'Madison High' pilot on fast track for Jan. debut target

Disney Channel aims to turn its “High School Musical” franchise into a regular series with the project tentatively titled “Madison High.”

Series would find Ms. Darbus, the drama teacher character from the “HSM” pics played by Alyson Reed, moving from Albuquerque’s East High to a new school in a different state where she has to rebuild its drama program.

Project is exec produced by “HSM” stewards Bill Borden and Barry Rosenbush, as well as Lester Lewis (“The Office”) and Paul Hoen (“Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam”). Pilot was penned by Lewis and will be directed by Paul Hoen. The plan is to fast-track production of the pilot in the hopes of getting the series on the air as early as January.

The “Madison High” project aims to build on the Mouse’s boffo success with the first two “HSM” pics, which made stars of Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale, and the respectable, if not spectacular, B.O. perf of the 2008 theatrical release “High School Musical 3: Senior Year.”

A fourth “HSM”-themed telepic, “Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventures,” starring Tisdale, will bow on DVD this spring and on Disney Channel later this year.

For “Madison High,” Disney Channel execs mounted extensive searches for triple-threat teenage comers who can handle the rigors of a tuner series.

Series’ male lead role of a motocross racer who turns to drama as a new hobby went to Luke Benward, 15, while the femme lead went to Leah Lewis, 14.

Benward, a native of Nashville, has had roles in the Disney Channel telepic “Minutemen” and features including “How to Eat Fried Worms,” “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “Mostly Ghostly,” “Dear John” and “We Were Soldiers.” Lewis, from Orlando, Fla., is a newcomer with only a few commercials under her belt. Also set for the series is G Hannelius, a 12-year-old thesp who has logged appearances on numerous Disney Channel shows.

Casting is still under way for three more moppet roles.

If “Madison High” clicks as a series, it would allow Disney Channel to harvest steady ratings returns from an ongoing series in contrast to the event programming of the telepics. With “Glee” generating such heat for Fox, Disney Channel execs are eager to remind the biz that they were the first to take the gamble on a teen-focused tuner.

“With ‘High School Musical,’ we introduced the joys of musicals and musical theater to a whole new generation and kids and families embraced the themes explored in those movies — about expressing oneself and following your dreams,” said Gary Marsh, prexy of entertainment and chief creative officer for Disney Channels Worldwide. “And now, with ‘Madison High,’ we hope to give kids a whole new set of characters with whom to engage — along with more great original music, dance numbers and songs.”

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