School is back in session at East High, and we've never been so excited to head to class.
Premiering May 14 on Disney+, Season 2 of "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" brings the gang back together for a production of an Alan Menken classic, Beauty and the Beast. But before the final pedal can drop, chaos, drama, self-discovery and (of course) love ensue.
Whereas Season 1 explored East High's thespians on a group level, Season 2 examines them individually, giving each character the screen time to grow and discover their own identity within the drama department. Among them is Big Red (Larry Saperstein), the goofy side-kick to Ricky (Joshua Bassett) who, at the end of the first season, showed off his remarkable tap dance skills.
Ashlyn (Julia Lester) and Big Red (Larry Saperstein) further their relationship with a love-induced number.
Disney+ / Fred Hayes
Tapping Into Tap Skills on Set
"It's been so cool to bring my tap background into this character that I've been able to watch, grow and develop into someone that I never really expected he was going to," says Saperstein. "Big Red is a very special person and a very special soul. With every season and every episode, I really get to bring more and more of myself into who Big Red is."
Choreographer Zach Woodlee describes Saperstein as possessing an "effortless" quality that few tappers can naturally achieve. "Tap is such an interesting art form," Woodlee says. "And when you see him tap, it feels like you're a part of it. This whole cast is just extremely bonkers talented."
Alongside Saperstein is Julia Lester, who steps into the role of Ashlyn, Big Red's love interest. Though her star moment in Season 1—in which she and Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) brought viewers to tears with their original song "Wondering"—showcased her remarkable voice, Lester had the opportunity to pull out her dancing shoes for Season 2 alongside Saperstein. Their relationship has become easily shippable by fans, and for good reason: They're seriously that cute together.
And for Ashlyn/Big Red stans, a tear-jerking moment awaits you in Season 2, which Saperstein describes as "my favorite thing that I've done on camera ever in my life." Lester adds, "It was really special and kind of monumental for both Larry and I to get to perform in a show of this caliber. And I'll never, never forget the filming of that."
Tap isn't the only style of dance that gets its spotlight this season. Under Woodlee's guidance, all has been ramped up: With four more principal dancers joining the cast this time around—now 10 in total—and plenty of original songs to jam out to, everything from Broadway jazz to Latin-inspired hip hop is incorporated. When binged all the way through, this season's choreography reads less like a theater troupe and more like a stacked lineup on "So You Think You Can Dance."
From left to right: Gina (Sofia Wylie), Kourtney (Dara Reneé) and Ashlyn (Julia Lester) prepare to audition for East High's spring musical, "Beauty and the Beast."
Disney+ / Fred Hayes
Partnering in a Pandemic
Filming during the COVID-19 pandemic created its fair share of challenges. Principal characters spent time learning the choreography alone via video tutorials. Inside the rehearsal room, dancers stood 10 feet apart, masked for the protection of themselves and others. If the choreography required any skin-to-skin contact, sanitization was required every 15 minutes. For those whose artistry is fueled by human connection, the setting was a difficult one to navigate at first. But with a system in place and support from across the production team, safety was accomplished.
And for the cast, COVID protocols only emphasized that feeling of true friendship. "There were a few setbacks here and there, but it brought us closer and made us stronger," Lester says. "And I think that this season is ultimately going to be better because of that."
Andrés "Rico" Peñate, a principal dancer on both seasons, adds, "It sounds cliché, but it's made us become a family."
Ashlyn (Julia Lester), Gina (Sofia Wylie) and Kourtney (Dara Reneé) perform an electric new number, serving major girl group energy.
Disney+ / Fred Hayes
The Power of Representation
Alongside Peñate is Stephani Sosa, a former "So You Think You Can Dance" contestant who returns to East High this season. And to her, the show's deep level of representation and authenticity is what stands out most.
"It's beautiful because it portrays every type of person," Sosa says. "And with me growing up never feeling like I was enough or never feeling like I fit in, this show brought out a side of me that I never thought I would be able to express."
As many can relate to, "HSMTMTS" has helped Sosa to further accept her body, her Latina heritage, and her unique presence as a rock-star dancer. And that's what makes the series so impactful.
On Screen vs. Behind the Scenes
Also getting her star turn this season: Dara Reneé, whose showstopping voice and persona fill the role of Kourtney.
While filming Season 1, Reneé suffered an ankle injury, preventing her from taking part in the choreography in one episode. But this time around, healed and recovered, "I feel like I needed to prove myself," she jokes. "I was like, 'Right now, the fans think I can't dance, so let me pop off real quick."
This season, Kourtney is "allowing herself to be more vulnerable to people. I'm so excited for audiences to relate to some of the moments she has and some of the mess-ups that she has," says Renée
And while Reneé professes to be goofier and clumsier than Kourtney in her personal life, it's her character's power and confidence that resonates so deeply with the young star.
"Kourtney has taught me to be more out of the box and more confident in myself and my choices, and to realize that I deserve happiness and success. And you know, yes, we all have insecurities, but as long as we work on them, it's going to be OK."
"Whether you're in high school or you're an adult, we all need to find ourselves, learn about ourselves and take time for ourselves to discover that we are going to mess up and have flaws, but we will figure it out," Reneé says.
As we wait for the curtain to go up on this new East High production, the entire cast and creative team hope that the series' messages of love, acceptance, friendship and family continue to resonate.
Woodlee adds, "You realize when you step away how much these people mean to you, and I feel like this season as a whole wraps up so nicely because you realize how much of a family the cast is."