How Olivia Rodrigo's Off-Screen Drama Plays Into the New Season of 'High School Musical'

The "Drivers License" singer is poised to be the next big pop star with juicy songs about her crappy ex.

olivia rodrigo, joshua bassett
Olivia Rodrigo & Joshua Bassett | Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for Elsie Fest
Olivia Rodrigo & Joshua Bassett | Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for Elsie Fest

When High School Musical: The Musical: The Series premiered on Disney+ back in November 2019, it featured a bunch of young, fresh-faced talent who were largely unknown to the general public. The series created by Tim Federle was a cheeky, winky homage to the franchise that turned Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens into stars. It wasn't a reboot, but a show about a high school where High School Musical was shot doing a production of High School Musical. As it goes into Season 2, the stakes have changed, and not just for the characters. Now High School Musical: The Musical: The Series stars someone who is on the verge of becoming one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. 

If you haven't heard of Olivia Rodrigo, who plays ingenue Nini, you've probably heard her song "Drivers License." The ballad took over TikTok, became the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for eight weeks in a row, and was the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Speaking of, this weekend, Rodrigo is serving as the show's musical guest, catapulting her to even bigger stardom. Not only is Rodrigo a gifted songwriter, she's also mining the backstage drama of her own life—involving one of her HSM castmates—for her art, making what was once just a cute Disney+ show an even more intense focus of scrutiny. A little lost? Let's break down all the teen drama on and off the screen.

What's Olivia Rodrigo's backstory? 

Even before the 18-year-old Rodrigo was on HSM, she was part of the Disney machine, starring in the Disney Channel series Bizaardvark, about two girls who make YouTube videos, basically. In HSM, she plays theater dork Nini, who gets the lead role of Gabriella, originated by Vanessa Hudgens. In the first season, Nini is in the center of a love triangle between sensitive guitar guy Ricky (Joshua Bassett) and jock E.J. (Matt Cornett). By the new episodes, that has all resolved itself quite nicely, whereas off-screen things are a lot more complicated. 

What's the drama behind "Drivers License"?

"Drivers License" is a very sad song with echoes of Adele that teens and adults alike have flocked to on TikTok. In it, Rodrigo sings about how she just got her driver's license and is driving around crying because the boy who broke her heart is now with an older "blonde girl." Like so many young TV co-stars have done before them, Rodrigo and Bassett appeared to translate their on-screen chemistry into an actual relationship. But they broke up and Bassett seemed to start dating Sabrina Carpenter, another Disney star who is 21, which is, yes, older than Rodrigo. Carpenter, of Girl Meets World fame, is also blonde. The second single off of Rodrigo's debut album Sour, "Deja Vu," hammers home that she's pissed about the betrayal of a guy who is now with "another actress." (It's also a banger.) Meanwhile, Bassett and Carpenter are releasing new music at this time, and Bassett wants everyone to respect the women involved. So far, Rodrigo has been the victor, at least in the charts. 

How does this factor into HSM: TM: TS Season 2? 

In the context of the show, Nini and Ricky are still very much in love. However, Nini leaves Salt Lake City to go to a prestigious boarding school/acting conservatory in Denver, sending Ricky into a tailspin of insecurity. The plot line also means that most of their scenes are filmed separately, so read into that what you will. In the third episode of the season, which is Valentine's Day themed, Nini returns home to visit Ricky but they keep missing each other, which suspiciously seems like the two performers did not want to be on set at the same time. They do leave each other emotional overlapping voicemails in the form of songs, which make for a lovely duet even though they are not in the same room. As for the rest of the plot, Nini's desire to pursue her dreams away from Salt Lake means she's not part of this semester's production of Beauty and the Beast, which will be competing in the "Menkies," a fake competition named for composer Alan Menken. 

What's next for Olivia Rodrigo? 

Global stardom? Sour releases May 21, and we'll see if it is as big of a hit as an album as "Drivers License" was as a single. By the time next season of HSM rolls around, will Rodrigo be too big for her little old theater kid show? Only time will tell. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.
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