Is it really the beginning of the end for Olivia Rodrigo on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series? Not so fast!
While showrunner Tim Federle teased last week that season 3 of Disney+'s High School Musical series would be "about trying to give her character a proper sendoff," EW got him to elaborate more on what the future holds for the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. And it turns out the answer is a lot less concrete than it originally sounded.
Below, Federle opens up more about Rodrigo's potential exit next season, which cast member is stepping into the main role in her place this season, and what else fans can expect from season 3.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea come from to set this season at summer camp rather than at school?
TIM FEDERLE: Making this season was just so much fun. There's something about a change of locations, taking the show outside — we had such a sort of interior season 2, and it was so COVID protocol-y, so opening it up and singing and dancing under the clouds and stars, it actually did feel like summer camp. Part of it was, I want to hang on to this incredible cast as long as I can. So why summer camp? Because it helps me delay saying goodbye to these actors who we've all grown so attached to. I knew that if we skipped through summer and went right back to school, some people would've graduated and there'd be really big changes. I just wanted to hold on to the actors as long as possible.
And then the franchise is obviously very inspired by the original movies, the second of which went to the country club. A lot of people grew up on that movie and they know that summer vibes are part of the franchise. When you're a kid, your life is so defined by those breaks. I felt like — for all these characters, whether they're going through a breakup or in a new relationship or they know what they want to do when they get older or they're still figuring it out — summer is such a moment where people let down their guard and they want to have fun and they don't want to overthink anything, and sometimes that's when everything sort of falls apart in the best way, because you don't have your defenses up.
Speaking of characters that we might be saying goodbye to in the future, Olivia Rodrigo is no longer a series regular this season. Where did the decision come from to make her just recurring this season?
Well, the reality was, she had this album that did pretty well. Not sure if you've heard of it, it's called Sour. [Laughs] And the world was clamoring for [her] tour. From a pure logistical standpoint, the idea of Olivia doing the entire season and doing her tour was immediately looking impossible. But she was and is such an important part of the DNA of the show that it also didn't feel right to not give an explanation for where the character of Nini went. That was thing one: how do you make both things work, schedule-wise?
And then thing two is, Olivia is amazing, but I really think this whole cast is amazing. Sofia Wylie holds the center of the frame and the center of so many stories with so much wit and wisdom and just wicked talent that we were all really excited to elevate her and allow her to take that central role — with everything that comes with that, the drama, the comedy, the songs, the dancing, the things that only Sofia can do. I guess it's a little bit like a wedding where it's like, "We're not losing a daughter, we're gaining a leading lady." That's how this season felt.
It does feel like Sofia's character Gina is stepping into that main role this season, especially since it looks like she's now in a love triangle with EJ and Ricky — which is the love triangle Nini was in during the first season.
Yeah. Is it a love triangle? Is that what you interpret it as?
That definitely feels like the vibe!
[Laughs] I'm being sly. Yeah, Gina's got options. I know Sofia was really into working with our costume designer to soften the look and really lean into some of the trends of the day and going for a lighter, more pastel color palette and leaning into some of the rom-com tropes that I think are so fun about shows like this. Part of that is, who are you going to choose, which I think becomes a central question of the season.
Going back to Nini, her story is completely separate from everyone else's, at least at the beginning of this season. How did you go about plotting out her arc knowing that you were only going to get Olivia for a short amount of time?
The first thing was, even though music is a big part of Nini's life, I wanted to be really respectful and mindful of the fact that we didn't want to write a story about a teenage girl whose music goes viral and now what? It just felt too on the nose since Olivia has a once-in-a-generation music career happening. Instead, it started with: what are personal things in Nini's life that are unrelated to music that, while music is on her mind, might not be the driving force of the season? The writers started talking a lot about identity and about how when you're a kid who comes from a particular type of background, in her case having two moms, what other questions might you have about your backstory? That inspired her season.
Olivia is such a good actor, which I think it can be easy to overlook that because she's a world-class songwriter, but Olivia's actually an amazing actor. We wanted to do a story that really reflected the experience of so many young people, which is you get to a certain age and you wonder where did I actually come from, and what might that influence about my destiny and my future?
Also … how do I say this? There's a couple of theater kid friends I'm still on a group chat with from my high school. But then there's also a lot of people who were part of that inner circle who we all just lost touch with. They went off and they lived their lives and we all hope everyone's happy. I think Nini represents a character who is really close and loved and loves these other characters, but the reality is life happens and people get pulled in other directions. There's a reality to that that's true about the young person's experience.
Well in that vein, looking ahead to season 4, what does that mean for Olivia's future on the show? Is this her last season, or do you envision her recurring again for season 4?
It's so funny, we are early enough in the season 4 writers' room that I'd be lying if I told you I had an exactly right answer for that. I would never say never to Olivia, and I would never use the word "last," because I hope the show goes on and on and on and we get like a [Grey's Anatomy,] "Patrick Dempsey on the beach with Ellen Pompeo" moment 17 seasons later. But yeah, I think it's probably a fairly safe bet to say that, for now, we have so many cast members who we love and who we're serving, that I think there's no immediate plans for Nini to be a huge part of the show going forward. But the world has a way of surprising me and I never say never.
If her music career hadn't taken off in such an exponentially successful way last season, would Nini's arc have played out differently on the show?
Yes. [Laughs] Oh yeah. It's like, season 1, we were making a completely different show, but that's okay. Any show that's about the power of music — it's so corny to say this, but this is me — and the way that making music with people you love can change your life and change the world, for this to have occurred, for Olivia, all I can do is sit back and be like, "If the worst thing that ever happened to me is that the star of my show became the biggest pop star in the world and had to chase that, then that's a pretty damn good bad thing to happen to me." I'm so proud of her. I joked when I first pitched the series to Disney that I had many, many seasons in my head and I did, and I still do. In the streaming era, when friends of mine with amazing shows get canceled after one or two seasons, the honest, honest answer is that everything is gravy at this point.
If you just keep churning out these internationally best-selling pop stars each year, that would be pretty cool too.
It's sort of insane, right? Adrian Lyles is in the show this season, and he's never acted before. He's 17. He's going to be a huge songwriter someday. To sort of pass the baton and watch this young generation coming up on the heels of Olivia is just the dream.
Larry Saperstein and Joe Serafini are also only billed as guest stars this season — why are they no longer series regulars?
That was a combination of a lot of things, having nothing to do with the performance of those amazing guys. Both of them are in season 3 and are an incredibly important part of the show. Man, something the bosses hammer home at the beginning of every season is, who are the new people to help ignite new fan bases, new audience members? Somebody like Corbin Bleu, who is such a gentleman and so fun to work with, and the press is clamoring to talk to Corbin about the show. There's a need as the show churns on to keep being noisy in a crowded, loud landscape. With only eight episodes, which is a revised episode count, as the show grows and as the realities of the streaming era hit everyone, there are only so many characters you can serve per season and per episode before it just becomes jumbled. So it was a bunch of pragmatic decisions and conversations that are never easy.
What are you most excited for people to see from season 3?
First of all, we had all female directors this season. Every one of them was a rockstar, and they were so incredible and from such an incredible array of backgrounds and so sensitive and smart and funny, and just so prepped with the cast. One of those directors was Christine Lakin, who grew up as a famous child star on Step by Step. Part of the legacy of working for Disney is realizing the number of people who cycle through a system where they become famous when they're really young, and Christine was a kind of role model for the cast, as is Kimberly McCullough, former Emmy-winning child star from General Hospital who's now our producing director. It's just cool to point to these adults who are so kind, well-rounded, and grounded, and be like, "Look, you can get really famous and still be cool." So anyway, I'm very proud of our all-female director line-up.
What I'm most excited about is that this is a comfort show for a lot of people, with a bunch of comfort characters, and this is a season where we fully leaned into our feel-good. I hope the overall experience of watching the show mostly just feels really good in a world that can feel so bad. I'm not a kid anymore, but there's something about this music and this franchise and watching young people come into their power that's still so thrilling and gratifying and I hope audience members see themselves in that.
HSMTMTS season 3 premieres Wednesday on Disney+.
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