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After a COVID delay, ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ returns with a distinctly Utah flair

Filmed in Salt Lake City and Ogden, Season 2 has the theater kids taking on a classic Disney tale.

(Disney+) A poster for a new season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.

The storyline of Season 2 of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” picks up where Season 1 left off, with the show’s theater kids facing plenty of big changes and romantic developments. But in reality, 16 months have gone by. Filming Season 2 — which starts streaming Friday on Disney+ — was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing a long delay.

“Everything was going so smoothly and we all felt so good about the season,” said Julia Lester, who stars as Ashlyn in the made-in-Utah series. “And that’s right when we shut down.”

“It was a scary time,” said assistant director Brent Geisler. “It was, like, ‘We’ll shut down for a couple of weeks and see what happens.’ And six months later, we came back.”

[Read more: Utahn Brent Geisler has been a part of “High School Musical” since the beginning. Now, he’s the assistant director.]

There were masks and shields and lots of testing. And the normally exuberant set was reined in.

“We definitely didn’t have the playfulness that we had before. Everything was a lot more serious, obviously,” Geisler said. “Everything felt uncertain and a little scary, I think. But we had a great safety team behind us.”

The behind-the-scenes storyline became all about “protecting each other and holding each other up and keeping each other accountable and safe so that we didn’t get sick,” said creator/writer/executive producer Tim Federle. “We emerged, at the end of the day, telling the story of what it takes to actually come together. Season 1, we sing, ‘we’re all in this together.’ And Season 2, I think we proved it.”

(Photo courtesy of Fred Hayes/Disney+) Matt Cornett, Sofia Wylie, Dara Renee, Joshua Bassett, Larry Saperstein, Frankie A. Rodriguez, Julia Lester, Olivia Rose Keegan, Joe Serafini and Kate Reinders star in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”

Moving away from the movies

When Federle pitched “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” to Disney executives, he told them he envisioned a series that “pays tribute to our roots, which are spiritually and literally and geographically at East High. But sort of expanding the way we tell stories, expanding the way we use music, expanding the characters so that it’s not all sort of Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens in-jokes.”

That is, without offending fans of the original 2006 movie and its two sequels. The first movie introduced us to Troy Bolton (Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Hudgens), who sang and danced their way through auditions and performances of their high school musical, and fell in love along the way. The cast returned for two sequels — “HSM2″ (2007) revolved around summer vacation, and “HSM3″ (2008) was subtitled “Senior Year.” All three filmed at Salt Lake City’s East High, although the setting was Albuquerque.

“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” revived the franchise in 2019 with a series about fictional theater kids at the real East High in Salt Lake City. It pays tribute to and pokes fun at the “HSM” phenomenon — as evidenced by the title.

“In the beginning, all the chatter was about — what are they doing to my ‘High School Musical’? Which is completely understandable,” said Federle. “And now, it’s so much about, like, what’s going to happen with Ricky and Gina? What’s going to happen with Ricky and Nini? What new song is Olivia Rodrigo writing?

“It’s given me the confidence to know that this cast is genuinely so gifted — kind of lightning-in-a-bottle talented — that it gives us the kind of authority and freedom to tell these new stories.”

(Photo courtesy of Disney+) Tim Federle is the showrunner of "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series."

In Season 1 (which continues to stream on Disney+), the fictional students at East High put on a production of the first “High School Musical” TV movie, which launched the franchise. As Season 2 begins, the characters make the same assumption a lot of fans seem to be making — that they’d follow up with a production of the 2007 sequel, “High School Musical 2.”

But that’s not happening. Season 2 revolves around a stage production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

“To hear that we were doing something completely different for Season 2 was really exciting,” Lester said, “because I had never imagined a world of the show where ‘High School Musical’ wasn’t the main plot point. And I love musical theater, so I was over the moon when I found out it was ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

(Photo courtesy of Fred Hayes/Disney+) Dara Renee, Julia Lester and Sofia Wylie star in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”

There are even bigger surprises in store. Forget any assumptions you might have about who will be cast what roles in “Beauty and the Beast.”

“We’re accustomed to a princess who looks a certain way, period,” said Federle, who instead decided to take advantage of “an interesting opportunity with the series.”

And it’s not just the viewers who will find the unexpected. Lester said she was “really surprised” by the events of Season 2.

One of the messages in Season 2 is that everyone is beautiful in their own way, and not all talent resides in the most conventionally attractive people. The plan was to “expand” the “possibilities” for all the characters. Federle said. “And, in the process, let viewers at home who don’t fit the prince or princess mold dream big, too.”

Federle’s goal is to make acceptance and inclusion a big part of “HSM:TM:TS.” The cast is diverse — Black, white, Hispanic, Asian — and the characters are both straight and gay. After Season 1, the show won a GLAAD Award for its representations of LGBTQ people and issues.

“I think the theme is — go for your dreams, treat people with kindness,” Geisler said. “But the biggest thing is — really believe in yourself. Find your tribe. Find your people.”

Federle is a former Broadway dancer — his credits include “The Little Mermaid” and “Billy Elliot” — and he knows what it’s like “to feel like your dreams are just as valid as the kid who always gets the lead,” he says. “You want these kids to kind of step into their own, because there is an audience out there that looks and feels and loves like all of them do. And they deserve to see their stories reflected, too.”

Expanding the cast

In Season 2, a number of the supporting characters move to the forefront — not just Ashlyn, but Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez), Gina (Sofia Wylie), Seb (Joe Serafini), Courtney (Dara Renee) and Big Red (Larry Saperstein). “All of them get their place in the spotlight this season,” Federle said. “I also wanted to sort of throw new people into the mix to expand their lives and their stories.”

And the cast is expanding. Olivia Rose Keegan (who won a Daytime Emmy for “Days of Our Lives”) comes aboard as Lily and “brings such brilliant, juicy, villainous chops to the show,” Federle said.

A pair of Broadway actors also appear. Roman Banks — the first Black actor to play the lead in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway — arrives in Episode 3 as Howie, in his first experience in front of a TV camera. “And he has such natural charm,” Federle said.

Banks will sing later in the season. As will Andrew Barth Feldman, who starred as Evan Hansen for a year on Broadway. He plays a French exchange student.

And Asher Angel will play a “charming, smooth-talking student with wanderlust” — making him the second former star of the made-in-Utah TV show “Andi Mack” to appear in “HSM,” joining Sofia Wylie.

But the biggest name joining the cast is a Utah native: Derek Hough (“Dancing with the Stars”) plays Zack, a former minor Broadway star and Miss Jenn’s former boyfriend. He returns to Utah to take over the theater program at East High’s big rival, North High.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ogden High School, Dec. 25, 2019.

North to Ogden

Unlike the “HSM” movies, which were set in New Mexico, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is set in Salt Lake City. The fact that the series returned to East High, where the movies were filmed, is a big deal for cast members.

“I was so excited to go see the original East High, which is really special in real life,” Lester said, even though the cast had to deal with fans from around the world who would show up to take selfies and try to meet members of the cast “every day,” Lester said with a laugh. “It’s crazy. It’s a huge, huge phenomenon.”

There is, of course, no North High in Salt Lake City. Ogden High, the 1937 art deco structure that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, plays the part of North High. And “HSM” isn’t just using the school for its exterior — the auditorium is featured as well.

“I used to do national tours as a dancer,” Federle said, “and that Ogden auditorium is as beautiful as any theater in America. We were looking for a theater that felt imposing and big-budget and a school that felt sort of fancy on the other side of town. And Ogden emerged as a really great place to shoot.”

(Photo courtesy of Nick Sokoloff/Disney+) Ricky (Joshua Bassett) in a locker at East High

A COVID adjustment

The pandemic didn’t just delay the production of “High School Musical” for six months. It also altered the course of Season 2.

“It forced me to look at these 11 series regulars plus guest stars and say — what are the stories that are highest impact that we can film in a closeup and move the audience emotionally?” Federle said. “As opposed to, ‘We’re going to go to a stadium in downtown Salt Lake and fill it with a thousand people,’ which maybe we would have done.”

And the obstacles they were able to overcome “kind of made the experience more special,” Lester said. “We all learned to appreciate it more and love each other more and be grateful for all the opportunities that we’re given.”

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