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Scott D. Pierce: Utah-made ‘High School Musical’ series leads on progressive issues

Although, really, it’s 2021 and it’s still unusual to see young, Black couples on TV?

(Photo courtesy of Fred Hayes/Disney) Roman Banks and Dara Renee in "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series."

Salt Lake City is more diverse than a lot of people think — about 27% of the city’s population is non-white. As with so many other things, demographics in Utah are different than much of the rest of the country: Salt Lake City is home to large numbers of Hispanic and Asian residents, but Black people account for less than 3% of the city’s population.

And yet SLC is both the setting of and the filming location for one of TV’s more progressively interracial shows, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”

“I knew I wasn’t going to see a bunch” of Black people “when I got to Salt Lake City,” Roman Banks, who joined the show for Season 2, said with a laugh. But being on the show “was a huge deal for me,” he said — not just because he loves the series, but because it’s a chance to represent.

Banks stars as Howie, the new kid in town who is turning into a love interest for Kourtney (Dara Reneé). On the one hand, it’s no big deal — a couple of teenagers meet and start to fall for each other. On the other hand, Howie and Kourtney are both Black, and that doesn’t happen all that often on a Disney TV shows.

“I remember one episode of ‘That’s So Raven’ where I saw two Black young people in a relationship — or in the beginnings of a relationship, I guess,” Banks said. “And I was like, ‘Whoa!’ I actually can’t think of a time that that’s been a steady thing represented on a Disney TV show, let alone like such a big, popular one.”

“Representation truly matters,” Reneé said. “And it’s such a big deal because if you don’t see yourself on screen and you don’t visualize yourself in a healthy environment, then you’re going to think that you’re not important enough to be in that situation.”

And it’s a big deal that’s not presented in a big way. “High School Musical” doesn’t preach, and it doesn’t let the messages get in the way of the entertainment. It just shows us the world the way it should be.

Reneé, 20, stars as Kourtney, a teenager who designs and creates all the costumes for the high school productions. Kourtney was originally conceived as a one-episode guest role, and Renée was good with that.

“I was, like, ‘That’s cool. I just want to be in “High School Musical”!’” she said. Then producers told her she’d be a regular “and I just started crying. I was so so grateful to be given this opportunity.”

She appears in every episode. And the role has expanded in Season 2 — she works at Salt Lake Slices, the pizza joint owned by Big Red’s (Larry Saperstein) family, and she’s fallen for one of the other employees, Howie. But Howie’s Big Secret was recently revealed — he doesn’t go to East High, he goes to rival North High, and he’s playing the Beast in that school’s production of “Beauty and the Beast.”

(Photo courtesy of Fred Hayes/Disney) Dara Renee stars as Kourtney in "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series."

Gasp!

“The reaction has been really, really funny,” Banks said, as well as widespread — from fans who love that plot development to fans who hate it.

The two schools are headed toward a high school musical-theater competition showdown. Long after East announced it would perform “Beauty and the Beast,” North and its ethically challenged director (played by Utah native Derek Hough) switched over to performing the same show.

The first scene that Banks shot as Howie was the first time he’d ever been on camera.

“I’d never even done a commercial or anything,” he said, “so it was a big first day for so many reasons.”

But he’s not exactly a newcomer to acting and singing. The 22-year-old spent a year-and-a-half in the Broadway production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” understudying several characters and becoming the first Black actor to perform the title role. He appears in seven (of 10) “HSM:TM:TS” episodes this season, and, yes, he’ll get to sing.

(Photo courtesy of Fred Hayes/Disney) Roman Banks stars as Howie in "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series."

Although, it turns out, even people who saw him as Evan Hansen don’t recognize him on “High School Musical.” “I think it’s the glasses,” he said with a laugh — wondering if maybe that whole Clark Kent/Superman thing is more plausible than we thought.

Neither of the actors knew that their characters might be headed in the same direction until showrunner Tim Federle told them just before filming began on Season 2.

“There’s so many of us and so many different stories to tell,” said Reneé, who thought Season 1 was “stellar” but was even more excited by Season 2. “Every single person in the cast had their own writer that researched them and looked at their background and really went in depth this season. And I’m just so grateful to see all of our stories being told.”

It’s not just about the beautiful, popular kids at the center of the show — Ricky (Joshua Bassett) and Nini (Oliva Rodrigo). Season 2 is also focused on the relationships between Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez) and Seb (Joe Sefafini), Ashlyn (Julia Lester) and Big Red and Kourtney and Howie.

“There were so many mouth-drop moments when Tim told me what I was going to be doing this season. I was just along for the ride, I guess,” Banks said with a laugh.

And to a city he didn’t know much about. “I was on Broadway, so what I knew about Salt Lake was what ‘Book of Mormon’ makes fun of it for.” What he found was “thin air” and “what looks like 10 years of Mac home screens every time you look out the window. The mountains are beautiful.”

(Photo courtesy of Fred Hayes/Disney) Dara Renee and Roman Banks star in "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series."

Reneé — who had seen all the “High School Musical” movies, was surprised to find out that “The Series” was shooting here in Utah. “I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to New Mexico because in the movies, ‘High School Musical’ takes place there.” (Like HSMTMTS, all of the previous “High School Musical” films were actually filmed here in Salt Lake City.)

And, in the first season, the cast did go skiing once they arrived. Due to COVID restrictions, they weren’t able to get out much while shooting Season 2.

And, while it’s easy to see that cast members had a lot of fun shooting Season 2, despite the restrictions, they’re also thrilled that representation matters on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”

“You don’t know how much it means until you see it for the first time,” Banks said. “And I’m really happy to bring that sort of relationship to a Disney show.”

New episodes of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” stream Fridays on Disney+.

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