(Featured image courtesy of Disney+ and Natalie Cass)
As the unexpected chaos of the last year has turned the world on its head, teens returned in droves to childhood favorites like Glee, Victorious, and iCarly for their lighthearted tones, positive messages, and memories of more carefree times. The launch of Disney+ came just in time for this new craze. The service’s wealth of content was perfect for the public’s aching need for escape. And if there’s one franchise that all of Gen Z can agree on being a generation-defining classic, it’s High School Musical. The Disney Channel original movies set records for the network (that are still yet to be broken), and to call it a cultural phenomenon would be a serious understatement. Due to its fun songs, energetic choreography, and family friendly qualities, the stage adaptation has become just as big of a hit. If you’re looking for a production, chances are you’ll likely only have to travel as far as your local high school, as the story of Troy and Gabriella has become the new favorite pick for teen musical theater programs.
In a very meta sort of twist, that’s the premise of one of the Disney+ flagship shows, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. The mockumentary follows a group of high schoolers who put on a production of the musical, but of course, the drama never stays just in the rehearsal room. The show became a huge hit, bringing a new group of young multi-talented stars into the limelight and sparking more than a few obsessions, some of which were reminded of in Spotify’s year-end lists. To everyone who listened to “All I Want” over a hundred times: are you doing okay?
One of the show’s most-praised aspects was its fresh depiction of the high school world. As it tackled topics like divorce and identity with a diverse cast, the series merely reflects what a modern group of teens looks, acts, and sounds like. A big part of stitching that realistic fabric together was the budding relationship between Carlos and Seb.
TV Wasteland sat down with Joe Serafini (Seb) to discuss his favorite moments from the show, filming the new distanced holiday special, and what Seb and Carlos mean to teens everywhere.
While High School Musical is Serafini’s first major television role, he’s no stranger to the stage. Growing up in Pittsburgh, his three older siblings introduced him to the world of performing when he was just five years old. “It really shaped me in terms of my professionalism at such a young age… I feel like I’ve just been used to the idea of… performing as your work.” With lead roles in Les Misérables, Into the Woods, and Oliver, Joe had already gathered an impressive resume by the time he was in high school, but his most iconic performance likely came as Tiny Tim. Or should we say performances? As part of the recent High School Musical holiday special, a game of How Well Do You Know Your Castmates revealed that Joe has played the character four times. It was actually his first professional job, and he’d done so well that “they just kept inviting me back,” until it became a Serafini family holiday tradition.
Years later, Serafini took on a very different role in Seb. Confident and assertive yet incredibly sweet, the East High student became an integral part of the Wildcats theater squad when he auditioned for Sharpay. Sharpay has traditionally been played by a woman, so Seb’s casting was a unique take, proof that even firmly established shows can still find ways to be exciting and fresh. Throughout the first season, sparks fly between Seb and the choreographer, Carlos. After a sweet moment at the homecoming dance, the two become one of the group’s core relationships (and definitely the most stable one). Their romance is special in how it’s not treated differently from any other. There’s no homophobia, judgment, or shame; the boys have as easy of a path to happiness as any of their straight counterparts. Serafini said “it was so amazing, and such an honor” to portray half of one of Disney’s first explicitly gay couples. “Growing up, I watched Disney Channel, and I never really got to see a gay couple… but to actually be the one that gets to represent part of the LGBTQ+ community is such an honor, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
As quickly as the TV landscape is growing, it’s still hard to find shows where the teenagers look like, well, teenagers. Casting underage performers would not be advisable for a lot of projects due to the mature content at hand, but it’s actually refreshing to see characters who actually look like sixteen-year-olds. Serafini is one of the older members of the cast, but he emphasized that the nature of the casting does help the authenticity of the series. “Even being around the cast members that are teenagers is super helpful just to see how they act, and I feel we all match each other’s energy really well.”
And it does seem that the cast has grown together in the same way their on-screen counterparts have. While Joe said that there have been many funny stories from set, he highlighted his favorite moments as the ones where they’re all simply making music together, “when Josh [Bassett] has a guitar, or I’m at the piano, and we all just start jamming out to a song. Sometimes it’s songs from the show, sometimes it’s a song that we all just know.” He finds those to be the most special experiences, when they’re all bonding and or blowing off steam by creating something beautiful as a group. “Those are the ones I’ll remember the most, years down the road.”
Before the premiere, the entire cast went to New York City for press and promotion events. While Joe was just visiting during that week, he “kind of joined the clan,” because while it hadn’t been announced to the public yet, he knew that he would be promoted to a series regular for the already-renewed second season. “It was such a blast, so much fun. I feel like that was the first time I really saw how big the show could be and how far it could reach beyond just our experience of filming in Salt Lake City. It [had been] our own little world,” but as they began to share what they’d created on set, “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is crazy. This is actually a TV show that people are going to watch.’ It was nutty.”
Ever since that week, the show has obviously exploded in popularity. Between the countless Instagram fan pages, YouTube song covers, and TikTok memes, the series has become the biggest Disney+ phenomenon this side of Baby Yoda. Joe sees the fan reaction purely as a blessing, and noted how “it’s so exciting to see the way that it’s touched so many people in different ways.” He gets a lot of messages from people who say that it brought them joy in a difficult time, and he even hears stories about people who want to “love who they want to love” resonating with the characters of Seb and Carlos as they explore their sexuality. “I think that’s so special to give people that representation.” Fitting in with that theme is his favorite song from the show, “Born to Be Brave.” “I remember the first time I heard that one, I was like, ‘Wow, such a bop!’ And also such a great anthem for this moment in the series with the homecoming dance,” which is the moment where the relationship between Seb and Carlos really begins. Since they’ve moved on from the first season, he’s also found a love for Just For a Moment. The song penned by Joshua Bassett and Olivia Rodrigo even ended up as one of his most-listened songs of last year. “I do love that one… as my Spotify told me.”
In December, the cast released a new behind-the-scenes holiday episode. Filmed in the midst of COVID-19, the distanced special brought covers of classic holiday tunes and even a few brand-new original songs that will feature in the upcoming second season (which had its production halted during the initial outbreak and is still waiting for a safe return). Serafini met up with Carlos’ Frankie Rodriguez to perform “Feliz Navidad” and discuss holiday memories before joining Julia Lester (Ashlyn) and Kate Reinders (Miss Jenn) for a stunning a cappella rendition of “That’s Christmas to Me.” For Joe, “it was honestly awesome to just have somewhere to go and do something related to the show again after being off for so many months.” He’s very close to the three members of the cast he was able to see, and “it was such a nice moment we all shared together.” The cast has a weekly Zoom call that they started the first week everyone went into quarantine, and he found it was really nice to keep in touch and hear about how they were all passing the time. “It made the return all the better.”
Joe graduated from the University of Michigan’s musical theater program right before quarantine began. While he was lucky enough to just barely avoid pandemic schooling, his best advice to students trying to get the most out of their education in our limited times would be to “put as much work as you can into it. Be as creative as you can.” He’s seen a lot of his Michigan peers coming up with new ways to share their talent with virtual audiences, and he sees today’s restrictions less as limitations and more as ways to exercise your creativity and come up with fresh performance mediums and methods.
“As much as Seb was in season one, I feel like he’s more present in season two, just as a part of the core group of theater kid Wildcats.” While Serafini isn’t allowed to reveal much, the longer season will allow for fans to hear and see much more from the character as the squad tackles the spring musical: Beauty and the Beast. We can of course expect to see more of his and Carlos’ relationship and even more of how he interacts with the other East High kids. Joe plans on returning to live theater as soon as pandemic rules allow, and he hopes to make his way to Broadway at some point. However, he’s loved his time on High School Musical, so he doesn’t plan on leaving television behind either. “My options are open.”
We couldn’t be more excited to follow Joe Serafini to his next chapter at East High and beyond to whatever paths he pursues next, both on screen and off. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ first season is available to watch on Disney+, with a second season on the way and a holiday special ready to watch right now.