The ‘HSMTMTS’ finale was the definition of epic. Showrunner Tim Federle spoke with HL EXCLUSIVELY about all the big finale moments and teased what’s ahead in season 2.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series ended its first season with East High’s production of High School Musical coming to a close. The finale was full of so many incredible moments. Ricky finally told Nini that he loved her, Ashley and Big Red kissed, Miss Jenn hinted at a new musical, and, of course, there were those amazing musical moments. However, the finale didn’t end without a cliffhanger. Nini was offered a spot at a music school, so now she has a decision to make: will she leave East High and all her friends?
HollywoodLife talked EXCLUSIVELY with showrunner Tim Federle about the finale and beyond. He discussed Ricky and Nini’s emotional scene together and why it happened now. He also admitted that “everything’s up for discussion” when it comes to Nini’s decision. Plus, Tim teased some of his plans for season 2, guest stars, the next musical, and more.
First and foremost, we have season 2 coming up, do you know where it will pick up? Will it be immediate? Will there be maybe a time jump?
Tim Federle: What I do know is that I have the best publicist in the world because they very politely scream at me when I spoil too much. So what I can say is I’m so right now focused on the finale of the first season, and even though I’m right in the middle of season 2, there are all sorts of things in play right now and different ways we’re telling the story. But the show is called High School Musical, so I think it’s a pretty good bet that they’re going to keep putting on high school musicals.
One of the best moments of the finale was the emotional scene between Ricky and Nini. For these two, it could have easily been a very slow burn for them over seasons. Why make it the finale that these two really find their way back to each other?
Tim Federle: Such a good question. I think there are two answers, the first one being I had no idea that I would get a season 2 when we shot it. I feel like as somebody who’s creating TV today in the landscape of so many shows, you can never count on the future of your own show. And so I felt like, “Look, if all we’re able to give the audience is this single season, then I want them to hear Ricky say the words ‘I love you,’ and I want Nini to hear it.” The second answer to that is, I’m not if you’ve checked the news, but there’s a lot of despair out there. I think that when I’m writing for Disney, even if it’s for the brand-new platform with Disney+, there’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment and feel-good in them that I want to bake into the show. I think my primary question is always, how can I tell authentic stories? Ones that aren’t all doom and gloom because I think a lot of the high school experience can be doom and gloom. Frankly, a lot of shows already are that show, that big doom and gloom show. I always want High School Musical, no matter how far we push the stories, at the end of the day, we make people feel good.
Joe Serafini is going to be a series regular in season 2, which I’m thrilled about. I guess it’s safe to say we’ll see more of Seb and Carlos’s relationship in season 2?
Tim Federle: Yes, that I can confirm. I think there are a lot of stories to tell with those two and, yes, we will certainly see their dynamic play out. I think what’s interesting about this cast is episode 8. Suddenly, we put Kourtney and Seb together in a stairwell scene. In episode 6, we see Seb with Nini suddenly. I think what’s really interesting about them as actors is that they’re so versatile and generous as just actors with each other, that the combinations are unlimited. It’s a really interesting way to write for them because it’s like, wow, who have we not seen onscreen together? And what stories can I get out of that?
EJ is a senior. Will you explore the storyline of high school coming to an end and what those pressures and feelings feel like for someone who is about to embark on a whole new journey?
Tim Federle: The identity experience of both modern teenagers in 2020 and just the teenage experience of all time is like, who am I? Who am I going to become? And where am I going? EJ is a second-semester senior. It’s hard to imagine a season 2 that doesn’t in some ways reflect on that and frankly write to it. I always want to surprise the audience with where we take these characters. So that’s the jumping-off point and then it’s a matter of how we see that story play out.
Have you thought about the next musical? Even if you can’t even tell me, is there one that already stands out in your brain?
Tim Federle: Yes, there is. It was a big discussion. When I originally pitched the show, I audaciously walked in and said, “I’ve got 7 seasons in my head.” And the truth is I had like 4 seasons in my head, but I knew that I’d figure it out as I went. I think as the show expands, we will always be built using the DNA of the original High School Musical, which is a group of kids who sing and dance at East High. But I think one of the exciting opportunities is, as much as people love hearing those old songs, there’s something about this new generation of actors singing these really exciting brand new songs that I think is resonating for a new viewership and the new audience along with millennials who are tuning in to mainline their youth. What’s exciting about opening up our musical world into other musicals and going outside of High School Musical is there are so many ways to feel both nostalgic and fresh.
The finale ends with a cliffhanger. Nini’s got to decide whether or not she wants to go to this other school. Have you thought about what the show would look like if she did go to a different school? Is that something that’s up for discussion?
Tim Federle: I think when you embark on a new season, everything’s up for discussion. I don’t mean to be obscure in my answers, you’re just doing your job. But I look at everything and it’s like, yes, Nini has a decision to make. But then there are also deeper character things like Kourtney called Nini out the way only a best friend can in episode 5 when she’s like, “You’ve got to stop seeing the world through boys’ eyes.” And yet Nini, like a typical teenager and frankly like most of my adult friends too, tends to backpedal and go, “Right. I really appreciate that. I’m still trapped in this vortex of thinking about this relationship.” That is something that I think we can’t expect a 16-year-old to change overnight. I don’t think we typically expect adults to either. So yes, this kind of critical decision that she’s got to make is something big, something to write to, and that’s what’s exciting about season 2, which is I don’t want to just give the audience the same show over again.
This is a huge ensemble cast. The first season is very much establishing where we’re at and getting to know these characters just on the surface and digging deep a little bit. Is there anyone, any character in particular, that you’re excited to really dive a little bit deeper to in season 2?
Tim Federle: I love all my children. Sitting in the writers’ room, I’ve got the headshots of every actor and they’re above the writer. They’re above all the different episodes we’re breaking because I never want to lose sight of who we’re actually writing for. You have to remember that when we started episode 1, I didn’t know any of these actors other than Kate Reinders, who I had grown up as a Broadway young adult with. And so I was squinting and closing my eyes and saying, “I hope Julia Lester sounds right when she says this line for Ashlyn.” What’s so exciting about season 2 is I know them all so well now that I know the comedy they can play, but also the drama. I will specifically say an actor like Sofia Wiley, who just turned 16 and has an emotional depth and a number of tools in her actor toolbox that goes well beyond her years is someone who is certainly… I think audiences are going to see stories next season that really resonate with them. I’m in the half-hour format where audience members are used to a certain teen love trope. Will they or won’t they? What excites me about things like this GLAAD nomination is I think it shines a light on the fact that with this much diversity and authenticity in my cast. Not only is it exciting to lift up the voices of Frankie Rodriguez, Dara Renee, Sofia Wiley, Olivia Rodrigo, who is half Philippina, Mark St. Cyr, who has such interesting things to say and is not like a typical villain in this show. It’s not just an exciting thing to do, but it’s my responsibility in my position of privilege to make sure that I’m protecting those characters and lifting them out in the most surprising but authentic ways, which is frankly why I doubled down with a writing room staff for season 2 that better reflects both the cast you see on screen and the world that we all live in today. I don’t say that in a braggy way. I say it because it’s the bare minimum I can do.
Speaking of Sofia, Gina came back in episode 9 after having to move again. I know there was a little bit of discussion in the finale about how she could live with other people in the company and whatnot. Will she be a major part of season 2?
Tim Federle: I don’t know what the company line is on this. I will say this, look, it’s like we all go to Salt Lake City to start shooting the show very soon. It’s very, very hard to imagine High School Musical: The Musical: The Series without Sofia Wiley. And that’s as much as I’ll say on that.
Lucas Grabeel guest-starred in one of the episodes this season. Have you thought about maybe bringing someone else from the High School Musical world onto the show in that kind of capacity or as someone different?
Tim Federle: Do I look forward in season two and hopefully beyond to welcoming more surprising guest stars on screen, potentially also from High School Musical world? Sure. My number is unlisted, but the agents know how to find Disney. But I would say that what’s thrilling about creating this new generation of Wildcats for a new generation of audience is watching somebody like Joe Serafini, who a year ago nobody knew his name. He’s a college kid at the University of Michigan who’s a musical theater boy. Nothing in his DNA says this is a guy who’s going to pop into a big Hollywood TV show. By the grace of God, and by God I mean Stephen Sondheim, musical theater prepared all of these kids to step into the spotlight at the perfect time. So as much as I love guest stars, I also don’t love gimmicks. What I love is watching these, as you said, this huge cast of characters rise to the surface and emerge. For somebody like Matt Cornett, which you captured so beautifully in your piece about him, is that he is that slow burn character. Did he do some unforgivable things? Yes. But without an EJ, you don’t have a Ricky. He’s a 17-year-old boy who’s going to make some mistakes. So those are the characters who I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas to write about.