High School Musical — the Disney musical TV film starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens — had a big impact on a young Frankie A. Rodriguez when it premiered in 2006.
“I was like a big Broadway nerd growing up,” said Rodriguez, who grew up watching the movie musicals West Side Story, Little Shop of Horrors, and Singin' in the Rain “on a constant loop.”
However, the sight of others who shared this passion on the small screen sparked a sense of belonging. Watching High School Musical “was the first time I was like, ‘Oh wait, other theater kids exist.’”
“Now I've probably seen the first movie a hundred times,” he said. “But when the first movie came out I was so intrigued because there was really nothing like it for my generation.”
Since then, a small subcategory of high school musicals has emerged on television, most notably Fox’s Glee and the short-lived Rise on NBC. Rodriguez will continue to bring this sense of visibility to “Broadway nerds” to a new generation of young people when High School Musical: The Musical: The Series premieres with the Tuesday launch of Disney Plus. In the mockumentary-style show, Rodriguez plays Carlos, the gay choreographer of East High’s staging of High School Musical.
Although he has only seen High School Musical around 27 times, as revealed in an early episode of the show, Carlos's passion for dance comes through in a recent teaser for the series, in which the character dances on the stage, in hallways, and in classrooms of East High — the same Salt Lake City high school in the real world where the original High School Musical was filmed.
“I’ve never once had a student dance while taking a test before,” said Mr. Mazurra, an anti-musical member of East High’s faculty. “Then I met Carlos.”
Rodriguez had a similar experience in his own high school in Selma, Calif., a small town outside of Fresno. Known for its programs in agriculture, the school had not launched a stage musical in some time. But like the inciting incident in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, the arrival of a new drama teacher presented an opportunity. After Rodriguez asked permission, the teacher allowed him to direct a musical his senior year: Footloose. It was “unreal and a dream come true,” he said of staging the production.
Dance moves are not the only asset Rodriguez brings to the new High School Musical. The actor is gay and Latinx — and his character Carlos is as well. For Disney, the inclusion of a queer character in kids’ entertainment is a big deal; the family-focused company only recently incorporated a gay teen on Disney Channel’s recently canceled Andy Mack, and the studio has yet to introduce an LGBTQ character in one of its major films.
“I think for Disney to take a chance like this, it's very exciting,” said Rodriguez, who has already received a score of messages from young people on Instagram who have had positive responses to viewing the trailer. “I can't wait for [these kids] to actually see the show.”
Rodriguez knows the power of visibility firsthand. He recalled watching the gay teen character of Justin Suarez (Mark Indelicato) on ABC’s Ugly Betty, which was “was mind-blowing,” he said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s like a replica of me out there.’”
And while Rodriguez is divided on the issue of whether only LGBTQ actors should play LGBTQ roles, he also recognizes the value his casting has brought to the character, which resonates with the authentic message of the series. “I’m very happy that I got to portray this role because I was drawing on so much of my actual high school experience and bringing that to the character,” he said.
Like Carlos, whose sexuality is not an issue for his classmates around him, Rodriguez does not have the “dramatic story being shoved into lockers” that one might associate with stories about gay teens — Glee included.
“My high school, funny enough, was actually very LGBTQ-friendly,” he said. “So when I got there, just to see, like, kids living their truth, it just made the transition for me to come out a lot easier and a lot smoother because I knew that there was going to be a community of people there that I could count on.”
Rodriguez did not know if Carlos would have a similar experience in high school upon his casting. In fact, Rodriguez was “nervous in the beginning” about the potential tropes in store for a queer character of color across 10 episodes — the potential of a coming-out arc included. However, his fears were assuaged by Tim Federle, the gay creator and showrunner of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, who helped create a role that was “organic” and “true to life.”
Having a queer person at the helm made all the difference, Rodriguez said of Federle. “Just to know that someone's on your side, 100 percent on the creative team, it just puts your mind as an actor at ease,” he said.
To this end, will Carlos have his own love story — independent of the straight leads vying for each other's affections (and roles)? “I don't want to give too much away … but it's going to be fun to watch,” Rodriguez teased. “If Zac Efron's available and willing to come back to Salt Lake City, I'm ready!”
Carlos is not the only LGBTQ character in the show. Early episodes offered to the press showed that a primary character has two mothers. And the school’s staging of High School Musical includes nontraditional casting related to gender. (Hello, male Sharpay!)
Rodriguez hopes this collective queer visibility sends a message to LGBTQ youth “that you're no different than everybody else.” To all viewers, he hopes the show helps dismantles society’s rigid gender binary.
“Society has normalized certain things that just don't make sense — like Barbies are for girls and trucks are for boys," he said. "That always confused me as a kid. It's OK to have self-expression and it's OK to try crazy hair colors. If you're a boy and you want to paint your nails, do it.
“That was something that I always had battled with growing up, especially in a small farm town. You can't like pink if you're a boy. And I was always just like, ‘But why?’ It was just so frustrating to me. It’s just a color!”
LGBTQ representation — and the ability to defy the binary — is particularly important in a show about producing musicals, where queer people have historically found a supportive community. The original High School Musical movies, directed by gay man Kenny Ortega (bizarrely!) had no clearly LGBTQ characters — although the flamboyant character of Ryan Evans would make his attraction to men more apparent in a 2008 touring stage production.
“Even like watching the original movie, [I] was like, ‘Oh, come on,’” Rodriguez said about this notable queer absence. “Theater, in general, has such a big LGBTQ following already. It's important for those kids who especially identify with [that world] that they can see themselves represented on TV and film.”
Of course, bringing LGBTQ representation to the world of children’s entertainment — particularly when it is produced by a brand like Disney — presents the risk of a backlash from right-wing figures and groups. Rodriguez himself shared in these concerns and brought them to a producer, who gave him the following advice: “Frankie, they petitioned that movie about the rabbit [Peter Rabbit] because the kid had allergies. So you cannot focus on that. You just have to focus on the amount of kids that are gonna watch this and identify with you.”
“Ever since that short conversation, it was just like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s not about [the haters]. It's about these kids that get to watch this and see themselves,’” Rodriguez said.
And with Disney Plus already greenlighting High School Musical: The Musical: The Series for a second season, those kids will have Carlos around to inspire them for some time to come. “I can't wait to see what we get to do in the second season and just to push the boundaries a little further,” he said.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series will debut Tuesday on Disney Plus. Watch the trailer below.