Salt Lake City is home to one of television’s most famous high schools. Albuquerque had the audacity to steal it from us.
The “High School Musical” franchise was a genuine global phenomenon, to the tune of more than 255 million viewers. But even though the franchise was filmed in Salt Lake’s East High School, the actual films were set in Albuquerque. Apparently, the writers felt it was appropriate to reject one of the country’s most beautiful cities for a place whose best attraction is a Turquoise Museum. (I’m only a little bitter.) To add insult to injury, East High didn’t even get to keep its mascot — the actual high school’s mascot, the Leopards, was replaced with the (admittedly catchier) Wildcats.
Luckily, Disney+ is here to right history’s wrongs. The streaming service’s new colon-happy title “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is actually set in Salt Lake City. This mockumentary follows a drama teacher (Kate Reinders) at the “real” East High who decides to direct a stage version of the popular film. Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) is hoping to get promoted from chorus girl to Gabriella, the show’s star. Her new boyfriend EJ (Matt Cornett) seems like the perfect candidate for Troy, the male lead, but Olivia’s ex Ricky (Joshua Bassett) also impulsively auditions for the show in a quest to win her back. The behind-the-scenes angle cuts some of the musical fantasy of the original films — it’s just as much “The Office” as “Camp Rock” — but, rest assured, there are still love triangles and Disney-appropriate teen angst. (Thank God.)
Nathan Smedley is a Utah native who participated in the series as a featured extra. Smedley, who didn’t come into the project with acting experience, said he “auditioned on a whim.” After a nerve-racking selection process, he was one of 15 chosen out of an initial pool of about 500. “I loved [the movies] growing up, and it was a dream come true,” Smedley said.
Smedley said the team behind the show “went out of their way to include Utah talent.” Most of the principal dancers, featured extras and additional extras were local. Jeff T. Miller, a Utah-based producer of the series, said that Disney was impressed with the local talent behind-the-scenes. “The crew here is as good as anywhere in the world, so why would you want to go somewhere else?” he said.
For many Utahns who watched “High School Musical” as children, this new series is an exciting homecoming. “It’s great to be part of a show that acknowledges how great Utah really is,” Smedley said. He said the original films were a childhood favorite and source of local pride. “I grew up going to East High to see Sharpay’s pink locker,” he said. “It’s a huge part of film history in Utah.”
East High School, complete with that famous pink locker, is still a popular tourist attraction — students still sometimes see tour buses parked outside the school. The Utah Office of Tourism even has a four-day itinerary for super fans. (For just a measly four-hour drive, you can drive a go-kart that might have touched the butt of Zac Efron.) Clearly, the state wants to stay in Disney’s good graces. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development provided a tax incentive for the production of season one.
However, Jeff T. Miller, a Utah-based producer of the series, said that for Disney, coming back to Utah was about more than finances. “We are not in the top 10% of incentives,” Miller said. But Disney producers liked the convenience of filming in Utah, and Miller said they were impressed by how friendly and accommodating the locals were. “We feel that it’s more of a partnership here than in many other places in the country,” Miller said. He said that Disney’s relationship with Utah is a sign of the state’s business-friendly environment. “Having the Disney company here tells you everything you need to know,” he said.
Both Miller and Smedley agree that series creator Tim Federle did a good job of updating the series for a new generation. Miller said he liked the contemporary feel of the new show, and Smedley emphasized the series’ LGBT-inclusivenes. Smedley said it was huge progress that a family show “expresses and validates and acknowledges LGBT people of all ages … It wasn’t anything I saw on Disney Channel growing up.”
He hopes that families will watch “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” together. “Give the first episode a shot, no matter your age,” Smedley said. “I guarantee you’ll like it.”
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