Within its sophomore outing, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series more than that it exists far beyond the shadow of its Disney Channel namesake
Starring Olivia Rodrigo, Joshua Bassett, Matt Cornett, Sofia Wylie, Larry Saperstein, Julia Lester, Dara Reneé, Frankie Rodriguez, Mark St. Cyr, Kate Reinders, and Joe Serafini
Back when High School Musical: The Musical: The Series debuted, as well as being the subject of abject derision due to its mouthful of a name, it was one of the very few Disney+ originals available. Though expectations for the series itself weren’t especially high, it was indicative of the quality of what we could expect from Disney’s new streaming service. With the first season proving a hit, and a delay in production due to COVID, it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I wasn’t incredibly excited for the second season to debut.
With its second season, Tim Federle has succeeded in providing audiences with more of what they loved about the first season, while also managing to provide unexpected twists. What’s more, there was a sense of certainty in what the true appeal of the show was. After all, it wasn’t truly about loving High School Musical, though that certainly helped, but rather about the characters themselves, and the relationships formed between them.
Wisely, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series season 2 moved away from High School Musical to instead produce a version of Beauty and the Beast, a decision which allowed the show to showcase the talents of other members of its cast. Ashlyn (Julia Lester) and Kourtney (Dara Reneé) in particular receive far more development and screen time in this second outing, instead of merely playing second fiddle to other characters’ storylines.
The second season sees the students of East High mount a production of Beauty and the Beast, mainly so that Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders) can best her ex Zack (Derek Hough) in the so-called “Menkies”: the Alan Menken Award for high school theatre. With Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) off at YAC in Denver, there is uncertainty about who will nab the coveted role of Belle, while Ricky’s (Joshua Bassett) ennui surrounding her departure means that his casting as the Beast is no foregone conclusion.
Overall, the second season feels far more mature than the first. Even though there are some storylines which get a little messy and ultimately go nowhere (Nini very quickly realises that YAC isn’t the place for her, but that’s okay), the action flows from a grounded, character-driven place. It isn’t sensationalist, and doesn’t rely upon plot twists or upon covering popular Disney songs. Indeed, unlike the requisite cover of a High School Musical track that seemed to pervade the show in the first season, musical numbers are far more scarce and are more often used to explore the characters’ emotions.
When songs are covered, such as “Home” or “Beauty and the Beast”, the songs are also rearranged in a tasteful way. “Home” is granted purposeful, driving strings that make the whole song feel far more dramatic and impactful, while “Beauty and the Beast” is more stripped back, allowing Dara Reneé’s voice to shine. Even though there were many nice originals in the first season, far more attention is given to these here. They feel far more well-produced, with many energetic and uplifting group numbers, as well as emotional solos that really mine the characters’ thought processes: Nini’s “The Rose Song”, as well as Ricky’s “Let You Go” and the finale’s “Second Chance” are really used to further our understanding of these characters and move the storyline onward in a purposeful way.
Each of the characters are challenged through the course of the season. Nini’s journey very much relates to her journey finding her own identity and sense of confidence. She struggles in her relationship to find her own sense of self separate from being a couple. Ricky, meanwhile, continues his journey from the first season in how he reacts to change and holds on to the past. His parent’s divorce has affected him particularly hard, and the unsettlement through his relationship with Nini is portrayed as an attempt by him to return to what he finds comforting and familiar. Gina (Sofia Wylie) continues to adapt to being in one place and having a real sense of community and connection when she’s traditionally used to keeping people at arm’s length and moving from location to location, while E.J. (Matt Cornett) struggles with self doubt as he prepares to graduate East High.
Character growth is far from limited to this group, however, showing tension and difficulty within Carlos (Frankie Rodriguez) and Seb’s (Joe Serafini) relationship. Of course, since it’s Disney they never so much as mention the dreaded word [redacted], but they do at least get to share a very chaste kiss, so there’s that. Having that sort of representation, no matter how neutered it may be, should not be underestimated. What’s more, this season exposes the audience to mature themes in the way that relationships actually function and does not pretend as if everything will work out alright just because two people like each other.
Ultimately, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ second season is hugely entertaining, energetic and, frankly, just plain fun. The relationships between the core cast is, rightly, the centre of the show and ensures the enduring appeal of the franchise without having to worry about which musical will be adapted within each year. Though a third season has yet to be officially confirmed, the move away from relying upon its namesake for success is a wise one.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is available to stream now on Disney+