Songwriters Mitch Allan, Chantry Johnson & Michelle Zarlenga talk to Billboard about creating the musical puzzle of 'Even When/The Best Part' for season 2 of 'High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.'
Before their speculated offscreen relationship drama helped spur a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit, Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett recorded a duet about their onscreen romantic dilemma for High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
The two-part song will appear during the second season of the Disney+ series, which premieres May 14, in which Nini (Rodrigo) and Ricky (Bassett) navigate their long-distance relationship after she heads off to the Denver-based Youth Actors Conservatory, leaving Ricky, the East High Wildcats and theirspring musical production behind in Salt Lake City, Utah. The "Valentine's Day" episode spotlights Nini and Ricky struggling to physically spend the holiday together, after Ricky takes a bus to Denver to surprise Nini with the new love song he wrote for her titled "Even When" -- only for Nini to surprise Ricky outside his (old) house in Salt Lake City and sing her own romantic ballad "The Best Part."
Toward the end of the episode, the high school sweethearts simultaneously perform their songs while leaving voicemails for each other shortly before the clock strikes midnight and signals the end of Valentine's Day. The result is "Even When/The Best Part," a swoon-worthy "accidental duet" featuring Bassett on guitar and Rodrigo on ukulele that strategically synthesizes their individual songs together like two pieces of a puzzle.
"This song originated in the writers' room when our writing producer Zach Dodes said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if Ricky and Nini kept missing each other on Valentine's Day, and so they each call each other at midnight and play a song they wrote for the other one -- and through the magic of showbiz, the songs blended together?'" Tim Federle, the series' creator, showrunner and executive producer, says in a statement to Billboard. "Olivia and Josh are such talented singer-actors, and the songwriters struck the perfect note in writing this 'accidental duet.'"
Disney Channel veteran songwriter and producer Mitch Allan, Chantry Johnson and Michelle Zarlenga knew going into the writing session in January 2020 that they were writing one song with two songs nested inside it. In a statement, Disney Branded Television vp of music and soundtracks Steve Vincent commended the team for taking on "the unique challenge of writing two songs that musically fit together when played simultaneously and [delivering] a 'duet' that captures the spirit of Valentine’s Day, and the voices of the characters expressing their love for one another."
"We definitely knew we had some kind of mental gymnastics to do to get ourselves to a place where we could write two songs that happened to work at the same time and really work on the structure of each to make them flow like a unit," Zarlenga tells Billboard.
But with all the hoops the team had to jump through to make the songs-within-a-song work, a completely unexpected leap happened an entire year later: Rodrigo's debut single outside the Disney realm, "Drivers License," became the runaway hit of 2021 after it opened and remained at No. 1 on the Hot 100 for eight consecutive weeks. The 18-year-old Geffen Records signee's smash also led both the Billboard Global 200 and Billboard Global Excl. U.S. charts for eight and nine weeks, respectively, and became the first song to surpass 1 billion global streams in 2021, according to MRC Data. Bassett's single "Lie Lie Lie," meanwhile, earned the 20-year-old star his own set of Billboard chart debuts: The song catapulted the Warner Records artist to debut at No. 33 on the Emerging Artists chart while also opening at No. 25 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart.
But before hopping on the express lane to superstardom with "Drivers License," Rodrigo's first trip to the Hot 100 was "All I Want," an original song she wrote for the first season of HSMTMTS that peaked at No. 90 in January 2020. "Drivers License" propelled the song to enter the Global 200 and Global Excl. U.S. tallies in January 2021, with "All I Want" reaching 13.3 million streams globally and 8.3 million outside the U.S. in the week ending Jan. 21, according to MRC Data. Rodrigo's High School Musical song is up to 199.5 million U.S. streams through April 22. She and Bassett also co-wrote their "Just for a Moment" duet from the first season, which has 34.7 million on-demand U.S. streams but didn't hit any Billboard charts.
"'Even When/The Best Part' is a truly special duet," Bassett tells Billboard in a statement. "I played guitar when we filmed it, and sang along to Olivia’s vocals in my ear while she shot her side separately! I’m stoked to see how it all came together and really think people are gonna love it! Hands down: one of my favorites this season!"
Billboard chatted with Allan, Johnson and Zarlenga about how the release of "Even When/The Best Part" -- which will be released in full on Friday -- found itself in the middle of Rodrigo and Bassett's groundbreaking success and how the "Disney machine" is cranking out superstars faster with each crop.
How did the two-part song come together, and was the result always how you envisioned it?
Mitch Allan: We all went into the the writing session knowing that we were writing one song that had to contain two songs inside of it. I don't think we knew exactly what the songs were going to be. But when we finally pushed play, and we heard both songs playing at the same time, put together the way that we had envisioned it, I think we were all pretty satisfied.
Michelle Zarlenga: We knew that that was gonna be a challenge. We definitely knew we had some kind of mental gymnastics to do to get ourselves to a place where we could write two songs that happened to work at the same time and really work on the structure of each to make it them flow like a unit. But I think we're ultimately very happy with how it turned out.
Chantry Johnson: We were very intentional in the writing process. We took it part by part, writing the verse for one song and for another pretty much at the same time. It wasn't like writing two separate songs and just kind of seeing if we got lucky. It was very intentional. If we write the verse in this way for the first one, we can write the verse this way for the other one, and how can we allow them to have space and overlap in ways that feel satisfying and make the songs make sense combined into one song?
You’re writing this Valentine’s Day harmony that ties into Ricky and Nini’s new long-distance relationship in the second season. While writing the song, how do you balance letting the plot line help drive the romantic factor and making sure "Even When/The Best Part" can also be its own track, let alone two standalone tracks?
Allan: I think the No. 1 concern that we had was making sure that each character had their own story. So there's a lot of inner-monologue that we kind of suppose is going on for him and for her. And so we're looking at it like, "What's he thinking? He's gonna write it from this point of view. And what's she thinking? She's gonna write it from this point of view." Because of the similarities between them -- obviously it's Valentine's Day and they're not together -- that's the commonality that wraps the storylines together in the song, but I still think you get a sense of who each character is in their own song. And then it works together to create a third song with both of them.
Zarlenga: So they give us the information beforehand about where the characters are, what their headspace is like, and so each song kind of had to bend to the other. We had to make sure there was enough space for Ricky's thoughts and feelings in his song, and in the empty space, then that's Nini's moment. When looking at them as two separate songs, it's actually relatively easy to differentiate their points of view. Really, it was just about letting each one have the space when it needed it versus the other one.
With the unprecedented success of Rodrigo’s "Drivers License" and Bassett’s "Lie Lie Lie," not to mention the gossip about the real-life romance between two of Disney’s biggest breakout stars at the moment, do you foresee "Even When/The Best Part" becoming a hit?
Johnson: We are certainly grateful that the show and the careers of Olivia and Joshua are taking off and exciting proved to be a part of this next season. We really just wrote to serve the scene. When you're writing for film and television, you don't want to write something that is self-serving or pretentious. You want it to be something that perfectly reflects what the characters are going through. And I think the ups and downs of their journey and how that may or may not reflect their ups and downs in the personal lives of the stars, however that resonates with people, will be something that I think everyone can relate to whichever part of their own journey they may be in, whether it be the highs or the lows. It's got a bittersweet nature to it, but I think it makes it very powerful. So we are happy that a song that we have learned to love so much as we created it is going to get the attention that we feel like it deserves and excited that these two people whose careers are blossoming are going to be a part of bringing it to the world.
Allan: The irony is not really lost on us, but we appreciate everything that's going on with them as artists and also them as artists on the show. When we wrote the song, we were just excited to be a part of it. And now with everything that's happened, obviously a year later, looking back in retrospect, I think we're even more excited.
Zarlenga: There's no way to foresee how massive they were gonna be other than the fact that they're extremely, extremely talented, which was already something that was exciting when working on the song in the first place. So we just feel very fortunate to get to be a part of it, especially as all the excitement is building around their careers now.
When everyone heard "Drivers License" and "Lie, Lie, Lie" and saw Olivia and Josh picking up steam outside the series, there must have been an element of surprise, but knowing how talented these two are, where you just like, "Yup, that makes sense. We've worked with them?"
Johnson: Absolutely. The entertainment industry is a fickle beast, and sometimes you get totally surprised by something or something goes a totally different way than the way you thought it would. But the careers of these two was not one of those great surprises. ... You can look at that and pretty safely say, "Yeah, that's gonna be big."
Mitch, in your experience working on Hannah Montana, Camp Rock and other Disney originals, and now having worked with Demi Lovato on her latest album Dancing With the Devil… The Art of Starting Over, where do you see Olivia’s trajectory post-Disney?
Allan: I've known a couple of the stars and knew which ones when I worked with I was thinking, "Oh, this person's going to be a superstar." It's ridiculous for me to say that Olivia is going to be a superstar because she is already a superstar. But I will say that a year ago when I recorded the vocals for both of them, I thought both of them had that thing, that X factor, where I met them, they were both incredibly professional and engaging and into the songs and gave it their own spin and did everything that others that came before them did to make me think, "OK, this person is going to have a very, very long and successful career." They're both stars.
And that's something that the Disney machine does so well. Because I mean, hundreds, probably thousands of kids audition every year for a certain amount of roles, but they always find the cream of the crop. And look, their track record, it goes without saying, is unprecedented, from the original Mickey Mouse Club to the second Mickey Mouse Club with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and then to the third crop, which would have been the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. And now here we are in I guess the fourth crop, and they're already superstars and they're still on the show. It's kind of amazing.
I feel like they're on the fast track to superstardom that's picking up the pace with each new wave of Disney stars. They don't need to wait longer in their career after going through the "Disney machine" to make it. You can be an Olivia Rodrigo where you're not even in the second season of the show you're starring in to have the No. 1 song in the world for two months.
Allan: I think where we are in our society, communication is growing faster and communication is instant, where a tweet goes around the world in eight seconds. We're now at a place where talent is being found, put on television, shows are going out, songs are going out so fast, and the public is reacting just as fast. The reason that "Drivers License" is as big as it is is because it's that good of a song. And for me, anyway, it was a one-listen record. And like I said, when I met these kids and they went in and they sang, they were both great. One performance and I was like, "Wow, look, they're going to be huge." And I think it's a sign of the times -- we can communicate and we can get music, we can get art out to the people who love art so fast. The public can make a decision, yay or nay, thumbs up, thumbs down, instantaneous. And look, everybody loves both of them, and we're just hoping everybody loves the song that we created just as much.