High School Musical

High School Musical’s new fan-engagement playbook

Showrunner Tim Federle and Disney Channel's Jennifer Rogers Doyle weigh in on how to get new audiences to sing along with decade-old fan favorite HSM, which is already picked up for a second season.
October 21, 2019

Disney’s High School Musical juggernaut is putting its dancing shoes back on after more than a decade. But the new 10-episode series set to debut on Disney+ (and linearly on Disney Channel, ABC and Freeform) in November looks vastly different than its predecessors, as the House of Mouse isn’t relying on the original films’ playbook—or its fans—to build an audience.

Rather than being set at the same fictional East High School as the original movies, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is set in the supposed real-world East High that inspired it. The story begins when a new drama teacher arrives to learn that, despite its claim to fame, the school has never mounted a stage version of the movie. And it will continue in a second season, just picked up on Friday, that will begin production early next year.

The series combines the faux-documentary feel of The Office with the behind-the-curtain drama of Glee. It’s a layer of abstraction that takes some of the earnest sheen off the original films’ musical-ness. But the show’s creators say this approach gives them flexibility in how they reach modern audiences.

Showrunner and executive producer Tim Federle and Jennifer Rogers Doyle, SVP of brand development and integrated planning at Disney Channels Worldwide, spoke with Kidscreen about the risks and rewards of resurrecting a beloved franchise.

Why change the formula with a documentary element?

Tim Federle: The original franchise was so successful that I never wanted to remake it. I grew up loving Christopher Guest films like Waiting for Guffman, and I’m one of the people who finds The Office timeless. A docu-style lens not only instantly differentiates us from the original franchise in terms of style, tone and camera language, but it’s a different kind of storytelling tool.

Another thing that docu-style gives you: Not a lot of music-driven shows have their cast sing live. Coming from a theater background, I wanted to cast kids who can really sing and are really teenagers, representing not the fantasy version of high school but real high school—acne and all. Then we could tap into the audience that was looking for authenticity.

Does this say something about modern audiences’ appetites for pure musicals? Do they need something more grounded?

Jennifer Rogers Doyle: Whether it was the ’50s, the 2000s or now, music is effective at creating a connection with a property. Music captures an emotion you can relive over and over. They took High School Musical, turned it into Glee, and we reiterated it with Hannah Montana. Our research shows us that there’s still an appetite for music-driven content. There isn’t a really big musical TV property right now. But kids in high school are still trying to find themselves. Those themes are the same. It’s just the culture that is different.

TF: It’s less about adding realism and more that we’re taking these rehearsal room scenes down to the ground floor, similar to shows like Slings and Arrows. We’re investigating the real-life hilarity of what happens when a ragtag group of people put on a show. But the great thing about having 10 episodes is you get to still go to those places of out-there musical revelry that modern audiences are used to with La La Land and The Greatest Showman.

How much are you relying on the original fanbase to build viewership?

TF: I have to rely on a certain adult audience who will buy the Disney+ service. Maybe they’re there because of the big vault of classics or The Mandalorian. But I feel like there’s going to be one person per household who goes, “We should check this out because it’s new,” [and then say,] “I know that title.” Brand recognition will pique curiosity, but I’m not relying on the original audience to carry this to a new generation.

JRD: What Tim did brilliantly was to not make this High School Musical 4. That [older] audience does not want us to touch their precious generation. They lived it, loved it, and we see a lot in our research that they don’t want us to re-do it. The idea is that this series is a love letter to High School Musical.

So if not exclusively old-school fans, who will your new audience be?

TF: I would not be surprised if the audience that pops—through posting about the show with love and fan theories—is the nine- to 16-year-old female viewer looking for something fresh. My suspicion is that we’ll also have older teenagers who recognize the market is saturated with excellent shows for teenagers—but cast with people who aren’t teenagers—the ones telling worthwhile stories, but showing a darker side of humanity. And I think there might be a Millennial audience who grew up with it and will come in crossing their arms saying, “What did they do to my show,” and then find that we’ve winked at it, held it in our arms, celebrated it and ultimately loved it, while also recognizing that stories change. Lastly, I won’t be surprised if it becomes a big co-viewing experience.

The original was a global hit, spawning regional adaptations in Asia and South America. Are you guys working with that in mind?

JRD: Not at this point. Just like we did with the originals, we want people to fall in love with the stories and characters. We know once they do, the opportunities to provide extensions that make people fall even more in love will present themselves. We know how to do that. But for now, we’re focused on establishing these characters.

Disney expects girls in the nine- to 16-year-old range will be a key demographic for the show

Disney expects girls in the nine- to 16-year-old range will be a key demographic for the show

In other Disney+ news, the SVOD picked up five new nonfiction programs. First up, the streamer snagged the worldwide distribution rights to Howard, directed by Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast). The documentary is the untold story of Howard Ashman, the lyricist behind Disney’s classic films Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. He also created Little Shop of Horrors. It will stream in 2020.

Documentarian Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor, 20 Feet from Stardom) is producing an untitled Mickey Mouse documentary that will be directed by Jell Malmberg (Marwencol, Shangri-La) and work to analyze Mickey’s cultural significance. It is produced by Tremolo Productions and Lincoln Square Productions.

As part of Disney’s overall deal with prodco Supper Club, Disney+ has picked up three projects—People & Places, Wolfgang and Science Fair. People & Places is relaunching a new series of documentary short films, following the real-life stories of people around the world who “embody the Disney ethos.” Wolfgang, meanwhile, is directed by David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and will be a behind-the-scenes look at celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.

And finally, National Geographic’s documentary film Science Fair will be available on the streamer at launch. It was the winner of audience awards at Sundance Film Festival and SXSW and tracks nine high school students from around the globe in their journey to compete at The International Science and Engineering Fair.

All of this programming joins Disney+’s previously announced slate, which is stacked with several nonfiction titles such as Encore, Be Our Chef and Shop Class. The SVOD launches on November 12 in the US, Canada and the Netherlands, followed a week later by Australia and New Zealand.

With files from Alexandra Whyte

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