'HSMTMTS' Creator on 'Surprising' Season 2 and Ricky & Nini's Romance

The Wildcats are back! Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is just days away from kicking off season 2 after an extended hiatus and there are changes afoot for your favorite East High theater geeks. With Miss Jenn’s drama department staging a production of Beauty and the Beast for its spring musical (instead of High School Musical 2) and facing off against their rivals at North High, led by her ex-beau, Zack Roy (played by Derek Hough), the claws are coming out. 

“I’m really excited for people to discover the season, whether they’re coming to it because they watched the first season or they’re coming to it because they finally want to see why this High School Musical reboot happened,” creator and showrunner Tim Federle tells ET, which exclusively debuts a first look at the new season above. “There’s a lot of Olivia Rodrigo bounce right now with what’s going on in her world and Josh [Bassett], too, with his music career. But mostly I’m excited for people to rediscover these characters.”

Picking up where season 1 left off, things ended on a bit of a cliffhanger for Ricky and Nini’s fresh new relationship. Just when Ricky got his love life sorted (and he was finally able to say the “L” word back), Nini received an opportunity of a lifetime to attend a prestigious youth conservatory in Denver, Colorado. With her departure from East High looming and East High gearing up to stage their new musical, just where do things stand for the HSMTMTS couple in season 2? 

Ahead of the new season, Federle discusses the anticipated new season, why he opted to forego High School Musical 2 as the in-show musical production and the challenges Ricky & Nini are about to face with a long-distance romance.

ET: What was your approach to season 2 and how did you set it apart from the first? 

Tim Federle: The first way, honestly, was staffing the show writing room-wise more diversely with really brilliant writers who happened to be predominantly women. It really starts with the inspiration of who the actors are. Because you have somebody like Dara Renée or Sofia Wylie, Julia Lester or Frankie Rodriguez, you really want to make sure you’re telling stories that they, as performers, feel proud to tell. So it starts with them. Then in the room, it’s about sitting around and saying, “How can we elevate and do our jobs to make sure that Kourtney has not just a moment in the spotlight, but a real arc?” That was the seed of season 2. In terms of distinguishing further, season 1 was so much about having fun at the meta humor of the original movies. Season 2 is about more confidently wearing our own stripes and saying, “We’re this show and that’s those movies,” and now we’re putting on Beauty and the Beast and we’re shaking it up. Those were all different ways to expand and still pay tribute to East High, but also blow the walls open.

How did you determine how to toe that line of still keeping the High School Musical world alive while carving out your own path creatively?

The extended East High Universe? Move over Marvel! You start with the music in a show that’s got the word musical in its title twice. We were like, “No matter what, I want to hear Joshua sing ‘You Are the Music in Me.'” We were able to, I don’t want to say check off the list, because we approached the scripts with… For as fun as they are, we approached them very seriously. We wanted to make sure early in the season, we could say to those people who were like, “Why aren’t they doing High School Musical 2? The show is called High School Musical.” We wanted to present as a gift to the fans, like, “Here is this amazing cast singing these amazing songs.” But ultimately, reading some of the stuff you’ve written about the show and stealing that kind of like fan energy out there for these characters, also gives storytellers the confidence to say, “Troy and Gabriella existed in their own universe for a reason and inspired, genuinely, a generation of kids to love musicals. But there’s also now a generation of kids talking about Ricky and Nini and Gina.” And that’s the strength of these actors first and foremost, who are so exciting to write for. It’s not that hard to step back and say, “What are the twists we could throw into these characters’ lives that resonate as real to the high school experience?”

In the season 2 premiere, Ricky hilariously covers the High School Musical 2 classic, “Bet on It,” that Zac Efron made famous with his epic golf course number. 

I think you have to in a High School Musical or you’d have to take away my WGA card. Part of it also is Josh is so idiosyncratically his own leading man, and he’s so forging his own path as a singer-songwriter in real life, that he’s so game and so up for poking fun and doing the joke. But also, this is the season where he as an actor also gets to expand. There are twists with his family and there are beautiful songs that he sings. I hope it’s like having our cake and eating it too, where we can pay tribute to the originals, but continue to blaze our own path.

Season 1 ended on a bit of a cliffhanger in terms of the Ricky and Nini relationship with them deciding to try things out as an official couple, at the same time Nini’s been accepted into the prestigious conservatory in Denver. Where does season 2 pick up with them and what challenges will they face?

We pick up season 2 very much right after season 1. It’s winter, they’re about to go on winter break. They’ve just reunited in a full and proper way. A lot of season 1 is about finding your people, the people who get you and love you and accept you. A lot of season 2 is about what happens the day after. Now that you’ve got your people, what happens when someone goes away or somebody new comes into the picture and how do you hold on to what makes you happy, but not hold on so tight that it no longer makes you happy? Ricky and Nini have a big season with all of the contours of a young relationship and both of them are forced to sort of confront and think about a lot. 

With Nini leaving East High and choosing to attend the conservatory, what were the unique challenges for you in making sure the character was still integrated in East High and her presence was still felt without actually seeing her interact with everyone?

That was very much chosen on purpose. I still remember being nine [years old] and my best friend moved away and I never forgot what that felt like. When you have a presence that’s as special as Olivia Rodrigo, even when she’s away, you feel her there. I have a cousin who just graduated from high school, and she and her boyfriend were debating, “Do we stay together when we go to college?” Even adults, especially adults, face those kinds of relationship questions all the time about a partner who would have been amazing, but decided to take a job elsewhere. Sending Nini away was a purposeful way of testing a relationship that’s already been through so much. With that said, Olivia’s amazing to write for and she definitely appears throughout.

How long is she in Denver or is that something you don’t want to answer yet?

I probably can’t answer that one. That one’s sort of the heart of the show. 

There are several fantastic new faces coming to the party this season and the first one who makes a splash is Derek Hough in the first episode. Can you preview the Miss Jenn versus Zack dynamic?

We have so many exciting guest stars this season. The whole Miss Jenn thing, for fans returning to the show, it’s like, how do we give them more of season 2 and the stuff we know they love, but also how do you expand to justify why you’re making more episodes? For me, the central hook was, they’re going to enter a competition. Ranking things is something that we do all the time as people and we do in the media. As young people, you’re always checking your clout and your status. Derek was brought in in this role that you’re not used to seeing Derek Hough play, which is the thorn in someone’s side because in a lot of ways, Miss Jenn has not gotten over the pain of growing up, which a lot of adults can relate to. When you are in high school in some weird way, you think, “Someday I’ll be over this,” and the truth is, you need to look no further than a Taylor Swift song. Smash cut to me sobbing in the car to the song “Fifteen.” Because those first heartbreaks, those first everything’s are so formidable. Derek is here to help inspire this competition, but also because, come on, Derek Hough, he’s like the new Gene Kelly. He was so fun to write for and we get him dancing later in the season. 

There’s already the sense that he’s going to show a lot of different sides to Miss Jenn that we haven’t fully seen yet. 

There’s so much water that’s not quite under the bridge yet that Miss Jenn’s got to wade through. Ultimately, she has to confront and look herself in the mirror and ask the question, “Am I competing or are my kids, and why?” That’s probably the spoiler-iest thing I could say. It definitely deepens Miss Jenn’s backstory and hopefully provides some online fodder and chatter about these characters.

Just from the trailer, it’s clear new guest star Olivia Rose Keegan, who plays Lily, will be a problem for the Wildcats. 

Keegan, we call her Keegan on set because we have two Olivia’s now, she’s so gifted at playing a villain who you sort of love to hate and maybe later in the season, can hate to love. That she was a joy to write for. She and Andrew Barth Feldman and Roman Banks, they all came to our show this season and every time they filmed something, we were like, “Wait, we need to give them more.” That truly happened with Keegan and Andrew Barth Feldman and Roman Banks. They’re just really special, sparkly young actors. So, who knows? Maybe there’ll be a spinoff. In [Lily’s] mind, she’s not a problem.

You’re very active on Twitter and Instagram. Do you take nuggets from fan responses or reactions on social media, or do they sometimes shift how you perceive how certain characters are being embraced?

That’s such a good question because especially in today’s times, we all live a lot of our lives online, more than ever, right? The real answer is my job, the writer’s job, the actor’s job, our job is to make the show. And the fans’ “job” is to react, and I respect that and I respect that space. I don’t feel like that’s my space to step into. If Twitter had been around when I was a teenager, you would have gotten some very hot takes on Dawson’s Creek. I say that because while I respect very much and I appreciate the passion that I know a lot of people have for these characters and these actors, ultimately that response feels, in a weird way, like it’s not really my business. That’s sort of their world to debate and talk about, and hopefully bond over. By the way, television production takes so long that by the time the season airs, you’re a little bit like, “Oh, wow, they’re reacting to this thing that I know is going to change so much, so just you wait.” It doesn’t change our mind, but we appreciate the passion.

How would you describe the feelings viewers will have watching season 2?

I hope they feel it’s emotional and surprising. Those are the words I would use.

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series returns Friday, May 14 on Disney+. For more, watch below.

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