When the showrunner of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” added Derek Hough to the cast for Season 2, he knew that the six-time “Dancing With the Stars” champion was a native Utahn. But that’s not why he wanted him in the made-in-Utah series.
Tim Federle cast him because he’s “a massive Derek Hough fan. I think he’s the new Gene Kelly.”
Hough was a bit nonplussed by the comparison to the “Singin’ in the Rain” star. “Those are some big shoes to filI,” he said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. But a young Kelly probably wouldn’t have been out of place in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”
In Season 2 of the Disney+ show, Hough recurs as Zack, a former Broadway singer/dancer who has just been hired as the theater teacher at North High — East High’s big rival. He’s also the ex-boyfriend of East High theater teacher Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders), and their relationship did not end well.
And Zach is, well, rather devious, underhanded and determined that North will beat East in a big musical theater competition, no matter what.
“He’s playing a role that he’s never played before,” Federle said. Zack is “the exact opposite of Derek, who is generous, kind, and knows every crew member’s name.”
Hough said he had fun being “the bad guy, the antagonist.” And Zach’s competitive side felt familiar to him because he’s been a competitive dancer “my whole life, pretty much, since I was 12 years old.” First at dance events around the world, then on “Dancing With the Stars,” where he was a six-time winner before joining the judging panel last season.
“My whole life has felt like a competition, really, to be honest with you. So the competitive nature that Zach has, I feel like I have that within me. But he can go a little too far sometimes,” Hough said with a laugh. “I can’t say I’ve done that in my actual life. But it’s fun to be sort of on the other side.”
I’ve interviewed Hough multiple times over the past 14 years, and he’s always been great — friendly, polite, forthcoming and fun. I have yet to run across anyone who has an unkind word to say about him. We all know people like Zack, but Hough isn’t one of them.
Zack has “some demons, I’m sure,” he added. “Anybody who sort of feels like they have to tear anybody down, there’s some weakness going on there.”
Hough said he was already a fan of the show when he was contacted about joining the cast. He related to the message and the premise of the show, in which a group of teenagers find their friends and their joy while rehearsing and performing in high school musicals.
“Theater arts were so important to me growing up,” Hough said, “for more reasons than just performing. Also the community that they created for me and this sort of safe space. I’m indebted to musical theater and performing arts. And to be part of a show that reflects that is a privilege.”
Growing up in South Jordan and Orem, he bounced around to six schools “because I kept getting into fights and just getting into trouble or getting bullied.” When he was 12, his divorcing parents sent him to live with family friends in London, and Hough began attending a performing arts school, “an environment where I thrived.”
“I feel lots of parallels” with the Disney+ show, Hough says, “when it comes to figuring out where I belong, where I should be, and finding my place in dance and performing.”
He didn’t take the job because it offered him a chance to return to Utah, but that was a bit of a bonus for a man who has spent most of the past two decades living in London and Los Angeles.
“I actually was [thinking] — where’s my home? Where do I call home? And what feels like home?” he said. “And I have to say — every time I fly into Utah, it feels like home. Absolutely. So it’s always so good to go back.”
New episodes of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” start streaming Fridays on Disney+. All previous episodes are also available to stream.