The cast and crew had completed filming a handful of episodes — mostly at Salt Lake City’s East High — when the pandemic forced production to shut down in March just as “we were really finding our stride as a second-season show,” said executive producer Tim Federle.
“And so I gave the same speech that I think every showrunner gave, which was, ‘We’re going to sit down for two weeks and see what happens.’ And two weeks, of course, became four weeks. Then four months. And then seven months.”
With production at a standstill and the cast cooling their heels at home, Federle came up with an idea. Why not produce a Christmas special?
“I just think this cast is so talented that I talked about it with Disney,” Federle said. “And I think we all saw it as sort of an easy win. It all came together very, very quickly.”
“High School Musical: The Musical: The Holiday Special,” which starts streaming Friday on Disney+, features cast members singing Christmas and Hanukkah songs, dancing, sharing holiday memories, showing old home movies — and a very “High School Musical”-ish production number from the upcoming Season 2.
“We ended up shooting the entire thing in four days in Arizona, New York, Los Angeles and, of course, our beloved Salt Lake City,” Federle said.
He directed remotely, and the crews “were just so happy to be working. Even though they’re all wearing face shields and masks, everybody really brought their A game. I think they were able to kind of dust off some cobwebs and jump into something that felt good to make.”
The soundtrack for the “Holiday Special” is already available on digital music services. Multiple cast members sing “That’s Christmas to Me” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
Sofia Wylie sings “This Christmas”; Joshua Bassett sings an original song, “The Perfect Gift”; Frankie Rodriguez and Joe Serafini sing “Feliz Navidad”; Julia Lester sings a Hanukkah medley; Matt Cornett sings “Last Christmas”; Larry Saperstein sings “White Christmas”; Cornett and Bassett sing “Little St. Nick”; Dara Renee sings “Believe”; Kate Reinders and Mark St. Cyr sing “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and Olivia Rodrigo sings “River.”
“It’s such a talented cast,” Federle said, “that I kind of look at them and say, ‘You know what? They should all have a solo!’ It’s an opportunity to show people what they can all do, which I’m kind of blown away by every day.”
Back in production
The cast and crew of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” returned to production in October, and they’re nearing completion on Season 2. Crew members wear masks and face shields throughout the shoot, and they — along with cast members — are tested “all the time.”
“We have tons and tons of protocols. I think we’re probably the safest building in Utah,” Federle said.
They’ve figured out some “tricky and interesting ways to use background actors” (aka extras), so the scenes will look pre-pandemic normal, he said. “And there are lots of big, group dance numbers, too. We’ve kind of figured out a way to crack that, too.”
(In the preview number in the “Holiday Special,” dancers do appear to be farther apart than usual.)
Federle said he’s “incredibly proud” of the crew, which is about 95% Utah-based. “They’re the hardest working, the most earnest. They put in the extra hours. They don’t complain about the masks. And I think we’re pulling off something that promises a big Season 2.”
Adjustments had to be made because of COVID protocols, and because scenes that they thought would be filmed in May or June were filmed in November and December. “Every element requires you to think of it in a new way and have a backup plan.”
Federle admits he was concerned about the effect the long layoff would have on Season 2.
“My great fear was that it would feel very different. But, aside from the shields and the masks, I think the show we’re making really still feels like the same show — except it’s bigger and even more musical.”
When we’ll see Season 2 has yet to be determined. Sometime in 2021 seems certain, but that’s as much as we know.
Tale as old as time
In Season 2, the cast will mount a production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” — complete with the songs from the 1991 animated movie and the 2017 live-action remake. “I love it,” Federle said. ”It was one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw.”
He was, it turns out, a dancing seagull in the Broadway production of “Little Mermaid,” and the head of Disney’s theater division — Tom Schumacher — became a mentor to him.
“So I called Tom,” Federle said, “and said, ‘Look, this is kind of a crazy question. I think Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is about as good as it gets. Can the kids in my show put this show on?’
“And, God bless Tom, he said, ‘I love it. Do it!’”
So “HSM:TM:TS” cast members will be singing everything from “Be Our Guest” to “Something There” to the title tune. “And when you hear these actors doing the songs, I think audiences are really going to connect. It’s such emotional music,” Federle said.
There will also be “lots” of original music. “Even some winks to ‘High School Musical,’” he teased.
Native Utahn joins the cast
Season 2 of “HSM:TM:TS” will also feature a musical rivalry between the kids at East High and their biggest rival. No, not West. It’ll be the fictional North High.
“I think of Season 1 as our ‘Waiting for Guffman’ season,” Federle says. “And I think Season 2 is a little bit more of a ‘Bring It On’ season.”
(The former was a 1996 mockumentary about the production of a stage musical; the latter was a 2000 film about the competition between rival high school cheerleaders.)
The music teacher at North will be Miss Jenn’s (Reinders) ex-boyfriend, Zack, who’s described as “charming but sneaky” — and he’s played by Utah native and six-time “Dancing with the Stars” winner Derek Hough.
“I’m a huge Derek Hough fan,” Federle said, “and he’s so musical. He’s a very funny actor as well. I think people will see a different color of Derek in the show.”
Hough is, he said, “such a gracious gentleman. And so truly Utah in the sense that he walks on set and everybody freaks out, but he could not be more normal, more approachable, more professional, more lovely, and that’s an environment that’s important to me.”