If you were a drama geek, you know what it’s like to put your blood, sweat, and tears–sometimes literally–into a musical production. Making yourself vulnerable while on stage during your formative years takes a special kind of gravitas, and that’s not lost on the characters in Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical–The Series, a loving, meta reboot of the Mouse House’s ginormous 2006 hit. Director Kabir Akhtar, a former theater kid himself, brings the freshman comedy series to a close, and his background gave him the footing he needed to go back to high school.
An Emmy-winning editor of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, doing musical television wasn’t something that Akhtar was actively looking for. “It was quite by mistake that I ended up directing over 20 music videos. I actually have been working on another show called Julie and the Phantoms for Netflix and it also has a lot of music. I’ve always been a music guy. It’s a great fit for me, but I was never really aiming for it.”
If you were ever part of being on stage when you were younger, the feeling of being on stage never goes away: the anticipation, the excitement. It’s a very specific feeling whether you are the lead in a new musical or if you are in the high school band. There’s something genuinely earnest and sweet about this new version of the show, and Akhtar effectively brings it home in the final two episodes. “I have to give a ton of credit to creator Tim Federle. He makes the work really honest and makes it easy to be open. He also does a good job of setting the tone of what we are trying to accomplish. We weren’t trying to make something really serious, but the moments had to be honest, you know? Directorially, I really wanted to capture the chaos of a show night. It’s a very specific feeling that is really hard to nail down. The excitement and the nervousness of everyone. There is an energy in the air.”
Akhtar’s directorial efforts for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend were a perfect training ground for this project, even though the themes are different from the Rachel Bloom extravaganza. In that show, some numbers could be achingly intimate, but High School Musical has enormous musical numbers, and Akhtar accomplishes something very rare. “The ‘All in This Together’ sequence had about 300 or 400 people on camera doing different things. One other one that stuck out to me was ‘Breaking Free.’ There are a lot of moments to capture, but that had a lot riding on it emotionally.”
While there are huge amounts of performers on screen, we feel like we are audience members in the high school gym. Nothing is rushed and nothing overly busy. Perfecting a great musical number, including all the chaos with casting swaps going on in East High’s production, is an insane task. “I am really proud of the opening shot in the finale. All the dialogue was ad-libbed, so we really collectively made that scene together as a team. We rehearsed it for about 30 minutes and people were zipping back and forth and we realized we needed to create dialogue to make it feel real. That was all done with steadicam and by the time we hear Natalie say, ‘You’re on!’, we changed to dollying it.”
While some editors who make the leap to directing may leave their original medium behind, Akhtar isn’t solely looking to direct in the future. “I haven’t bounced back in a while, but I feel fortunate to have two parallel things that I love doing. Editing has made me a better director, and it is an underrated part of the process. It doesn’t matter what you shoot—it’s what you cut. It’s just a matter of getting the right materials to assemble that will serve the story.”
The first season of High School Musical: The Musical—The Series is streaming now on Disney+.