To the shock of many a millennial, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is great. The new Disney+ series is about a group of Gen Z high school students who attend the very same school where the OG Disney musical franchise was filmed. Thanks to an overly enthusiastic theater teacher, the students are tasked with performing High School Musical for the very first time, leading to audition drama, love triangles, and didn’t-have-to-be-this-good original songs. It’s so cute. It’s actually funny! The only thing it’s technically not is the once promised High School Musical 4.
When High School Musical: The Musical: The Series was announced, some outlets called it High School Musical 4. That’s not accurate, however, and the series doesn’t even mark the fourth installment in the franchise — that title belongs to Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure, a 2011 spin-off TV movie about Ashley Tisdale’s character.
The Disney+ series doesn’t exist in the same universe as Zac Efron’s Troy Bolton. In the HSM TV show world, High School Musical is a movie that stars Disney icons like Vanessa Hudgens. (Or “VHudge,” as the kids apparently say.) It’s not a continuation of the film, despite sharing many of the same hard-hitting themes like striving for acceptance from your peers and doing musical theater even though you also do (gasp!) participate in other after school activities.
There was a planned fourth movie in the original High School Musical film franchise, though. In 2008 — before High School Musical 3: Senior Year hit theaters — former Disney Channel Worldwide president Rich Ross claimed that High School Musical 4 was in the “writing” stage, per The Hollywood Reporter.
"Are we going to have all the cast back? Probably not," Ross said at the time. "Will we have some of them? I hope so."
Little was heard about the promised High School Musical 4 but it’s worth mentioning that in High School Musical 3, new freshmen characters “Rocket Man” (Matt Prokop), Donnie (Justin Martin), and Tiara (Jemma McKenzie-Brown) are introduced. It’s possible that, should they have proved popular, they could have picked up the torch and continued the franchise in Ross’ vision.
Alas, that’s not what happened. Fans didn’t hear anything about High School Musical 4 until 2016 when casting breakdowns and a general plot was released. This version of High School Musical 4 involves Erin, a “badass soccer player” who falls for “bad boy” Derek but “isn’t sure if she should follow her heart.” Campbell, Sharpay’s cousin, is also interested in Erin and isn’t too happy to learn she would rather date Derek. A musical throws all these players together, or would have, if the movie wasn’t scrapped.
"High School Musical is part of Disney Channel's DNA," Disney Channel President Gary Marsh said in a statement in 2016. "It embodies all that we stand for. As a way of continuing to embrace that heritage, we're excited to announce 'the start of something new' as we launch a search for a new class of East High Wildcats to star in a fourth installment of the High School Musical franchise."
So, what happened? We don’t exactly know, but it seems that the concept for High School Musical 4 eventually became High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. While the fourth film would have been more of the same Troy-and-Gabriella romance, the TV series is more fitting for this generation’s teens, which notoriously are less likely to divide themselves into categories like “jock” and “theater geek.”
It’s generally far more grounded in real life than the original High School Musical franchise. The TV series doesn’t take issue with the fact that soccer players also want to do the musical. Though there is a love triangle between Nini (Olivia Rodrigo), Ricky (Joshua Bassett), and E.J. (Matt Cornett), there really aren’t any villains here.
Whether or not we get High School Musical 4 in the future, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series may be the version of the franchise most appropriate for 2019. Try not to stumble over that name, though.