Sometimes, art imitates life, and other times, life imitates art.
Some combo of the two things ended up happening with this season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which debuted a few months after the spectacular rise of its star, Olivia Rodrigo. She debuted her single "drivers license" in January and quickly took the world by storm, both because it's a great song and because it seemed to indicate some personal life drama with HSMTMTS co-star Joshua Bassett that people could not get enough of.
The song shot to the top of the charts and became viral enough for a whole Saturday Night Live sketch to be centered around it. Rodrigo then released a few more hit singles before dominating the charts with her album Sour, and performing on SNL herself. In the past seven months, she has become a massive star, eclipsing Bassett and the rest of her castmates in the world outside of High School Musical.
So of course, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series season two featured a storyline about Rodrigo's character, Nini, going viral with a song she wrote—or at least as viral as you can really go in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the show is set. It causes a rift in her relationship with Bassett's character Ricky, and leads to a break-up and a burgeoning music career. Series creator Tim Federle just needs people to know that season two was written long before "drivers license" was even a thing.
"I think there's something sort of magical about writing. Like, my whole career, there's certain things you write and you think it means nothing, and then the universe shows you something, and you're like, that's crazy, that coincidence," he tells E! News. "I appreciate you knowing how far in advance we write these things, because I think we never would have been so obvious."
In fact, Rodrigo's success is so astronomical that Federle didn't even fully grasp the parallels at first.
"It doesn't feel like the plot of our show because I feel like everything in Utah needs to have a scale that's believable. Like, if you wrote the scale of success that Olivia's actually having, nobody would believe it," he says. "There's this scene we shot during the spring break episode where she's like, 'Oh my gosh, I have 15,000 followers,' and I'm laughing because in real life, Olivia has like 15 million."
Federle says the plot of season two of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series was more inspired by a quest to make a good show while also keeping the cast and crew safe during a pandemic. That meant smaller storylines with fewer actors at a time, and even an episode where everyone communicated via video call, but only because they were all on spring break in different places, as a "wink" to what was going on in the real world, and a safer way to make a TV show.
"Like, the world is kind of literally on fire," he says. "So it puts in stark contrast whatever gossip or rumors or pop culture, these things we click on that we love, that we escaped into—and I needed them too—ultimately pale in comparison to the really hard things happening across the world."
Rodrigo was also paying attention to the really hard things happening in the world, and even took a trip to the White House to help promote vaccinations. Federle wasn't aware of the trip beforehand, and thought people were joking when they began texting him the memes.
"When I realized she actually went to the White House, I was delighted and not to be smug about it, but if you work with Olivia, you're kind of like, well, it's a matter of time before she ascends the throne and becomes the new top it girl," he says. "What her album proved is that she's whatever the opposite of a one-hit wonder is. She's like the poet laureate of a generation, and I can't wait to see what other music she makes."
Rodrigo, of course, is not the only supernaturally talented star of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Instead of following up season one's production of High School Musical with its sequel, High School Musical 2, Federle instead turned to Alan Menken and Beauty and the Beast. It was a great way to switch things up, and put a different leading lady in the spotlight.
"It was really great to be able to see Julia Lester play Belle, which was a story we were so excited to tell this season, and the opportunity just would not have been there if she was still playing [HSM drama teacher] Ms. Darbus," he explains. "A lot of it is just looking at our cast and saying, 'How can they stretch their muscles and show the world all the things they can do?'"
While HSMTMTS doesn't have a confirmed season three just yet, there are high hopes, and Federle has definitely considered the fact that he can't keep all the kids around forever, especially if anyone else becomes as famous as Rodrigo. He's got a vision for what the future could look like, and it's a future that could last a long, long time.
"I think if Disney gave me the runway to do it, I could totally turn this into like a Degrassi High," he says, referencing the classic Canadian high school series that lasted many years and many cast changes. "The spirit of the show remains the same, which is what happens when a disparate group of people come together and have to figure out how to be a team. That's a formula that's so timeless that if you cast the right people, I think it stays fresh forever."
Season two of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series comes to an end on Friday, July 30. Be sure to come back for more from Federle on where the show leaves off and what might come next!