In a revealing conversation, Tim Federle, the mastermind behind High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, delves into a range of topics, including the inclusion of original-cast cameos, Olivia Rodrigo’s meteoric career trajectory, and the audacious creative choices that shaped the series’ ultimate season. From confessional ballads to poignant on-stage monologues, the High School Musical universe has always been a haven for dramatic declarations. As the curtains draw to a close on the final season of the show, now available for streaming on Disney+, Federle himself offers a declaration of sorts, sharing with Vanity Fair that this interview might just be the last one he does for the show.
The final season takes the meta mockumentary style to a new level, delving deeper into the multiverse. The familiar faces of the original High School Musical stars, or at least some of them, grace East High once more to bring us High School Musical 4: The Reunion. This new installment centers around the impending retirement of drama teacher Ms. Darbus, offering fans a glimpse into the next chapter of these beloved characters’ lives. And if that’s not enough, the series delves into an imaginative exploration of the futures of several fan-favorite characters, revealing that Ryan is now married to Scott Hoying from Pentatonix and that Troy and Gabriella are working through couples counseling.
The show cleverly integrates “real” drama club students, who are actually characters from HSM:TM:TS, as featured extras—except when they’re engrossed in rehearsals for this year’s musical, which happens to be a production of High School Musical 3, humorously referred to by the students as a “2008 period piece.” To prepare for the role, Joshua Bassett’s character Ricky humorously suggests, “Why don’t we buy Obama yard signs and print out articles about the recession?”
In this exclusive interview, Tim Federle, aware of the monumental impact the show had in launching Olivia Rodrigo into stardom, reflects on the subtler moments that make the grand finale so special. He discusses Julia Lester’s unwavering insistence on a swoon-worthy, romantic kiss between characters Ashlyn and Maddox, embodied by Saylor Bell Curda. Sofia Wylie’s appearance in a stunning $15,000 Oscar de la Renta gown for a press conference scene also stands out, with Federle reminiscing, “It was like seeing my daughter on her wedding day.”
Among the many memorable lines, the one that resonates with Federle is when East High’s drama teacher Miss Jenn, played by Kate Reinders, tells her former student E.J., portrayed by Matt Cornett, “You’d make a hell of a teacher someday.” This line, laced with nostalgia, captures Federle’s sentiments about the transformative power of drama teachers, which parallels his creative journey with Disney. Federle reflects on how the show has evolved from its inception, with the network’s initial cautiousness giving way to creative freedom, allowing him to infuse his vision into the series.
As both the writer and director of the series finale, Federle delves into the challenges and triumphs of the final season, including his attempts to secure certain cameos that didn’t materialize, despite suggestive Instagram posts by Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. He shares his thoughts on the show’s resonating approach, which captivated audiences even as it ventured into uncharted territory by daring to reimagine familiar characters.
Federle reflects on the shift in perspective he experienced in helming the show and how his initial understanding of the original High School Musical franchise has deepened. He acknowledges the massive impact the franchise had, acknowledging that it transcended its Disney Channel origins to achieve a global phenomenon status, akin to Beatlemania.
Throughout the interview, Federle discusses how the show’s enduring themes of self-discovery, young love, and belonging have resonated across generations. He highlights his intention to celebrate these timeless themes while infusing them with an authentic, contemporary twist. Federle sheds light on his decision to embark on the ambitious meta journey of the final season, combining the production of High School Musical 3 within the show’s universe with a High School Musical reunion film. He acknowledges the boldness of this decision and the anticipation it carries.
In response to the query of whether the show was always planned for four seasons, Federle provides insight into its evolution. He acknowledges that the show’s concept initially held the potential for a much longer run, but practical considerations led to the decision to conclude it with four seasons. Federle emphasizes the desire to end the show on his own terms rather than leaving viewers with unresolved cliffhangers.
Federle’s approach to the reboot of High School Musical struck a chord with audiences, setting it apart from other reboots that had garnered less attention. He attributes this success to a mix of luck and his personal identification with the world of theater. Sharing his experiences as a theater enthusiast who was once bullied for pursuing his passion, Federle explains how he injected his genuine theater-kid energy into the franchise, resonating with like-minded enthusiasts.
The show’s departure from High School Musical fan fiction was a strategic choice, enabling it to carve its own niche and avoid being a mere shadow of the original. Federle reveals how he approached the franchise from a sideways perspective, having not grown up with it but recognizing the potential for revitalizing musicals in popular culture. His research-driven exploration of High School Musical led him to become a dedicated fan of the franchise, allowing him to integrate its essence into his work.
The culmination of the series was marked by the juxtaposition of a High School Musical 3 production within the show’s universe and a High School Musical reunion film. Federle explains the creative thought process behind this meta endeavor, describing it as a “jumping the shark” moment that he hopes fans will embrace. He justifies the incorporation of the production, emphasizing its relevance and the organic flow of the story.
As the series unfolds in its grand finale, Federle addresses the challenges faced in accommodating the vast ensemble cast and the limitations of time and resources. He shares anecdotes about shooting some scenes in a tightly packed 14-day schedule, highlighting the camaraderie and dedication of the cast and crew. Reflecting on the show’s ending, Federle expresses a sense of bittersweet nostalgia, comparing it to the mixed emotions experienced on the final opening night of a theatrical production.
Throughout the series, a camcorder was a constant presence on set, with Joshua Bassett frequently wielding it. Federle unveils a charming behind-the-scenes tidbit, revealing that when the characters perform “Born to Be Brave” in a limo, the footage was shot by Bassett himself on his camcorder. This spontaneous touch adds an authentic and personal dimension to the scene, reinforcing Bassett’s pivotal role in shaping the show’s voice.
The return of original franchise stars—such as Corbin Bleu, Lucas Grabeel, Monique Coleman, Kaycee Stroh, Bart Johnson, and Alyson Reed—adds a nostalgic element to the series’ conclusion. Federle offers insights into the process of bringing back these iconic figures, acknowledging the apprehensions and excitement they brought to the set. The familiar faces of the original cast seamlessly blended with the new generation, contributing their wisdom and experience to the show’s evolution.
Federle reflects on the gratifying decision to embrace the canonically queer identities of characters, such as Ryan and Kelsey. He emphasizes the importance of representing
Jiminy Cricket, Bambi, Thumper, Flower, Dumbo