Fans of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” eager for the show’s on-screen romances to spill over into real life will be thrilled to learn that Frankie A. Rodriguez and Joe Serafini are a couple.
Rodriguez stars on the Disney+ series as student choreographer Carlos at Utah’s East High School who ― in what was billed as a franchise first at the time of the show’s 2019 debut ― is gay. Serafini, meanwhile, plays aspiring thespian Seb, who spent the first season as a recurring character before being upgraded to a series regular for Season 2.
Rodriguez and Serafini confirmed their off-screen relationship while promoting the show’s second season, which premiered May 14. So it’s natural that the pair feel a unique responsibility to portray a same-sex coupling in a fun, entertaining way that’s suitable for the show’s audience of tweens and teens.
“To be the representation I didn’t get to see as a kid is life-changing,” Rodriguez told HuffPost. “It was never something that was on my actor bucket list of things to do, but it’s definitely something I think about. The writers make it easy for us to tell this story in the most real way possible, rather than conveying stereotypes.”
Added Serafini, “For me, high school was such a tricky time, because I really wasn’t sure what I wanted or who I wanted to be. Seb is going through those same feelings and figuring out how to be his best, most authentic self. We’re trying to encourage others to live their truth and be their biggest, boldest selves.”
“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” which premiered on Disney+ in November 2019, is a spinoff of 2006’s “High School Musical” starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens. The success of that movie and its two sequels laid the groundwork for other musical hits like “Glee” and, more recently, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” So, in hindsight, it may surprise viewers that “HSM” never included an openly gay character until now.
Though the original “High School Musical” featured Ryan Evans (Lucas Grabeel), the twin brother of Ashley Tisdale’s Sharpay who was widely assumed to be gay, the character never formally addressed his sexuality. In an interview with Variety last year, director Kenny Ortega said he felt Disney would “not be ready to cross that line and move into that territory” at the time of the film’s release. Instead, he and the film’s creative team decided Ryan was “probably going to come out in college.”
The decision to make “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” more inclusive has certainly paid off. Last year, the show received a GLAAD award for outstanding kid and family programming.
Carlos and Seb shared a number of adorable backstage moments in Season 1 before they began dating, and by the start of Season 2, the playful tension between the characters has been amplified. In the three episodes screened for press, the pair navigate a cashmere allergy and a precarious Valentine’s Day gift exchange while landing plum roles in East High’s production of “Beauty and the Beast.”
Production on the current season got off to a shaky start last year just before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and then it was promptly delayed. To bridge the gap between seasons 1 and 2, a holiday special was rolled out, with the cast shooting renditions of Christmas carols and other favorites with strict COVID-19 protocol. Once they were able to finally reunite on set, the actors said their perspective on the experience had shifted somewhat.
“When the pandemic first started, of course you’re thinking, ‘I should be using this time to do something creative, like write a novel or something,’ but I just didn’t put that pressure on myself, which kind of bums me out,” Rodriguez said. “I thought I’d have all these creative juices inside of me, but it turns out I need personal contact and people around me to kind of force that. So getting back to work set me back on that mindset.”
And though Serafini can’t speak to the specifics of Season 2 just yet, he’s excited for viewers to see how Carlos and Seb focus on “being good boyfriends to each other” as the episodes progress.
“It’s their first real relationship with another boy and that takes some navigating,” said the actor, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in musical theater last year. “There are highs and lows to that, but it’s all part of the journey and it really is worth it. Everyone is so valid and beautiful in their own way.”
New episodes of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” debut Fridays on Disney+.
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