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Culture > Entertainment

“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”: A Review

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC Irvine chapter.

High School Musical was an unexpected Disney Channel hit: neither the creators nor Disney expected it to be so positively received by the audience, much less the impact it continues to have on pop culture years later. So little was expected from it that the first film that they recorded the soundtrack in 5 days and filmed the movie in 24 days while school was in session at the high school. 

The title of the film was also a placeholder because the producers couldn’t think of anything better. However, the day it premiered, it was the most watched Disney Channel Original Film at the time and one of the only Disney channel films that would go on to have its sequel go on to premiere in theaters. Almost 13 years later, Disney+ is putting a new, updated spin on High School Musical through High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, aimed to both reintroduce it to new audiences and target old ones through nostalgia.

One of the lasting influences High School Musical left on pop culture was musicals. It popularized musicals in a time period where musicals were stagnating on popularity; it managed to make musicals cool and it’s impact can still be seen today, from Hairspray to Frozen. And it brings back that nostalgia with new takes on the old songs, most of which are more like covers than new takes, and a batch of new songs that also shine: Nini’s “All I Want” is a tik-tok famous song and Ricky and Nini’s duet, “Just For a Moment” was written by the young actors playing main characters Ricky and Nini (played by Joshua Bassett and Olivia Rodrigo) and blind-picked against songs from professional writers. 

While I don’t think anything will beat the original high school musical songs, these songs are catchy, and I can see them influencing a generation, just as High School Musical did for mine.

To briefly explain High School Musical: The Musical: The Series—yes, the title is long, but it’s also a part of the joke—it’s not necessarily a remake of the original High School Musical. The show does take elements of it. The main characters, Ricky and Nini, who are trying to navigate high school and understand their place and themselves throughout it are very reminiscent of Troy and Gabriella, though they have different problems. But the basic plotline is a new drama teacher comes to East High School, where the actual High School Musical was filmed, and decides to put on a production of High School Musical: The Musical and show the behind the scenes of the lives of the theater kids who are a part of the production. So, while the original High School Musical is a big aspect of the series, it’s not necessarily all there is to it: it’s about the lives of the students and the high school drama.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is its a own thing and it isn’t fair to compare it to the original when the only thing really connecting the two is that the students in the series are fans of the movies. It takes the meta format a step further by making it a mockumentary as well. Throughout the series, the cast members have mini mock interviews or look into the camera, The Office style, though they don’t take it as far as The Office does. The mockumentary gives us a better look into the heads and thoughts of the cast, though it gets less and less prominent as the series progresses. It also contributes to the vibe that the series isn’t taking itself too seriously and it understands that it can be seen as ridiculous.

Another thing I loved about the series were the songs: it isn’t like the standard musical in which people randomly burst out into song, something Ricky mentions he doesn’t understand. All the songs are sung in a way that would happen in the real world: Nini sings “All I Want” in episode four because she’s writing it and playing with the chords, Nini and Courtney sing “Born to Be Brave” at a karaoke, “I Think I Kinda, You Know” plays on Instagram because Nini plays the song for Ricky, etc. The only song that pushes this is “ Truth, Justice, and Songs in Our Key” because they start singing this song in the cafeteria, after staying up all night to make and create a routine for it, to help their teacher keep her job, but even then, there’s a reason for it. It takes the jokes about musicals being random and twists the traditional format so that while the songs are there, it makes sense.

The biggest criticism that I’ve heard about the series is that it’s cringey, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. A lot of the people watching it are adults, fueled by nostalgia, and as adults, we forget that these are high school students. Their concerns and tribulations may seem trivial in the face of “actual” heartbreak, bills, and real life, but for a high schooler, sometimes the biggest thing on your mind is whether you’ll get the part in your musical, or what you’ll do to regain the heart of the girl you like. And that’s perfectly fine. And I don’t think it was too cringey to the point where I had to stop watching, there were definitely scenes that made me cringe, but mostly, I was enamored by the growth and the cute interactions between the characters.

One thing that I felt was unnecessary was Gina’s villain arc. Gina is the ambitious, sophomore transfer student who becomes rivals with Nini because she wants to be the lead in the play. Nini is intimated by Gina because she’s an extremely talented dancer and singer, but soon dislikes her due to her snobby and scheming personality. Gina goes out of her way to be mean to Nini and find ways to get the lead, which came off as lazy writing because once Ricky and Nini are ensured the leads, she immediately makes the switch to insecure and heartfelt. Gina could have just as easily been written as the transfer student who is confident in her abilities, without the scheming and plotting, that while ambitious, doesn’t go out of her way to trash talk Nini, mentioning to another student that Nini’s stage presence is bland, or trying to get Ricky to come back so that Nini drops out. Gina is a sweet character: once that arc is dropped, Gina becomes a pillar that Ricky can rely on and a supportive cast member, integral to the show.

There are plot holes in this show. For one, how could there be so many cast changes while the play is happening, and no one questions it? I don’t think it was professional and if I were head of an arts conservatory, I would not stick around to finish this. But, is it worth watching? Yes.

I tuned in week after week because of how much heart the series had. The plot was okay, but the characters are complex, with problems and hopes and struggles. I loved the friendships that the characters had—Big Red and Ricky, Nini and Kourtney, Ashlyn and EJ—and it was endearing to watch how eventually all the theater kids came together to form a family. Even EJ, with all of his well-intentioned mistakes (intent vs impact!) managed to win me over. It was lovely to see kids enjoy themselves and find home and themselves in a place where some of them never expected. And while Disney Channel/Disney can do better for queer and POC representation (the “openly gay” Lefou whose sexuality was “confirmed through his dance with another man, the queerbaiting and Rose’s demotion to 2 minutes of screentime in “Rise of Skywalker”), I’m still really glad that this show exists. Now, please excuse me as I go and re-watch the original HSM trilogy and cry about Troy and Gabriella again.

 Stand out songs: “All I Want” – Olivia Rodrigo, “Wondering” – Julia Lester, “Just For a Moment” – Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett, “I Think I Kinda, You Know” – Joshua Bassett and Olivia Rodrigo, anything and everything from High School Musical

Yeri Kim

UC Irvine '20

There are few things I love more than the stars, and ice cream is one of them. When I was younger, I wanted to grow gardens in the sky.