Podculture: High School Musical The Musical The Series

Wilson Chapman, Abigail Sutter, and Emma Yarger

Wilson Chapman: Hi, welcome to Podculture, a Daily Northwestern podcast covering all the biggest events in entertainment. I’m Wilson Chapman.

Abigail Sutter: I’m Abigail Sutter.

Emma Yarger: And I’m Emma Yarger. Today we’ll be talking about “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” One of the initial launch shows for Disney+, “High School Musical” provides a meta spin on the beloved Disney franchise. The show follows a group of East High students as they stage a production of “High School Musical: The Musical.”

Sutter: This podcast will contain spoilers for the first two episodes of the show, so shut it off if you want to go in fresh. For everyone else, thanks for tuning in.

Chapman: So we’re recording this on Friday. It has been four days since Disney Plus has launched. So, before we get into the show, let’s just talk generally. How are you guys feeling the service? Do you like it? What has been your Disney Plus odyssey so far?

Yarger: I am so far surprised by how many things Disney owns as I’m perusing all the shows and movies that they have. It’s a really great collection.

Sutter: Yeah, I would agree. I’d forgotten how much they owned. ‘Oh, they own Fox. Yeah, The Simpsons is on here. Oh, and they own Marvel. Every Marvel thing is on here.’ The collection is a lot.

Chapman: Yeah, it’s overwhelming and somewhat worrying, but it definitely is a streaming service that’s hard to ignore because it has so many things that so many people like. This show is one of the launch shows for the service. They have a few reality shows and they have a few animated short shows. But this is essentially one of two live-action scripted shows for the launch day. The other was “The Mandalorian,” which is a “Star Wars” spin-off. Very good, by the way. And I think it says a lot about just how popular “High School Musical” is, and how relevant a television movie from 2006 still is. Their approach for the streaming service and the demographic they’re attracting, which is sort of like youngish, 20-year-olds and people who would be interested in this kind of thing. Do you guys have any thoughts on that?

Sutter: Yeah, I think it’s interesting the way Disney did this show. I, as a 19-year-old, didn’t necessarily feel silly watching it. I was like, oh, this is very nostalgic. It’s very fun. But also, I could definitely see someone younger still getting into it and liking it just as much. I think they’re trying to just bring in every avenue of watcher that they can possibly get.

Yarger: Something you mentioned earlier that is really intriguing to me is how streaming services like Disney plus are taking over and how their launch of both High School Musical and the Star Wars thing just kind of shows their cards of trying to pull in every viewer that they can.

Chapman They’re doing a lot of these very nostalgic properties like, the “Lizzie McGuire” revival. Things like that. We’re going to get a lot of these things that are attracted to our specific points of reference from childhood. So, with that preamble, let’s talk about the show. How important was High School Musical to you guys as kids? What were your experiences with it growing up? I feel like we were at the perfect age for it. I was seven years old when the original came out.

Yarger: Yeah, I was six. I have an older sister too. So, that really helped kind of bring it in. We had a viewing party at my house with all of our family-friends when it originally came out. So it was very important to me.

Sutter: Yeah, I definitely remember. I have a sister who’s one year older than me, and we would watch all of them together. We saw the third one in theaters when that came out. We paid the money for that one.

Chapman: It really graduated to the big leagues.

Sutter: I would say it was one of those things that whenever it was on, we’d watch it. Do you remember when Disney would have their movies, but with lyrics or with text bubbles with facts?

Chapman: The sing-alongs!

Sutter: Yeah, so I would say it was a staple of the Disney childhood for sure.

Chapman: Yeah, I would definitely say that watching “High School Musical 2” in my friend’s beach house when it originally premiered was one of the most important events of my childhood. It was really just such an iconic moment.

Yarger: The universe aligned in that moment.

Chapman: I was a huge theater geek in high school, I owe that entirely to “High School Musical.” It really was my introduction to the world of musical theater and I adored it. And I think it’s interesting because as much as we may love DCOMS, I don’t necessarily think a lot of them penetrate the larger culture. I don’t think people who were making it back then thought that it would be getting a sequel series 13 odd years later?

Yarger: I don’t know if anybody could have guessed how successful it would have been. It set up unrealistic, unrealistic expectations for my high school experience. Because your girl tried to do musical theater and play soccer and ultimately had to choose. So, Troy Bolton is not necessarily relevant.

Sutter: I mean, honestly, we can say that we haven’t been affected by “High School Musical,” but what is Northwestern’s mascot, y’all? The Wildcats, we really made it out here.

Chapman: So, I really liked the show. I was surprised at how much I liked it. Part of it is kind of a nostalgia factor, but I also think it works on its own.

Yarger: Little disclaimer though, my friend just asked me on a scale of one to 10 how much I liked the show. And I was like, based on how it makes me feel, I like it 15 out of 10. Based on production quality, maybe a 6.5. It’s really fun. I love watching it. If I am looking at it with a critical lens, it’s not awesome. But the enjoyment factor is the most important here.

Chapman So, let’s get into it. The show follows a bunch of high schoolers at East High who are staging a production of “High School Musical: The Musical” — their minds.

Yarger: It’s too self-aware.

Chapman: Yeah, it’s very self-aware in a way I like. They have this mockumentary format that isn’t really explained at all, and makes no sense considering there are flashback sequences at some points.

Yarger: I feel like the people who created it were like, what do kids like these days? Oh, “Modern Family.” Oh, “the Office.” Let’s make it a mockumentary.

Sutter: I liked everything that’s happening in the show. I think the mockumentary style is fine. I don’t think it necessarily adds a vital flavor to the show, though.

Yarger: You know, I think it might help in the kind of team drama vibe to explain what’s going on a little bit. Especially for younger audiences not always understanding like subtleties of the characters actions. They need that mockumentary style to be like, oh, why did you do that? Oh, okay.

Chapman: How do you think this show updates the original? One thing I did notice was that it’s definitely a lot more low-key than the original. It’s a little bit more realistic.

Yarger: Yeah, it felt pretty realistic. One thing I think Disney Channel specifically does pretty well as compared to other Hollywood shows or movies is that they look their age for the most part. Yes, they are all a little bit airbrushed as compared to actual juniors in high school. But, you know, they are still a little quirky-looking or figuring themselves out.

Sutter: As someone who did do musical theater in high school as well, the drama,
the tension or the hot tea that was going around, even if it wasn’t hot. I think this show and the original “High School Musical” did a good job of showing you that intensity. I was very invested in their I guess drama, you know, which is the point.

Chapman: It did a good job. I found it pretty realistic to my high school musical experience. The only difference is really in my high school, all of the musical theatre kids juuled, which they obviously wouldn’t show in this.

Sutter: Imagine.

Yarger: We have a B-plot of a new girl who comes in and is thirsty for the main role. And that’s probably going to cause some drama, as we have seen in the second episode of her starting to make some plots. I don’t know how realistic that is. The emotions behind it are realistic.

Sutter: 100%. You know, I think the emotions makes sense, but Ricky getting the lead, that doesn’t happen most of the time.

Chapman: Justice for EJ.

Sutter: EJ was really. As he said, he was out here for three years.

Yarger: That whole drama of seniors not getting real roles. That’s so valid. That happens.

Sutter: It was so weird at the very end when Gina was talking to EJ, and she was like, we’re gonna have to team up. But I was like, you’re gonna make him team up against his girlfriend. So, I don’t know if I understand where we’ve left off the show at this point.

Chapman: Hopefully that will be answered in this third episode. Because that would not be in his best interest to team up with her at all.

Sutter: I would walk over. I’d be like, honey, there’s someone trying to steal your role. You should probably know.

Chapman: I think the cast is pretty good. I find them all very charming. I like the girl who plays Nini, Olivia Rodrigo. I think she has a really pretty voice. I think Joshua Bassett, he plays Ricky, is very likable. I love the kid who plays Ricky’s best friend, Big Red. He’s my favorite character. He’s so funny.

Sutter: Oh my gosh. Him reading out loud those stage directions was painful.

Yarger: But so real. Also the girl, Julia Lester? Ashlyn, who’s playing Mr. Jarvis? Julia Lester has an amazing voice. You get to see a power ballad in the second episode that made me absolutely fall in love with the show again. And just also have appreciation for whoever is writing original music for this show. I think that’s a really cool feature that there are some original songs in addition to the “High School Musical” classics.

Chapman: Yeah, she was really good. She has a gorgeous voice. I really liked it.

Yarger: I love that character overall, but because she was checking people, she was just out here being a real one.

Chapman: They’re all very talented. I also like the fact that it’s a pretty diverse cast, but it doesn’t call attention to it. Nini, she has two moms. It’s treated as matter-of-fact. It’s not a big deal, which it would not have been treated like even three years ago on the Disney Channel. Carlos the choreographer. He’s openly gay. They have a boy playing Sharpay.

Yarger: I don’t want to get too into my ‘fangirl’ self, so bringing it back to reality. It does have a lot of Disney moments. A lot of bad jokes that make me cringe a little or laugh.

Chapman: There are a few jokes that genuinely made me laugh. I really liked when the STEM teacher was like, “Oh, I support the arts, I pay for ad-free Spotify.” I thought that was funny.

Yarger: There was like a fart joke in there. It just felt a little bit awkward. And some of those scenes, the humor was based towards a younger audience.

Chapman: It does have this weird problem, where it is for younger kids and it does have to operate for younger kids. But at the same time, it’s clearly trying to rope in some older viewers and viewers with memories of the original. It kind of does have to handle that balancing act of being appealing to older people and appealing for younger people. How do you guys think that it’s been handling that?

Yarger: I think that in general, it’s okay. But then jokes are something that really bring me out of the storyline and remind me that it’s not a show I would regularly be watching.

Sutter: I think it’s been doing a fairly good job. I feel like for people our age or older people who are watching it, the nostalgia factor is the biggest factor. I think that smooths out some of those rough edges you were talking about. Because I agree, Nini’s audition scene. I don’t even know. The camera turns and suddenly she’s alone on the stage. There are lights everywhere. It was one of those moments I was like, ‘okay, I’m going to keep watching.’ There are a few moments where it’s a little kitschy, I guess you could say. But I don’t think that those moments override the overall enjoyment. You know, it is what you expect. I think it’s not more but certainly not less.

Yarger: And that critique being said, I also think they do a good job about handling certain issues. Like Nini having two moms is very subtle. They don’t call attention to that, which is just a nice way to have diversity in their show. Ricky’s conflict with his parents getting a divorce feels very real and it’s not overdramatic, but it’s also not underplayed, the effect that it’s having on him.

Chapman: Yeah, I actually really liked that subplot and how it wasn’t there just to be dramatic. It was there to reinforce his character and help explain a little bit more about why he was so fearful when Nini told him that she loves him.

Yarger: That’s not realistic to my high school experience, where people would say that they love each other after two months of dating. They had been dating for a year and hadn’t said I love you yet? That just struck me as almost more mature than she makes it seem in the show.

Sutter: No, I definitely understand that. There’s a lot of people I know who did get together in high school and they were saying I love you after, you know, six months or less. You know? Because then EJ goes off and says ‘I love you’ and they just met at camp two months ago.

Yarger: That brings us to this question: Team EJ or Team Ricky? Tell me your thoughts.

Sutter: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t like either of them for Nini as a boyfriend right now. I think that EJ is going down the path to being controlling. I think he does like Nini. And if he makes her happy, then lovely, and perfect, and good for her. But that behavior, it’s annoying to watch. It’s annoying to watch her not know that her boyfriend’s trying to steal her phone and look at her texts. That’s weird. Ricky also is going through a lot and I think Ricky really does also like Nini. If that makes Nini happy then great, good, go for it. But you know, I think that he did handle the situation really bad. He did hurt her and he’s not saying sorry. He’s just saying ‘I love you.’

Yarger: Yeah, and I also think it’s not necessarily a great choice to be getting into a relationship or re-getting into a relationship when you’re dealing with so many other things.

Sutter: Exactly and then he goes into her space and does all this. Say what you will about that, but it is odd. I would say I think both are fine young men, I think that Joshua Bassett and Matt Cornett both do a great job and I love watching them. But if Nini were to ask me, who should I pick? I’d say, have a great high school experience. Neither.

Yarger: I’m going to get on that drama train a little bit and just say, I’m Team Ricky all-the-way because he’s a skater boy.

Chapman: I have a serious question. Did skater boys exist in high school? Because my high school had no skaters.

Yarger: Oh, my high school had skater boys.

Sutter: My high school did not have people who showed up with skateboards because it was in the middle of a cornfield. So, maybe we would have secret skater boys just waiting to come out.

Chapman: I did appreciate that they made him a skater boy.

Sutter: He’s so sweet. Right? Like, Ricky’s so sweet.

Chapman: I did like how they didn’t make it a big deal that EJ was a jock interested in musical theater. Whereas in the original film, it was like ‘wow you have two interests at the same time?’

Sutter: That was the entire plot.

Chapman: With this, everyone acknowledges it and moves on. I have to say, I think both of them have their good points. I really thought it was sweet in the second episode when EJ told his cousin that he likes Nini because she makes him better.

Sutter: It’s cute. It’s just not her job though. I need to see more from EJ. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of different actions from him and I don’t know what to make of them all put together. He’s obviously making her very happy.

Yarger: Can we talk about Miss Jen for a little bit?

Chapman: She reminds me a lot of Kristin Chenoweth when she was in Glee. Even her voice is a little bit like that.

Yarger: I agree. Who is Kate Reinders?

Chapman: I looked her up. Apparently she’s done musical theater. So, this is in her wheelhouse.

Yarger: Just like her. The trope that she’s playing? It doesn’t do it for me. I don’t know. it’s a trope, and I get it. And that’s it. I’ve experienced it. We’ve seen it before.

Sutter: I think it works mechanically in the show. I can see why they’re doing it. But they seem to be doing that to all of their teachers that we’ve seen so far, like the teacher whose title was STEM teacher. Didn’t even give him a specific subject. You know, you’ve got your STEM teacher who’s always angry and he’s very serious. He doesn’t like the arts. They’re not taking time to flesh out their adults.

Chapman: I wouldn’t say I’m fascinated by Miss Jen. I do think the idea of having the theatre teacher be a background dancer from the first film could be potentially really funny. She has a few funny moments. I liked in the second episode, she does this weird rendition of “We’re All In This Together.”

Sutter: That was so uncomfortable but in such a good way.

Chapman: I would not say I’m intrigued about her. She works fine.

Sutter: Yeah. I love the fact that she was a background dancer in the original. Or that she’s supposed to be. I think that’s really funny.

Chapman: Yeah, I actually looked it up. I don’t think she was.

Yarger: No, that would be too good.

Chapman: I think some of the callbacks she makes to the original movies, I find funny. I like in the second episode, she gets the phone Gabrielle had. They treat it like it’s from “the Lost City of Gold.”

Sutter: Yeah, like an artifact.

Chapman: Is this something you intend to actually keep watching?

Sutter: After finishing the second episode I was kind of like, what happens next? I want to know. So I think I’ll keep up with what’s happening. I don’t know if I’ll keep watching every episode, but it’s entertaining enough to be some brain candy.

Chapman: Yeah, I do think it is walking this line between being a comedy show and being a soap opera. Which I think makes it compelling, because you have those end of episode twists that keep you going ‘what’s going to happen?’ I am invested in the characters enough to watch the third episode, which will probably make me want to watch the fourth episode. What about you, Emma?

Yarger: The real question is am I going to carve out time to see this? And the answer is probably no. But if I do happen to have some time, I can see myself turning it on again, just to find out what’s going on. For a quick little break. It might be a guilty pleasure kind of show.

Chapman: I think even if I don’t l watch it weekly, this is definitely something I can see myself binging over winter break.

Sutter: Oh, yeah, definitely. That’s what Disney+ will be for me. It’ll just be my entire winter break.

Yarger: Hide from your family on Thanksgiving and watch this show.

Chapman: That’s it for this week’s Podculture.

Sutter: This is our last podcast of the quarter, but we’ll be back in the winter.

Yarger: Have a good winter break. See you next time.