How Bleu, Coleman went from ‘High School Musical’ to Lifetime
When former “High School Musical” co-stars Monique Coleman and Corbin Bleu prepared to dance onscreen together for the first time in 13 years, something instantly clicked.
“When we first started stretching and warming up, it was honestly like coming home,” Coleman told The Times. “I forgot how much I love to do this and how much I love to do it with this person.”
“‘High School Musical’ was lightning in a bottle … and one major part of the cause was us,” Bleu added. “So, to be able to be on set again and to see what Mo is capable of and see how we work together … That was a reminder of why what we did in the past became what it did.”
More than a decade after the last “High School Musical” film opened in theaters, Coleman and Bleu are onscreen together once again in the Lifetime holiday movie “A Christmas Dance Reunion,” premiering Friday . The feel-good flick stars the longtime friends as Lucy and Barrett, childhood dance partners who reconvene as adults for a spontaneous winter performance — and inevitably fall for each other in the process.
In Disney’s “High School Musical” trilogy, Coleman and Bleu played love interests Taylor McKessie, an academic genius, and Chad Danforth, a basketball star, the respective best friends of romantic leads Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) and Troy Bolton (Zac Efron).
Lifetime’s move to reteam Coleman, 41, and Bleu, 32, for “A Christmas Dance Reunion” follows a tried-and-true casting formula for the network, which has been intentionally reuniting former castmates in its holiday programming since at least 2017.
This year, Lifetime has also rejoined cast members of “The Brady Bunch” and Showtime’s “Seventeen Again,” while its biggest holiday TV movie rival, Hallmark Channel, has gathered actors from “The Wonder Years,” “Fuller House,” “Back to the Future” and “Desperate Housewives.”
“As everybody’s lately … jumping on the bandwagon of Christmas movies, we’ve really been able to isolate what our audience loves,” said Tanya Lopez, executive vice president of scripted programming at Lifetime.
“They love seeing their friends get back together — the people that they watched in their living rooms. They love the idea that they still look … great. They’re still fun. It is like going back to a high school reunion and getting the best of it.”
Both Lopez and her Hallmark counterpart, Lisa Hamilton Daly, agreed that nostalgia is a potent force in holiday TV movies — especially projects that mine viewers’ fond memories of small-screen flames and spin them into fresh yuletide fantasies.
When Lifetime announced in May that Bleu and Coleman would portray love interests in “A Christmas Dance Reunion,” for instance, the fan reaction was swift and ecstatic. A tweet from Coleman juxtaposing photos of herself and Bleu in “High School Musical” and the Lifetime project amassed more than 770,000 likes — a stratospheric number, even by viral Twitter standards.
Lopez said the response has been more passionate than any she has seen for the roughly dozen holiday movies the network made with former co-stars over the past four years, except perhaps 2019’s “A Christmas Wish,” featuring the ensemble of “One Tree Hill.”
Nor is the enthusiasm limited to social media. While attending a Hollywood event for the tennis drama “King Richard,” Coleman instinctively approached one of the child actors from the film, who reminded her of her younger self: thrust into the spotlight and on the brink of a career breakthrough.
Then the actor told Coleman that Taylor McKessie was her onscreen role model growing up.
“We know that we were a part of a beloved franchise, and we know that the name ‘High School Musical’ means something. But again, we were ‘the best friends,’” Coleman said. “To see people come out of the woodwork and be like, ‘I’ve always loved you.’ … I don’t know that I really knew that at the time. And so it feels really special to now have a medium where people can say what we meant to them.”
The talent are often eager to revisit that cherished time in their lives as well.
“They’re thrilled to hang out together again,” Daly said of such pairings. “If they had chemistry on screen, it’s usually [due to] the fact that they had chemistry in person. … Nostalgia works for everybody. It even works for the people that are creating that nostalgia.”
Coleman and Bleu, in their case, have remained close since their “High School Musical” days and immediately FaceTimed each other in a state of euphoria upon discovering that they had been cast in “A Christmas Dance Reunion.” After seeing that Bleu was attached to the project, Coleman — for the first time in her 20-plus-year career — accepted Lifetime’s offer without reading the script.
Much like their characters, Coleman and Bleu are former dance partners who reveled in the chance to perform together once more. But the similarities don’t end there. Both took a break from performing and embarked on other professional endeavors.
Lucy’s decision to become an attorney was spurred by an injury, while Coleman’s foray into youth activism was born out of post-“High School Musical” disillusionment with the entertainment industry. When the final installment of the blockbuster franchise premiered in 2008, Coleman wasn’t invited to join her main castmates on the press tour.
Though she harbors no resentment toward Disney or her fellow East High alumni, the experience led to a sobering realization.
“That was a little bit of a blow,” Coleman said. “We had done everything together up until that point, and that was the first time that I really realized that it was a business and that it wasn’t personal — that we had done something wonderful but that we were ultimately going to have to move on from it.
“Because I had that experience, I got the memo first that this isn’t gonna last. This is going to go away. And I had to swallow that very quickly.”
Coleman soon joined the United Nations as the organization’s first Youth Champion and launched Gimme Mo’, a foundation that raises awareness about issues facing young people.
“As a developing young person and as an artist, it was very confusing and hurtful to feel like, ‘Wow … just like that, you can be left behind,’” she said. “That was specifically what caused me to say … ‘If this is my five minutes of fame — if this is all that I ever get — then I want to make sure that I use it to do something that makes someone else feel and know that they can achieve their dreams.’”
Akin to Barrett’s trajectory in “A Christmas Dance,” Bleu has enjoyed a thriving stage career. Among his most notable credits are Jesus of “Godspell,” Usnavi of “In the Heights,” Seaweed of “Hairspray,” Sky of “Mamma Mia!” Don Lockwood of “Singin’ in the Rain” and Ted Hanover of “Holiday Inn.”
Onscreen, though, his auditions followed a familiar pattern.
“Even with success, even with the fame of ‘High School Musical,’” Bleu said, “the roles that would come in were still for … the best friend.”
“Or even if the leading role was a Black character, the driving force of the storyline was the fact that they were Black,” he continued. “It was about the struggle of being Black.”
Reunions, and the experience that comes with them, can have aesthetic benefits too. Coleman and Bleu, who recall feeling scared earlier in their careers to voice their opinions on set or make mistakes, say they approached their latest collaboration with greater confidence in themselves and each other.
At one point during rehearsals, Bleu — who has been tap-dancing since he was 2 years old — even asked director Brian Herzlinger if they could incorporate his skills into the film, resulting in his first-ever onscreen tap solo.
And if “A Christmas Dance Reunion” belatedly satisfies fans of “High School Musical” disappointed that Chad and Taylor never got the love story they deserved, so be it. That’s all part of the charm.
“It’s really wonderful when you do see these onscreen couples that go from project to project,” Bleu said. “Every time they do reunite on screen — even if they are reuniting as different characters — you know that there is a real love there.”
‘A Christmas Dance Reunion’
When: 8 p.m. Friday