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These two LI pals are also castmates on 'High School Musical' spinoff

Andrew Barth Feldman and Larry Saperstein talk about

Andrew Barth Feldman and Larry Saperstein talk about their friendship and starring together in "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series," which streams on Disney+. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

The first season of "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" was 99.9% over when the character known as Big Red busted from behind the scenes. As credits rolled, Big Red, played by Long Island native Larry Saperstein, entered the empty gym where the title musical had just concluded and let loose with a showstopping, deserves-star-billing tap routine. Then he kissed Ashlyn, the girl he’d had eyes on all season. Blackout.

When the Disney+ series second season debuts on May 14, the fate of that budding relationship will be just one of the questions fans are eager to have answered. But Saperstein, 23, who has been home in Islip since filming wrapped in February, offers no clues, saying simply "it’s their first relationship so there’s a lot more to be explored." Like much of the show, he says, "it’s about personal growth. This relationship teaches both Big Red and Ashlyn (played by Julia Lester) things about themselves, about their future, about what they want to be doing in life."

The well-reviewed mockumentary-style show, Disney’s continuation of the popular 2006 movie and its two sequels, follows theater students at East High School in Salt Lake City, where the original movies were filmed (as is the series). The new drama teacher discovers the school has never performed the musical and they’re off. Among other things left hanging as the first season ended: Will the popular leading lady (played by Olivia Rodrigo of "Drivers License" fame) abandon East High for a lofty Denver conservatory? What will become of the theater and science teachers who accidentally (long story) burned down the theater last season?

And adding to the intrigue is another Long Islander. Andrew Barth Feldman of Woodmere, who starred in "Dear Evan Hansen" on Broadway in 2019-20, plays a French exchange student in the new season and he’s refreshingly up front about how he got the part.

"I begged," says Feldman, 18, proclaiming himself a huge fan of the whole "High School Musical" franchise. "I grew up with the movies. I saw ‘High School Musical’ when I was 4 years old and I was obsessed." After a couple of episodes, he says he asked his agent to see if there might be any interest in getting him on the show.

Well, yeah. "We created the role for Andrew," says creator and executive producer Tim Federle, noting the writers were fans even before Feldman’s Broadway stint, after he won the highly competitive Jimmy Awards for high school theater students in 2018. The audience, says Federle, "will be tickled by Andrew’s flawless timing and can’t-fake-it wit."

Not surprisingly, the two Long Island guys gravitated to each other well before they became castmates. Fans of each other’s shows, they struck up a friendship via Twitter and eventually started hanging out. Once Feldman was cast, they had only a couple of weeks together before the pandemic halted filming, but thanks to social media the friendship flourished, with Saperstein participating in several of the creative online activities Feldman was involved with during the pandemic.

By the time filming resumed last fall they were real buddies. "It was such a joy to have a friend from the outside world be in your little circle," says Saperstein. "He’s so funny and talented." Feldman echoes the sentiment. "We were really close," he says, lauding the professionalism of Saperstein and the rest of the cast. "It’s amazing seeing these young performers … become these characters they know so intimately."

Where this relationship goes on screen is anyone’s guess. We do know that the season revolves around East High’s spring musical and that, contrary to what everyone expected, it’s not going to be "High School Musical 2." Disney announced back in February, 2020 that the show featured in the second season would be "Beauty and the Beast," because the theater teacher wants to win a high school theater competition sponsored by the show’s creator Alan Menken. Of course she has ulterior motives, namely getting the best of Broadway star and her ex (played by another newcomer to the cast, Derek Hough), a teacher at the rival North High School. Along with the added drama, that competition will only intensify the inevitable comparisons to "Glee."

For Saperstein, what happens in season two is not all that important — he’s just enjoying the ride. The Islip High School and Pace University graduate was the last main character cast, and it happened fast. His first audition was in January, 2019 and by early February he was in Utah ready to film. It was overwhelming but exciting, says Saperstein, who got his start on Long Island stages at Star Playhouse in Commack and the Engeman Theater in Northport, inspired by his mother Elissa, a sixth-grade orchestra teacher, and his father Scott, a local performer. Not only is it Disney, he says, but it’s "High School Musical," a film he also grew up watching. "I remember walking into the school the first day and looking at that cafeteria, that iconic cafeteria from the movies, and we were like, ‘we are really here, this is real’."

You’d guess his striking red hair gave him a leg up on a character known as Big Red (the only name he goes by on the show), but not really. Federle says it was Saperstein’s "New York timing" that got him the part. "It’s not a pushed ‘Hollywood’ comedy," he says. "It’s a subtle, observational humor … a dry authenticity." And the fact that he can "pull out a time-step and shuffle-ball-change, doesn’t hurt," he says.

That subtle humor works well for his character, a slightly geeky guy and the best friend of the show’s lead (Joshua Bassett) who takes a part in the musical to win back his girlfriend. Big Red gets roped into it all, joining the crew and eventually subbing for the stage manager. It’s all about finding family, says Saperstein. "Every character in some way finds their home in the theater department … all of these things are unleashed through the magic of a theater program."

Originally scheduled to run in fall 2020, the second season of HSMTMTS (as the tongue-twister title is often abbreviated) was pushed back to this spring when the pandemic halted filming after only two episodes were shot. They picked it up again last fall, with strict health guidelines in place and getting through it, says Saperstein, safely with everyone coming out healthy. "What’s really exciting," he says, is that "no one will really know that it was filmed during the pandemic. That’s the magic of what we do and it’s the magic of Disney." He clearly feels good about what they created. "I would say it’s even more vibrant and exciting than the first season because of the passion that we put into it by going through this challenging time together."

The young actor also hopes the show will provide some solace for theater kids in the real world who have not been able to perform in the traditional way for over a year. "I think this show is incredibly hopeful," says Saperstein. "This is really about the family you get from doing whatever your passion is, not just theater, it can be sports, it can be chess club, whatever it is that makes you excited." He hopes watching the show will remind theater kids who didn’t get to have shows this year that "there’s still a family waiting for them and ready for them with open arms … I hope this inspires everybody to keep going because there will be a comeback for live performance and it’s going to come back strong."

SIDEBAR

OK, so it might not be in the same league as other tantalizing questions hanging over the TV world at the moment. You know … Who will end up as host of "Jeopardy?" Will Meredith Grey live or die?

But ever since Disney announced that the spring musical featured in the second season of "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" would be "Beauty and the Beast," the show’s vocal fans have been speculating on who will get the major parts.

Everyone from YouTube fan sites to major publications have thrown out suggestions from predictable to, well, it’s not going to happen. Vlogger Kristen Maldonado and Christi Carras of the Los Angeles Times both think Ashlyn might have a shot at the lead role of Belle. "She has the voice," says Maldonado, and "because she’ll be in this little love story with Big Red, that might translate into playing Belle, finding love for the first time."

Both see Big Red continuing his best buddy role by taking on LeFou. "How fun would it be to see a tap-dance routine from Gaston’s trusty sidekick?" writes Carras.

"You’ll have to wait and see," says Larry Saperstein, who play Big Red. But he promises a great audition sequence that will allow the audience to follow along and see how it all fits together. "It all happens for a reason," he promises.

As for guest star Andrew Barth Feldman, if you saw him in the recent online hit "Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical," you’d consider him a sure bet for Lumiere, the dashing candlestick with the charming French accent. One problem, though. Feldman plays a French exchange student who attends the rival North High School. And they’re doing "Little Mermaid."

SEASON 2’s BIG GUESSING GAME

OK, so it might not be in the same league as other tantalizing questions hanging over the TV world at the moment. You know … Who will end up as host of “Jeopardy!?” Will Meredith Grey live or die?

But ever since Disney announced that the spring musical featured in the second season of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” would be “Beauty and the Beast,” the show’s vocal fans have been speculating on who will get the major parts.

Everyone from YouTube fan sites to major publications have thrown out suggestions from predictable to, well, it’s not going to happen. Vlogger Kristen Maldonado and Christi Carras of the Los Angeles Times both think Ashlyn might have a shot at the lead role of Belle. “She has the voice,” says Maldonado, and “because she’ll be in this little love story with Big Red, that might translate into playing Belle, finding love for the first time.”

Both see Big Red continuing his best buddy role by taking on LeFou. “How fun would it be to see a tap-dance routine from Gaston’s trusty sidekick?” writes Carras.

“You’ll have to wait and see,” says Larry Saperstein, who play Big Red. But he promises a great audition sequence that will allow the audience to follow along and see how it all fits together. “It all happens for a reason,” he promises.

As for guest star Andrew Barth Feldman, if you saw him in the recent online hit “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” you’d consider him a sure bet for Lumiere, the dashing candlestick with the charming French accent. One problem, though. Feldman plays a French exchange student who attends the rival North High School. And they’re doing “Little Mermaid.” — BARBARA SCHULER

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