Thanks to Whitney Houston, ‘High School Musical’ has its first gay romance
After three hit movies, a concert tour and countless stage productions, the “High School Musical” franchise introduces its first gay love story with Friday’s episode of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”
It’s a major moment for the canon and for Disney. Except, by design, it isn’t. Unlike other young-adult series, whose approach to LGBTQ representation often features pivotal coming-out scenes or bigoted bullies, the focus is on the relationship between the two characters at the center, Carlos and Seb. Like any relationship on the Disney+ show, theirs simply exists.
“This is a story that would have changed my life if I had seen it when I was a kid,” showrunner Tim Federle told The Times. “And the reason it would have changed my life is because it’s no big deal. It’s actually just real life.”
A mockumentary spinoff of the beloved trilogy, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” centers on a group of theater kids at the “real” East High — where the TV movies were made — as they stage their own version of the teen play.
According to Federle, actor Frankie A. Rodriguez (Carlos) inspired the idea for Friday’s “Homecoming” episode with his audition for student choreographer by singing an a cappella version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
“I saw in Frankie what I see more and more in a younger generation, which is a freedom of expression, of really being who they truly are in a way that I certainly didn’t feel when I was in high school and I was in the closet,” Federle said. “When he sang that song so joyfully and freely ... I was like, ‘I think there’s a story here.’”
That story became Episode 5, which opens with the typically confident Carlos in a rare moment of vulnerability. After rehearsing an extended dance break with Seb (Joe Serafini), Carlos initiates every high schooler’s worst nightmare: asking his crush to the homecoming dance.
“I remember daring myself to ask this other boy in my theater class essentially on a version of a date,” Federle said. “I remember him rejecting me and saying, ‘You’re a really good friend of mine but I’m not that way.’ ... I think [Carlos] is afraid that he’s going to be told the same thing that I was told in high school.”
Rodriguez also could relate.
“It’s such a tender scene, and I have been in that situation in my real life,” he said. “That nervous energy of like, ‘Do I ask him? Do I take the chance? What does rejection feel like?’ Everything was just really honest, and so, as an actor, to play that was so much fun.”
Fast-forward to the big night, when it appears at first that Seb stood up Carlos. With the help of his theater squad, Carlos summons the courage to take the center of the dance floor by himself (he is the choreographer, after all) to the tune of an upbeat self-love song, “Born to Be Brave.”
“‘Born to Be Brave’ became a kind of anthem, in the middle of this episode, to say you don’t need a dance partner to dance,” Federle said. “You don’t need a boy to feel empowered. You don’t need a partner to be whole.”
In a touching plot twist, Seb joins his date, explaining that he had to deal with a brief crisis on his family farm. The two make up and share a sweet slow dance, capping a script that gave Serafini “chills” upon first read.
“I never felt comfortable enough to express myself in the way that I felt I could around my theater friends, and it’s just a really beautiful moment,” Serafini said. “Just the fact that they can go to the dance together at all and no one can ... turn their heads or think anything different because it’s just today’s world. We’re all just out here loving each other and minding our own business.”
Joe Serafini, who plays Seb in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” on Disney+, will be a series regular in the second season.
“Today’s world” was the operative framework for approaching a kind of story that never played out in the earlier “High School Musical” films, despite many speculating — and hoping — that the franchise’s original choreographer character, Ryan, might be gay.
“Maybe 13 years ago it wasn’t, even then, the time to embrace that fully,” Federle said. “I have an opportunity now on Disney+, which is, in its own way, trying to announce itself as being a ... streaming channel where they’re going to surprise viewers.”
Rodriguez also pointed out the different sociopolitical climate in which the original movies were made.
“I think we kind of forget where we were 13 years ago. Gay marriage wasn’t legal, so even though it seems like that was 50 years away, it really wasn’t,” Rodriguez said. "[The series is] really shedding light as to what high school life is like right now and making sure that those kids that have never seen themselves onscreen have, finally, someone to connect to.”
It wasn’t until 2017’s “Andi Mack” that Disney Channel introduced its first gay main character in middle schooler Cyrus Goodman. The tween series’ historic coming-out scenes garnered national media attention, “opened a lot of doors for storytellers in a younger medium,” like Federle, and brought Serafini to tears.
“Especially for a Disney Channel show, I wasn’t too sure what to expect going into it,” Rodriguez said. “But I did read about it and how important this episode was going to be, so I wanted to watch it, and it was very emotional because I think it perfectly captured what that moment is to someone that age coming out at that time.”
Though Sofia Wylie, who plays triple threat Gina in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” has aged a few years since Cyrus first came out to her character, Buffy, in “Andi Mack,” she remembers being surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reception and has seen even more progress since.
“It’s all become much more normalized, and I think that’s really what the goal is,” Wylie said. “High schoolers are just feeling their feelings, and Carlos and Seb are doing the same.”
Though Federle credited titles such as “Andi Mack” and “Love, Simon” with helping introduce LGBTQ stories into the mainstream, he’s ready to carry the discussion past the “coming out” phase. Hence the decision not to include such a scene here.
“If we really want to move the conversation forward, we also need to show stories in which it’s presented as not only a given fact but something to be either proud of or not to make a huge deal out of,” he said.
Carlos and Seb’s love story is not the only way “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” touches on queer themes. Nini (Olivia Rodrigo), who plays Gabriella in the theater kids’ production, has two moms; Ricky (Joshua Bassett), who plays Troy, sports a Pride T-shirt; and Seb lands the role of Sharpay, originated by Ashley Tisdale. And none of it is a big deal — therefore it kind of is.
“I hope that the LGBTQ-identifying viewers take away the message that they deserve to be asked to the dance. And if they don’t, they deserve to dance anyway,” Federle said. “And frankly, I hope that non-LGBTQ viewers take away the message that we’re all more alike than we’re not and dance parties are more fun when we’re all dancing together.”
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