Reboots, revivals, and sequels are the name of the Hollywood game today, but Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+, is putting its own spin on the trend. Along with its extensive list of classic film and TV series (plus new additions to the Marvel and Star Wars universes), the streamer is revisiting an old favorite: “High School Musical.” The upcoming “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” premiering on Nov. 12, will not continue the trilogy’s narrative but write an all-new one, giving both young viewers and nostalgic fans something to enjoy. Behind the cast full of young, triple-threat talent are Judy Taylor, Disney Channel’s longtime SVP of casting, and Julia Ashton, the show’s CD. Here, Taylor shares the process for finding new faces to fill the shoes of Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens—and what young talent should know before stepping into the audition room.
Describe the casting process for “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”
We approach casting for Disney Channel [and] Disney+ series and movies similarly. The goal is always to find actors who bring those characters on the page to life in the best fashion. In terms of process, it was not unlike other things we do. I was here for the original “High School Musical.” I was so delighted and genuinely excited, but at the same time, feeling pressure to get it right, because the first one was so iconic, special, and memorable that we’re still talking about it. We hired a fabulous casting director, Julie Ashton, and looked everywhere, as we do with everything. It’s changed a lot from when I started in the ’70s, where we looked in New York, Los Angeles, maybe Chicago, and maybe London. Now, it’s truly global casting. People can send tapes from anywhere and everywhere. Then it’s putting those puzzle pieces together and making sure that you’re serving each role in the best possible way.
What was required of the actors you cast for the show?
Any time you’re casting a musical, it’s a much more challenging criterion. Acting is first and foremost—you have to believe them in these roles and have a level of confidence that they’re able to give us the whole arc of the character. But, obviously, with a musical, we want people who can sing. Everybody who came in did their scene work and were asked to sing a few bars of a song or sometimes two songs. For dancing, we just talked about their experience, because we knew we were going to have time to rehearse those numbers and get people to a comfort level. They all stepped up to the challenge.
What don’t actors know or realize about what you do as a casting director?
I would hope they would know how much we’re in their corner. We all acknowledge there’s disappointment. I think that they know from the business side of it, there are a lot of people to sign off and there are a lot of criteria to be served. So, any time [we’re] making a decision, it can be about so many things and it doesn’t mean that you didn’t audition well or you didn’t give a fabulous audition or you couldn’t play the part. It could end up being that you were up to play somebody’s brother and you didn’t look enough like the person playing your sister. There are a million reasons. There are several reasons that someone might not get a part that has nothing to do with how they performed.
What made casting this show unique compared to other projects you’ve cast?
What was extra exciting and exhilarating for me was that this was going to be part of the Disney+ launch. We had a chance to be a part of the actual launch, so to be given this responsibility, it felt new and different. The project aside, the fact that it was going to be one of the first things that people see on the streaming service and that it happened to be a reimagining of “High School Musical,” there was, for us, a level of “This is a big deal.” We really embraced the whole experience. It was invigorating and incredibly exciting.
What were the auditions like? How could you tell whether the young actors could handle the roles?
Everything was on the table, because you never know who’s going to walk in the door and if they’re [going to be] the person who feels the most like this character and brings the character to life in the room in the most natural way. I think the best casting happens when an actor comes in the room and brings the character to life, and yet it feels like an extension of who they are as a person. You don’t see any acting going on. Sometimes it’s obvious from the get-go, and sometimes it takes six to eight to 10 weeks to get it done, because you need perspective. You need to see quite a few people before you’re ready to make this decision. In the cast, we have a combination of people who have been doing it a while and people who are newer to the game, and yet there was that moment in time in this casting process where, with every role, it became clear to me who should have it.
Where do you look for young talent, especially when you need triple threats?
We put a breakdown out that has all of Canada and the U.S., and we even send usually to England and Australia and everywhere. We know that there are kids out there who may not have an agent and can’t get to us. We send casting directors, but we switch it up every year. We’ll choose three or four different regions of the country and go there ourselves, or we send casting directors that know how we work and know what we’re looking for. We’ll go to performing arts schools. We’ll go to different acting schools and regular schools if we can, when appropriate, just to branch out. We also occasionally have a big open call so that anybody can show up, and we do our best to see them all. We bring a lot of casting directors with us so we can break up into rooms and make sure everybody gets seen, because you just never know where anyone is hiding or where they might be. We don’t want to miss out.
We’ve been doing [it this way] for as long as I can remember—since I was here in 2004—and we continue to do it. We’re seeing kids on projects all the time with various casting directors. We’re doing our own searches. We keep our own charts of talent that we’re tracking, always. Even if we see them in their rawest form, [if] they’re just starting out but we see potential, we track them. When we see a role that they might be right for, we’ll reach out and ask them to self-tape. They don’t have to come to L.A. I always say, “You don’t make hasty decisions with your life,” but if there’s a role that’s right and you can self-tape, take it from there. [We’ve had] actors who maybe we’ve tracked for a couple of years or more, and finally they walk in the room and it happens: They book something! We always start with the people we’re already aware of, in addition to the new people we hope to find. And, of course, we’re always talking to agents about who they represent. We talk to them on a daily basis; they’re extremely valuable. We really appreciate our relationships with the agents and the managers out there who collaborate with us. It takes a village.
What can actors expect when auditioning for you?
They will have a very friendly, accessible room, because I think one of the most important attributes a casting director needs is a genuine, innate love of actors. We are their advocates. There’s nothing more important—whether it’s adults or children, but particularly with young talent—than them leaving that room feeling good, and that when they’re in the room, they feel like they can talk to people. I don’t ever want it to be uncomfortable. If they have questions, we say, “What do you need to know?” We encourage conversation. And always [say], “Thanks for coming in. Great job.” Everybody deserves that.
What advice do you like to give actors, especially young ones?
If you’re passionate and you want to try this, start small. Wherever you are, if you haven’t been in an acting class or you haven’t really had experience in your school’s drama department, I would encourage you to do that first and see if you love it as much as you think you’re going to. I think it’s very easy to watch television and see people and say, “Wow, I want to do that!” And yet, there’s no way for you to be aware of all that entails, for you and your family. I encourage kids and parents to start small, just like you would with anything—with sports, with music, all of that. Then, if you do it and you find that you really are competitive and you love it and this is your passion, there are easy ways to self-tape. Families don’t have to move right away. Experiment with that for a while. Maybe you get in a show where an agent sees you. Don’t feel like anything has to happen too fast. Make sure that it’s something you really love, love enough, knowing that you’ll be going to auditions after you finish school every day or maybe several days in a week, and that it’s fun. If you score something, you want to make sure that when you get there, when your dream comes true, that you’re equipped and that’s where you want to be, that you’re the happiest you can be.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
Ready to join your own magical project? Apply to these Disney gigs!