The romance between East High School’s gay teens deepens on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” this week with the debut of a tender love ballad.
HuffPost got a sneak peek at Friday’s episode of the Disney+ series, titled “The Transformation,” via the clip below. This week’s installment finds East High’s resident thespian troupe continuing to refine their forthcoming production of “Beauty and the Beast,” even if their attempts at Broadway-style special effects don’t go exactly as planned.
The episode’s emotional apex, however, is “In a Heartbeat,” an original song written by Los Angeles-based musician Will Jay. The track is performed by Carlos (played by Frankie A. Rodriguez) as he opens his heart to his classmate and boyfriend, Seb (Joe Serafini), after a spat. Actor Joshua Bassett, who plays Ricky, accompanies his co-star on acoustic guitar.
For Disney, “In a Heartbeat” is a major milestone. Though the studio has made visible strides toward LGBTQ inclusion in recent years, this is its first love song written specifically for a same-sex couple.
Catch a sneak peek at “In a Heartbeat” below.
“This is the moment where Carlos is reassuring Seb, ‘You’re it, I really feel strongly about you, I choose you’ ― that’s the lyric,” Rodriguez told HuffPost in an interview. “We learn so much from television, so it’s important to show the different types of people who are out there. That adds to having compassion and learning how to understand people.”
Serafini felt similarly, nothing he’d like the song and the episode as a whole to remind young LGBTQ viewers that “there’s something you can look toward” if they’re feeling ostracized by their community.
Season 1 of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” garnered praise ahead of its 2019 Disney+ premiere for introducing Carlos as the franchise’s first-ever gay teen. Initially conceived as a recurring character, Seb was promoted to a series regular for Season 2. The show is a spinoff of the 2006 Disney Channel film “High School Musical,” which starred Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens and was famously lacking in openly LGBTQ characters.
Series creator Tim Federle told HuffPost in 2019 that he made a conscious effort to avoid anti-LGBTQ bullying or coming-out narratives on the show. As for Carlos and Seb specifically, he added: “It felt important to me, in writing a show for today, to include characters whose identity and singularity aren’t used as a big plot twist, but are ingrained in their everyday lives.”
The playful tension between the characters, nicknamed “Seblos” by viewers, heightened toward the end of the show’s first season. Season 2, which debuted in May, finds the teens engaged in a full-blown relationship with all of the accompanying youthful conflicts ― depicted, of course, in an age-appropriate way.
To the delight of many fans, the behind-the-scenes relationship between Rodriguez and Serafini has developed in parallel with their television characters. The two men have been dating in real life for about two years.
To Serafini, having Rodriguez as a scene partner makes his work as an actor “very easy,” noting that he and his boyfriend shared a deep connection over theater even before cameras started rolling.
“We share everything together and it’s honestly just a joy,” Serafini said. “The fun thing about playing Carlos and Seb is that they’re characters, and we leave them in that universe before we go home and just be ourselves.”
If Rodriguez and Serafini have their way, there will be more musical numbers in store for Seblos in forthcoming episodes (and, with any luck, future seasons) of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” And last month, the pair duetted on “A Whole New World” from 1992’s “Aladdin” as part of “This Is Me: Pride Celebration Spectacular,” a Disney+ virtual concert.
By giving a Disney classic a queer-inclusive reimagining, the actors hope to offer the type of LGBTQ representation they didn’t get to see when they were growing up.
“When we were first asked to do it, we were like, ‘Oh yeah, sure, of course we’ll do it,’” recalled Serafini, “And the more we sang it, the more we were like, ‘This is a beautiful twist on the lyrics,’ in terms of [yearning for] a whole new world where we can love each other the way we want to love each other.”
Added Rodriguez: “I was told I couldn’t listen to ‘A Whole New World’ growing up because it was too rebellious. Sure, Aladdin and Jasmine were singing about rebelling, but as an adult, I realized they were looking for love, acceptance and the confidence to be themselves. So I loved that we were able to give the song a new layer.”
New episodes of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” premiere Fridays on Disney +.