (sort of) at present-day East High, which was where the three entirely fictional “HSM” movies were filmed. And the new drama teacher, Miss Jenn (Kate Reindeers), is “shocked” to discover that East has never produced a stage version of the movie.

Soon Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) has been cast in the lead opposite her new boyfriend, E.J. (Matt Cornett), and her former boyfriend, Ricky (Joshua Bassett) is trying to get in the show to win Nini back.

The series is shot as a faux documentary in the style of “Modern Family” or “The Office.” The 10 first-season episodes are a mix of songs from the movies and new numbers, but there’s one major difference — there are no fantasy production numbers. The music is all in the context of auditioning and performing at East High.

And this time around, East doesn’t pretend to be in New Mexico. There are even East Leopards, not the faux East Wildcats.

“I thought, well, gosh, if we’re really going to East High, let’s stop calling it Albuquerque. Let’s just own what it is,” Federle said.

And while they were out shooting in other Salt Lake City area locations, they didn’t have to avoid getting Utah’s mountains in the background.

“Yes, exactly!” Federle said. “We don’t have to lie about that, either.”

Well, except that they started filming in February, and the first episode was set at the beginning of the school year. So some snow has been digitally removed.


The first episode airs Friday at 6 p.m. on Freeform; 7 p.m. on ABC/Ch. 4; and 6 p.m. (DirecTV and Dish) and 9 p.m. (Comcast) on the Disney Channel.

The first episode will start streaming on Disney+ when that services launches on Tuesday, Nov. 12. Subsequent episodes — one per week — will stream on Fridays, beginning Nov. 15.

The cast

Joshua Bassett and Olivia Rodrigo aren’t exactly household names, but then neither were Efron and Hudgens before “HSM.”

Bassett (“Stuck in the Middle”) and Rodrigo (“Bizaardvaark”) were both in Disney Channel series, and the cast includes one familiar face from made-in-Utah TV — Sofia Wylie, who co-starred on Disney’s “Andi Mack.” She plays Gina, who thinks she ought to be the lead in the musical.

All of the cast, they were like, ‘Oh, you need to be our tour guide,’” Wylie said. “And I was, like, ‘I don’t know anything about Utah, even though I’ve been here for three years now.’ Which is bad.”

She did take the “HSM:TM:TS” gang to Yellowfinn Grill & Sushi Bar (their “favorite place to eat”), bowling and to the movies.

Wylie has her own history with “HSM” — not just as a fan, but as one who won tickets to the premiere of “HSM3” when she was 5.

“They flew my whole family out to L.A., because I lived in Arizona,” she said. “And we went to the premiere and met all of the Disney stars. My eyes were as big as balloons.”

Julia Lester — who stars as E.J.’s songwriting cousin, Ashlyn — not only grew up as a fan but auditioned for the “High School Musical 4” project that never got off the drawing board.

“I was so excited then, and I’m even more excited now,” she said. “I was 6 when the first movie came out. … It’s mind-blowing.”

The crew

Federle estimated that 90 to 95% of the crew on the series are Utahns. “They brought so much hometown pride to the project, which is all the more reason to own the Salt Lake City of it all,” he said. “The humility and sort of good nature of this crew, it’s humbled me and kept me wanting to come back.”

And he will. Disney+ has already ordered a second season of “HSM:TM:TS,” and production will return to Utah — and East — in early 2020. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development approved a tax incentive for Season 1 that rebates up to 25 percent on what the producers spend on goods, services and crew in Utah; tax incentives for Season 2 are pending. Producers estimated they’d spend close to $15 million in Utah on Season 1.

Several members of the crew are “High School Musical” veterans. First assistant director Brent Geisler was a production assistant on the first movie and second assistant director on the second and third movies.

“The songs are embedded in my brain,” he joked.

His two sons ran around backstage during production on the three movies; they’re now on the crew. Brendan, 21, is a production assistant, and Carson, 18, works in the costume department.

“We’re a legacy now,” Geisler said.

Nick Nebeker’s father, Loren, was a head technician on the movies; in the series, Nick is a camera assistant, “so my job is pretty much to handle the lenses, the filters, the batteries, all the stuff that makes the camera go.”

He was an extra in the movies. “I’m a blur in the background, in places,” Nebeker said. But what he really remembers is “running around East High when I was 12 years old, just hanging out with my dad and stealing stuff from [craft services]. When I found out there was a truck full of candy, it, like, changed my life,” he joked.

“Free candy,” Federle interjected.

Nick Nebeker was an aspiring actor, and none other than Efron — who was “so cool” — gave him some advice. “He said, ‘It’s super fun, but it’s really, really hard. And to get the big break, you just have to be lucky and just stick with it and just keep auditioning.’”

Nebeker laughed as he recalled Efron saying, “‘I’m an actor, too.’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, Zac, I know.’”

The extras

I will, I fear, be visible in the first-season finale of “HSM:TM:TS.” I was an extra in the crowd in the East High gym watching the performance.

(There’s a reason it’s in the gym and not the auditorium, but if I told you why it would be a spoiler.)

I am not a frustrated actor. In fact, I panicked when one of the producers said, “So, we hear you want a speaking role and we’ve got that all set up.”

He was kidding. And he laughed when a look of fear crossed my face as my stomach lurched and I began to sputter and stammer.

They did, however, seat me right where I’m pretty sure I will show up on camera. I was there to report this story — and because Tribune senior managing editor Matt Canham made me ask my friends at Disney for the chance to be an extra. In part because he thought it would be a fun story, and in part to torture me.

“If it was something that you wanted to do, I would not be into it at all,” Canham said with a huge smile.

So I found myself part of a diverse group of extras — aka “background” — black, white, Asian, Hispanic, young, old, even a few middle-aged-ish bald, white guys like me.

It was a little embarrassing to have makeup applied, but I understood that they didn’t want too much glare off my shaved head. But mostly I just had to sit on the bleachers while Bassett, Rodrigo and Cornett performed. I honestly lost count of the umpteen takes that followed rehearsals and a bit of restaging.

Geisler told us when to applaud, when to look puzzled, when to look like we were talking amongst ourselves, and to look just plain happy as Bassett and Rodrigo moved through the audience, lip-syncing a familiar “HSM” tune over and over again.

(If I told you which “HSM” tune, that would also be a spoiler.)

For Geisler — sporting a vintage T-shirt from the original “HSM” production — it wasn’t exactly like herding cats, but … yeah, sort of. There were dozens of people to put (and keep) in the right places, with the right expressions at the right times. “I want to see the love on you guys’ faces,” he said, in cheerleader mode. “None of you sucked on that one,” he said in comedian mode.

“You guys over here, you did great,” Geisler said, turning it into a bit of a competition to be the best possible background. And to loosen up the extras so we'd look less like, well, extras: “Touch your neighbor — appropriately.”

He clearly has a talent for this.

It got harder as the day went on simply because background started to feel a bit like prisoners. “Yeah, this is work now,” said one extra near me.

It definitely got warm in the East High gym. And I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, so I was among the lucky ones. There were extras in sweaters, hoodies or jackets, and they were increasingly uncomfortable as the day wore on; they couldn’t take them off because we all had to be wearing the same clothes in every take.

But, honestly, I’ve never been on a set visit that was more fun than this one. Every person I talked to — from the showrunner to assistant camera operators — was friendly, welcoming and happy to talk.

I’ve been on a lot of sets over the past 29½ years, and that is not always the case.

The review

Aside from its title, there’s a lot to like about “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” But fans will have to remember that this is a 10-part television series that runs a total of about five hours — almost as long as the three movies combined.

So, yes, it moves somewhat slower. And the musical numbers are less theatrical, for the most part. It probably won’t be as appealing to the youngest viewers, but tweens and teens will like it. And it’s something parents can watch with their kids without feeling like they’re martyring themselves. They’ll probably enjoy it if they give it a chance.

The show is filled with talented young performers who can really dance and sing. (No auto-tuning.) There’s a good bit of humor, and the series takes advantage of its faux documentary format.

And “HSM:TM:TS” has a sense of humor about itself and the franchise. Not only has the tagline been adapted from one of the original movie’s most iconic songs — “They’re almost all in this together” — but early in the pilot, Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez) says, “I’ve seen the original movie 37 times. And the first 15 minutes of both sequels.”

The teen romance turns out exactly the way you think it will, but there’s something comforting in the familiarity. Basically, “HSM:TM:TS” is a good half-hour comedy of the sort we’ve seen on the Disney Channel, and the music just makes it better.

Federle said he’s “trying to capture how a new generation thinks of the importance of the arts in school. The arts saved my life when I was a kid.

“That’s what the show has to say, which is — no matter how old you are, if you’re an audience member who has not yet found your tribe, you’re welcome to join our tribe of weirdos. Because that’s what theater people are all about.”