‘High School Musical’ will return to Utah to film new Disney series

(Photo courtesy Fred Hayes/Disney Channel) Original "High School Musical" cast members Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, Zac Efron, Chris Warren Jr., Vanessa Hudgens, Monique Coleman and Lucas Grabeel at Salt Lake's East High School.

A new version of “High School Musical” is coming to Disney — and it will be filmed in Utah, its original stomping grounds.

On Thursday, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development approved tax incentives that helped lure production of “High School Musical: The Musical” to the Beehive State. It’ll be a homecoming of sorts: The original 2006 Disney Channel TV movie, its 2007 TV movie sequel and the 2008 theatrical release “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” were all produced in Utah.

The 10-episode series is slated for Disney’s still-unnamed streaming service — its version of Netflix — which is expected to launch sometime in the second half of 2019. The made-in-Utah series will join the forthcoming live-action “Star Wars” series, “The Mandalorian,” on the new service.

Production staffers are scouting locations in the Salt Lake City area this week — and Disney confirmed that the series will be filmed at Salt Lake City’s East High, although a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City School District said the deal has not yet been finalized.

East High became a Disney Channel icon as the home of Troy, Gabriela, Sharpay, Ryan, Chad and the rest of the “High School Musical” gang — thousands of fans still visit the school every year. (The movies also filmed in the Murray High auditorium and various other sites around the Salt Lake Valley.)

“They're hoping to use some of the original locations because they're so well-loved,” said Utah Film Commission director Virginia Pearce.

But while the movies were set in Albuquerque, this series will be set in Salt Lake City. “This is the staging of ‘High School Musical: The Musical’ at the school where it was originally shot,” Pearce said.

(Photo courtesy Fred Hayes/Disney Channel) The original "High School Musical" filmed at Salt Lake's East High School.

But don’t go looking around town for Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens or any of the other members of the original cast when production begins next year. (It’s scheduled to shoot from February-July.) “High School Musical: The Musical” is not a continuation of the narrative from the three movies; it’s a faux documentary series about a group of Salt Lake City high school students who stage a production of “High School Musical.”

Casting is underway for the eight primary roles, including Ricky, who auditions for the musical to win back his former girlfriend, Nini, a musical star in the making who is “fiercely loyal to her two moms.” Other characters include Nina's new boyfriend, E.J.; brash and gutsy Ashlyn; Ricky's best friend, Big Red; “entitled princess” Gina; student choreographer Vikram; and drama teacher Miss Jenn.

Will there be music? Of course! Plans call for each episode to include a new rendition of a song from “HSM” and an original number.

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development approved a tax incentive of up to 25 percent on what the producers spend on goods, services and crew in Utah — and the producers estimate they’ll spend $14.7 million here. They also estimate they’ll hire 286 crew members.

(The incentive is granted after an accounting is made at the end of production.)

“If you were to ask me what is the one production company that has made the biggest impact on Utah, I would say it’s the Disney Channel,” Pearce said. “They’ve really been a fantastic partner with us.”

She’s counted 40 Disney productions that filmed in Utah. “That’s everything from ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again’ [in 1979] to all those movies of the week that were so popular to ‘Andi Mack’ today,” she said.

The film commission estimates that, all told, Disney has spent $175 million on productions in Utah and created more than 3,500 local jobs.

(Photo courtesy Fred Hayes/Disney Channel) Monique Coleman, Corbin Bleu, Vanessa Hudgens, Zac Efron, Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel returned to East High for "High School Musical 2."

According the Susette Hsiung, an executive vice president of Disney Channels Worldwide, of the 106 movies the Disney Channel has produced, 22 were filmed in Utah. “That’s actually a lot in one place,” she said. “We were green-lighting so many movies, they were actually filming back-to-back here.”

Hsiung pointed to Utah’s “outstanding production crews, facilities and incentive program, which have contributed to high quality content for kids and families.... It’s been a positive experience here."

Disney likes that Utah is just a 90-minute flight from L.A., with easy access. It likes the locations here. And Disney has had success convincing producers of the advantages of working in Utah.

(In addition to “Andi Mack” and the forthcoming “High School Musical” series, the Disney Channel just wrapped production here on the pilot of a third series — which is being kept under wraps.)

“If they haven’t been here before, they’re a little surprised by the suggestion,” Hsuing said. “After they come for their first visit, everyone’s so film-friendly they’re happy to come back.”

“We have a very similar culture and work ethic,” Pearce said. “The crew like to be working here. They’re happy to come to set. It’s a family environment. And I think it all works for who we are as a culture.”