For a lot of teens and preteens, “Julie and the Phantoms” is going to be the biggest thing to hit TV since “High School Musical” premiered almost 15 years ago.
It’s about teenagers who sing and dance. Who have a burning desire to perform. Who deal with life and love and family.
Oh, and three of the four main characters are dead. Really.
Julie (Madison Reyes) is a talented teen who hasn’t been able to bring herself to perform in the year since her songwriting mother died. But that starts to change with the sudden appearance of three ghosts — Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Alex (Owen Patrick Joyner) and Reggie (Jeremy Shada) — who don’t realize it’s been 25 years since they died, just as they were about to get their big break in the music business.
Yes, it’s kind of nuts. Goofy and lovable. Funny and weird. Heartfelt and touching. (Based on a Brazilian show, it starts streaming Thursday on Netflix.)
And there’s a reason it seems more than a bit “High School Musical”-like. Kenny Ortega, who directed and choreographed all three “HSM” movies, is an executive producer of “Julie and the Phantoms,” and he directed five of the nine episodes.
“What excited me about being a part of this project was the endless boundaries [and] opportunity to really explore the heart, the fun, surprise, magic — a real-girl story and what would happen if suddenly three gorgeous ghosts popped into your life,” Ortega said.
He said casting Julie was key, and it took months.
“We had seen so many incredible young women — I mean incredible — but there was just something that I didn’t find,” Ortega said. “Maybe it was that it felt too polished, too practiced. Maybe too experienced. I was looking for a real girl, a raw talent, a young girl that other girls were going to go, ‘That’s me!’”
So casting directors reached out to more than 1,000 performing arts high schools across the nation, sending letters encouraging girls to “put yourself on tape to play a lead in a Netflix series.”
Reyes “went home, asked her family to be quiet” and did just that. And the 16-year-old from Allentown, Pa., was soon starring in “Julie and the Phantoms” — her first professional gig.
“It’s a true Cinderella story,” Ortega said. “She’s going to be a big star.”
Remember, this is a guy who had a hand in making Zac Efron a star. And Reyes, it turns out, had already been influenced by Ortega.
“‘High School Musical’ was what encouraged me to even want to get into the acting career,” Reyes said. “So, Kenny, he definitely influenced a lot of my creativity in my life. If it wasn’t for ’High School Musical,’ I probably would have never even wanted to pursue this career.”
Gillespie, Joyner and Shada are all a bit older than Reyes — early 20s — and, while each of them has TV experience, none is a household name. (Yet.) But the guys and Reyes all sing and all play instruments in “Julie and the Phantoms.”
There’s an undeniable chemistry among the four main cast members, which was both instant and took some hard work, they said. Reyes, Gillespie, Joyner and Shada spent a month and a half in “band boot camp,” learning songs and choreography, and taking piano, guitar, bass, drums and vocal lessons.
It was “just really getting everybody into [the] shape that they needed for the songs,” Shada said. “When you’re doing all this with each other, you become a real band — and you really become close friends and a close family. It was also just so much fun.
“This didn’t feel like work. It felt like we’re getting paid to do stuff that we would have dreamt of doing.”
Joyner said he’s worked on productions when the performers are told to “figure it out” before the cameras start rolling as producers “try to do it for as little money as possible.”
“I think Kenny said, ‘No, no, no, let’s get these guys in a room together for 10 hours a day.’ And I think you can really see that when you watch the show,” he said. “I think you can really see that we’re best friends.”
Every episode features original songs — rock, pop, power ballads, and Broadway-style tunes — that will get your toes tapping. And after the kids have streamed the episodes a couple of times, they’ll be singing along.
In Episode 4, there’s a sequence that seems pulled directly out of “HSM.” Unprompted, Gillespie called it Reyes’ “big ‘High School Musical’ dance number.” And one of the 14 original songs — “Perfect Harmony,” in Episode 7 — was co-written by Reyes and Gillespie.
Broadway star Cheyenne Jackson is also on board as Caleb, the ghostly bad guy; Jadah Marie is Julie’s best friend, Flynn; and Booboo Stewart is Willie, a skateboarding ghost and love interest for Alex.
For all of its goofiness, “Julie and the Phantoms” has an enormous amount of heart. There are moments when you’ll find yourself tearing up — when Julie’s family mourns the loss of her mother, and when we meet Luke’s parents, who have never gotten over the loss of their 16-year-old son.
While shooting those scenes, “Everyone cried,” Joyner said. “Everyone,” Reyes agreed.
“Moving through loss also is a big part of our story,” Ortega said. “Bobbing and weaving through the turbulence of life, not losing sight of your dream, standing tall, not giving up on yourself. So, yeah, we’re definitely tugging at your heartstrings.”