Julia Lester, best known as Ashlyn on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, is having a moment. Not only is she starring in season three of the Disney+ show, premiering on July 27th with new episodes every Wednesday, she’s also getting lots of buzz for her role of Little Red Ridinghood in Into the Woods on Broadway.
“Julia was born to be on stage and I was the accidental lucky guy who got her to be on TV,” said HSMTMTS creator and showrunner, Tim Federle to Broadway Direct.
Federle, who has a resume of Broadway shows himself, hired Lester for the show that first debuted in 2019 after hearing her sing Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity” at her audition. The song choice inspired Ashlyn’s character arc in wanting to be a songwriter, like Bareilles. Fast forward a few years, now Lester is starring in Into the Woods opposite Sara Bareilles, who also happens to be her longtime idol, as the Baker’s Wife.
“For Julia to be acting with Sara Bareilles – it’s very meta,” Federle added. “My whole show is meta. Art imitates life and vice versa in so many ways”
Lester first saw a casting notice for Into the Woods when it was being mounted for New York City Center last summer which has since transferred to Broadway. It was already announced Bareilles was attached to the production and so Lester felt it in her gut that she needed to do everything in her power to book the job. Sure enough, she did. Composer Stephen Sondheim even watched a clip of her audition and gave the green light for Lester to take on the role.
“Flash forward to the first day of rehearsals and I meet her and she is the coolest, most chill, wonderful person ever,” Lester told Broadway Direct about being introduced to Bareilles for the first time. “I feel like if I get too close to her, sometimes, I’ll explode because the universe is colliding.” She says it was actually Bareilles who made the first move in starting the conversation “because I was way too nervous to,” Lester said. “She started asking me about myself which [tried not to] freak out [about]. Since then, we’ve had a great relationship. She’s somebody that I can joke around with now, which is crazy! The saying goes, ‘never meet your idols.’ But I’m so thankful that I met her because she is everything I thought she would be and more. She is a true leading lady.”
While the two perform together on Broadway in the limited run that ends August 21 at the St. James Theatre, Lester is gracing TV screens at the same time with new episodes of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
“We may not have lightsabers and masks but this show is such a love letter to the redemptive power of a group of people coming together and making something,” expressed Federle. “[For] theater people – [like] Julia Lester [doing] eight shows a week – there is a discipline and a love of craft that is so true to theater people. That’s the reason Julia Lester was hired in the first place to play Ashlyn because the amount of preparation these actors bring to auditions into the set every day reminds me of why theater people are the best people.”
During season two, Lester’s character Ashlyn starred as Belle in Beauty and the Beast in her high school musical. The series is set in the same Utah high school where the original High School Musical starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens was filmed. This season, the cast moves from the high school auditorium to the outdoors; setting the show at Camp Shallow Lake in California. Guest starring this season as himself is High School Musical original cast member and Broadway’s rising tap star, Corbin Bleu.
Ashlyn is there “embracing a new environment where she basically has to build herself up again from the ground up meeting new people,” Lester explained of this year’s character arc. “Mostly finding herself all over again and rediscovering who she was before Miss Jen [Kate Reinders] gave her the opportunity to play Belle.”
The musical of the summer ironically is Frozen. “The music is just so good. It’s so in our cultural vocabulary,” said Federle of picking Frozen. “I got the opportunity because of my mentor, Tom Schumacher at Disney Theatrical, to actually sing some songs from the Broadway production that the fans are probably a little bit less familiar with, but are incredible. Frozen is also so much about sisterhood, which is a big theme of season three.”
Audiences don’t yet know the role Ashlyn gets in the show. “That’s still a secret. But I’m very excited for people to find out,” Lester said. “I can’t believe that it’s still something that we’re holding on to. I remember when I knew that I was playing Belle, I had to keep that secret for basically a year and a half. It was torture and that’s how I’m feeling again this season. So, I need that episode to come out so everybody knows.”
Lester, 22, who grew up in California, comes from a theatrical household. Her parents and sister are all in show business. That’s how she fell in love with acting too. In fact, once upon a time, she played Milky White in a production of Into the Woods. This version, directed by Lear deBessonet, marks her Broadway debut.
During opening night’s curtain call bows, Lester recalled how Gavin Creel (Wolf, Cinderella’s Prince) threw his arms around her and put his other arm “out to the audience and said ‘You’re on Broadway baby!’ The fact that he was there to give me this moment was really incredible. I could tell that somebody did that for him when he was in his 20s. Now, he’s able to pass the torch and do that to me. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to make a gesture like that for somebody making their Broadway debut in the future.”
As both projects will soon run concurrently on TV and on the stage, the wheels are in motion for season four of HSMTMTS. Federle reveals he’s been in the writers’ room mapping it all out. He hints that it will be back in a school setting with a lot of major characters who will be seniors. Lester, whose character will be a junior on season four, says her favorite part about filming is finding out what musical it’s going to be — which is like a page from her own high school experience of learning what shows were planned for the year.
While nothing has been announced, Lester suggests Mary Poppins or Peter Pan.
But also wishes, “we’ve been saying that we should do Into the Woods, though, I think that would be maybe too meta at this point,” she added.
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