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Playing school: Tim Federle puts a new spin on 'High School Musical'
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Playing school: Tim Federle puts a new spin on 'High School Musical'

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Tim Federle wasn’t like the kids portrayed in his series, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”

“I was only in one of my high school musicals – ‘Peter Pan,’” the executive producer says. “And I was a forgettable Lost Boy.’”

The desire to be on stage, though, wasn’t missing.

As a teenager, Federle wanted to take a particular jazz dance class but it met at the same time as high school musical rehearsal. “I felt like I had to make a choice. I could be in the musical … or the (dance) class might set me up for a professional career.”

The ambitious teenager opted for the latter and, yes, did get work on Broadway. (He was in “The Little Mermaid” and “Gypsy” and worked on the choreographic staff of “Billy Elliot the Musical.”)

But then, Federle segued into writing, penning several young adult books about a boy longing to be on Broadway.

The “Nate” books, as they’re called, tapped into the same desires “HSMTMTS” characters have. And they led him to co-write the book for the Broadway musical, “Tuck Everlasting,” and the screenplay for “Ferdinand,” an animated feature.

That he’d produce a series about high school drama students doesn’t seem like such a stretch. 

Still, Federle says, 16-year-old Tim wouldn’t have seen it coming. “He would have said, ‘There’s no way you’re running a show. You barely graduated from high school.’”

Using that varied background to reboot Disney’s successful “High School Musical” franchise, he tapped into a hipper sentiment to tell the story of a school staging the TV musical. Rather than look for Zac Efron/Vanessa Hudgens doppelgangers, Federle wanted something more: “Let’s find real theater kids,” he remembers telling Disney executives. “I was new to TV, so if they were also from the theater, we’d speak the same language.”

One by one, the series landed a string of triple threats – kids who could sing, dance and act.

When Federle was a teenager, “we did one thing at a time and tried to excel at that. Today’s generation doesn’t put everything into one basket.”

Olivia Rodrigo, who plays Nini on “HSMTMTS,” “has been writing songs before she could start forming full sentences,” Federle says. “This generation doesn’t wait for permission to say that they can do something, they pick up a guitar.”

Rodrigo and co-star Joshua Bassett (who plays Ricky, her boyfriend) also wrote songs for the first season of the series. Larry Sapperstein, who plays Big Red, is “an amazing comic.” Going down the cast list, Federle admits he’s blessed with “lightning in a bottle.”

Because he was so busy trying to get the first season up and running, the theater veteran didn’t think where he might take “HSMTMTS” in a second season.

First thought: Would COVID-19 be a factor? “We made a real decision about that,” Federle says. “By the time we would wrap this season, I had a feeling there would be a certain amount of COVID fatigue.” Thus: “COVID is not referenced this season.”

It was, however, a big factor. Actors and dancers wore masks and shields; directors and choreographers rethought staging. “For anyone in a producing position, you’d wake up, hold your breath and hope,” Federle says. He and others didn’t ignore how lucky they were – “to be working at time when so many were struggling.”

So, season two?

Federle decided it could be a deep dive into what happens when classmates go in different directions. His examples: Miss Jenn, the East High School drama teacher, and Zack, her ex-boyfriend who went on to a career on Broadway. He returns to Salt Lake City to direct the high school musical at rival North High School.

The two square off and battle to see who can produce the best show.

Interesting tidbit? Zack’s Broadway credits include “The Little Mermaid,” Federle’s big break. The only difference? Zack (played by Derek Hough) was the starfish. Federle played the catfish. (“I thought it would be funnier to say ‘starfish,’” he explains.)

A coveted “Menkie” award (named for composer Alan Menken) hangs in the balance.

Because many of the “HSMTMTS” actors were tutored and homeschooled, they never had the experience of going to public school. Sofia Wiley, who plays Gina, “was so excited to sit at a desk,” Federle says. “For her, it was an immersion trip. I told her, ‘Oh, man, Sofia, if you had actually gone to school, you would not be so excited.’”

Thanks to the exposure “HSMTMTS” has given them, Wiley, Rodrigo and others have been getting offers for films and other television shows.

That opportunity resonates with the 41-year-old Federle.

“When I was little, I’d be like, ‘Why do adults like Christmas so much? Kids get so many more gifts,’” Federle says.

Now, he realizes, it’s about giving back. “I’ve got 11 cast members and I’m able to make this an experience for them. That’s something I didn’t always get. But it’s the greatest.”

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