Joe Serafini: On High School Musical & Serving The Larger Story
If you were a theater kid of a certain age in 2006, there’s no doubt that you watched (and probably loved) High School Musical. Joe Serafini was one of those kids, and now he’s part of the new generation of Wildcats on Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. He plays Seb, the East High student who gets a unique opportunity when cast as Sharpay in the drama club’s production of High School Musical: The Musical.
That connection to the original trilogy of films after growing up as a fan was what drew Serafini to the project, in addition to a pre-existing relationship with show runner Tim Federle: “He was sort of a mentor from afar after meeting me at a performance when I was in high school.,” Serafini recalls. “We are from the same hometown, and we simply kept in touch over the years.” The series, which debuted in November, is his first time working on a big TV set. His background is in musical theater, which proved to be helpful once cameras were rolling.
“I don’t know if I would have been as well prepared without my background,” he said. “I get to do all the things I’ve been training for my whole life: singing, acting, dancing, and even playing piano!”
The differences between musical theater and theater-on-TV became clear while filming the show in early 2019. One of the biggest ones Serafini noticed was how doing character work differed when the character’s arc is unfolding in front of him. Because HSMTMTS was renewed for a second season where Serafini was promoted to series regular, Seb’s arc is nowhere near over; this is an obvious change from doing theater, where an actor knows their character’s story beginning to end as soon as they begin rehearsing.
“The theater person in me wants to know the full story so that the choices I’m making can be fully informed, but then I realize not even the writers know the full story yet, so whatever choice I make could be informing the rest of the story anyway!” he said. “That’s when it becomes freeing.”
Serafini also said that initially, he didn’t realize how groundbreaking part of Seb’s arc would become until he was filming episode five – “Homecoming.” The episode saw Seb become one half of the first LGBT couple in the High School Musical franchise when he attended East High’s homecoming dance with Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez).
“I realized how special Carlos and Seb’s relationship was [filming “Homecoming”],” he said. “Truthfully, it is such an honor to be able to tell their story with Frankie. I honestly wish I had a story like this to watch growing up, and I can’t believe that I get to be the one to do it now! The messages that I’ve gotten from viewers at home have been so meaningful to me.”
While the show has its fair share of “real life” drama, there is a balance between that which we see of High School Musical: The Musical. When the actors were rehearsing the show-within-a-show before the cameras were rolling, only parts that were given time on screen.
Serafini says that part of the fun in the show-within-a-show is getting to create characters’ perspectives. As an actor, his job is to look at playing Sharpay through Seb’s perspective, but because of the evolving nature of the show, Seb’s perspective is also influenced by his own. HSMTMTS isn’t the first time Serafini has done a show-within-a-show; he cites 42nd Street and Curtains as ones he’s been in, but says that none of them are as iconic as this one.
“To be playing Sharpay at East High within the High School Musical franchise is kind of daunting, but, of course, it’s exhilarating as well,” he said.
Another big difference he’s noticed working on a TV show is that with TV, every scene is often shot in more than one take.
“It’s a bit of a challenge because sometimes it feels like rehearsal when you’re doing a scene over and over again,” Serafini said. “I had to quickly learn that it’s always performance time when those cameras are rolling. It can be tiring, but it’s also fun and exciting to try different things or take adjustments from the directors and producers with every new take.”
One thing that isn’t so different from musical theater is the aspect of working in an ensemble. Serafini said that like performing on stage, he still has to be completely tuned into what’s happening in the larger scene, even if Seb isn’t the main focus of the action.
“In our show, we have many ensemble scenes where the camera is being shot to so many different characters that you are never quite sure when you’re in the shot or not, just like you never know when an audience member is watching you in the background of a scene happening on stage,” he explained. “That being said, we are always serving the larger story.”
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Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist