On January 25, 2002, the Disney Channel aired the Even Stevens episode “Influenza: The Musical.” In many ways, the network hasn’t been the same since then. The musical episode of this beloved show occurred at the end of its second season. As was customary of all Disney shows at the time, there would only be three seasons, but despite the sitcom’s short run, the show had a lasting impact. “Influenza” specifically proved to the channel’s executives that kids love a good musical and that the format would work for future sitcoms and original movies. After “Influenza,” the network followed suit with a musical episode of That’s So Raven, the original movie High School Musical in 2006, and its first sequel, which is their highest-rated original movie to date.
Premiering in mid-2000, Even Stevens came to be during the Zoog Disney era of the channel, a rebranding of the network that started in 1998 with shows like So Weird, The Famous Jett Jackson, and The Jersey, original movies like Brink and Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, and promos with little creatures called Zoogs that encouraged kids to get on the World Wide Web. In the midst of all this was Even Stevens.
Created by Matt Dearborn (who had previously co-produced The Secret World of Alex Mack on Nickelodeon), the show centered around Louis Stevens (Shia LaBeouf), a middle school goofball who’s part of a family of overachievers, such as his academically brilliant older sister Ren (Christy Carlson Romano), athletic superstar brother Donnie (Nick Spano), his senator mom Eileen (Donna Pescow), and lawyer father Steven (Tom Virtue). By the time the show pitched “Influenza” to Disney, execs were unsure a musical episode of a sitcom could work. Sure, they had music-centric shows like Kids Incorporated and The All-New Mickey Mouse Club in the late ’80s/early ’90s, but an entire sitcom turned musical wasn’t something they projected would garner much success.
We spoke with Even Stevens creator Matt Dearborn, producer and “Influenza” director Sean McNamara, executive producer David Brookwell, writer Jim Wise (who also played Coach Tugnut), composer John Coda, and actors Christy Carlson Romano, Lauren Frost (Ruby Mendel), A.J. Trauth (Alan Twitty), Nick Spano (Donnie Stevens), and Ty Hodges (Larry Beale) on the creation of Even Stevens, the making of “Influenza,” and its legacy.
“We Always Find a Way”
Originally titled Spivey’s Kid Brother, Dearborn’s show was set to focus on the life of a young Louis Spivey. The show quickly evolved into Even Stevens, a show about young slacker Louis Stevens and his perfect Sacramento family. With the apparent chemistry between actors Shia LaBeouf and Christy Carlson Romano, the creators shifted the focus after the first few episodes to highlight their sibling rivalry. The first episode aired on June 17, 2000, surrounded by shows like Totally Circus and In a Heartbeat. As the second season of Even Stevens was coming to a close, the writers and producers turned to the television convention of a musical episode. A few actors on the show had a Broadway background, like Romano and Frost, as well as professional dance training, like Ty Hodges. With these actors well suited for the challenge, the concept was pitched to the network and, despite executive’s doubts, they gave the Even Stevens folks the okay to commence with the challenge.
Sean McNamara, Executive Producer/Director: I had done musical theatre when I was in high school — Hair, Godspell, all this stuff. My composer, John Coda, he was the drummer in my band and I use to always say, “I just wish we could do musicals.”
Matt Dearborn, Creator/Writer: When you’re in series television, at some point, when you’re scrambling to come up with episodes, somebody always says, “Well, let’s do a musical episode,” along with, “Let’s do a black-and-white episode,” “Let’s do the time travel episode.” There are certain television conventions. We just decided to do the musical episode.
McNamara: Jim Wise, who actually wrote the words to the songs, went to Loyola High School and we were in plays together. And John Coda, who was in my band, we all got together and said, “We can pull this thing off.” And that’s how we pitched them. We’ve been doing this since high school, let’s give it a shot.
David Brookwell, Executive Producer: The one thing that I recall was that Disney Channel, they were not interested in doing a musical anything, especially a scripted comedy. It really wasn’t something that they envisioned being successful at all. But I think the idea was so radical—it was a great, funny entry point with Ren hallucinating. It was a great pitch and we all felt confident that we could pull it off because we had some really great talent as far as writing the music and coming up with some great lyrics.
A.J. Trauth, “Alan Twitty”: There hadn’t been any musical episodes yet. Obviously Hannah Montana hadn’t come out yet, Glee didn’t exist, High School Musical obviously didn’t exist, Hilary Duff was barely on the channel, so they hadn’t started doing the crossover thing with music and their acting talents. It was a novel concept for the time so we didn’t know what to expect.
McNamara: Britney Spears had been on Disney Channel, they knew music worked, but it was the whole theatre aspect of it that had not been tried, to my knowledge… I had done a show called Kids Incorporated for Disney also, and Kids Incorporated was a music show, but the kids actually performed on stage. They would actually sing the songs with a band, a proper thing, not a full on musical where you let the music propel the story. Even Stevens was the first full on musical back when they thought that nobody would like musicals.
Christy Carlson Romano, “Ren Stevens”: Marc Warren and Matt Dearborn and [executive producer] Dennis [Rinsler] would call us in at the beginning of the season… They sat us down and each of us talked about what we wanted for the character. And I think, for me, because I have a background in musical theatre, they were kind of like, “Oh, that could be kind of fun.” But it’s something I’m sure they had been thinking of, as well. But it was exciting that it was something that was my strong suit.
Lauren Frost, “Ruby Mendel”: Even if they weren’t theatre trained — like me or Christy — A.J. got to play guitar in the episode, Margo’s always written music, too, so I think it was just the writers saw an opportunity. Music was part of the set always, whether we were hanging out in the makeup and hair trailer listening to it, or I know Shia and A.J. always had their guitars around on set and then down time. So it was a really cool extension of our own personal interests that they picked up on.
John Coda, Composer: It was a bunch of kids, really talented, and sometimes we’d hang out in the back, A.J. would be strumming guitar and I remember Shia wanted to learn how to play drums.
McNamara: [Jim Wise] and I were like the musical dudes. We always played guitars around the set. We kept a drum set and guitars in the lobby and so we were always just making music. And what was fun about it was we were older, in our 30s, 40s, and we were playing with these young kids who were in their teens just because I think we were trying to re-live our youth and they were all getting into learning. We were showing them how to play guitar, showing them how to surf, showing them how to do all the things that we love to do.
“What’s the Matter with Ren?”
In “Influenza,” Ren Stevens has the flu and thus is unable to go to school. This poses a problem for the perfectionist as she is obsessed with being granted a perfect attendance award. She is determined to go to school despite her illness. Once there she discovers that it’s turned into musical madness. Principal Wexler sings a Motown-inspired number about the morning announcements. Louis, Tawny (Margo Harshman), and Twitty sashay down the halls while crooning about how to avoid sixth period. And, ultimately, Ren finds herself giving a shamefully shallow, though beautifully sung, presentation on the moon landing in which she doles out one single fact, “We went to the moon in 1969, not 1968, but a year after.” She, of course, gets an “F,” but wakes up to find out that the high school musical was only but a dream.
Brookwell: Here you’ve got a girl who never misses school, and here’s she’s sick and she wants to go to school no matter if she’s sick or not. We’ve all had those moments. I remember when I was in college I’d wake up in the middle of the night, I always had these recurring dreams that I’d miss every single one of my classes and I’m failing. [Laughs.] And then you realize it’s just a dream, a nightmare. So she wakes up and she goes to school and is like, “What do you mean there’s a test today?” So, I just laugh about it today because it was such a great premise.
Coda: Everybody just got excited with the idea. I remember the writers coming to me, “Hey, we’d like to do a musical.” And I said, “Great, that’s awesome.” They said, “We’re going to do a bunch of songs here,” and I knew that was going to be a big task. So the first thing I realized is I needed to bring in some additional help and Jim Wise was the first one that came to mind because we had worked professionally together over the years, and one of the things that I really liked about Jim was his talent with, not only songwriting, but his talent with lyrics.
McNamara: [Jim] did a thing in The Groundlings where they would throw out a word and he would turn it into a song. He’d have the audience throw out a word like “stockings” and “smelly feet,” and then he would turn that into a song. And he’s just a great songwriter.
Brookwell: Jim has gone on to have a very successful career as a comedy writer. He worked on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for many, many years and he also won three Emmys for writing music for skits on that show. So he’s an immense talent. You throw any musical genre at him and some non-sequitur, and he’ll start doing a Led Zeppelin version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or something like that. Putting him together with John Coda and coming up with this music was really genius.
Jim Wise (“Coach Tugnut”/writer): They knew I had a music background, so they basically made a framework of the story and then I wrote all the music and lyrics for the songs. I made very basic acoustic guitar tracks with vocals on them, and then I went to the composer’s house, John Coda, and he produced the sophisticated tracks that are part of the show.
Coda: We just spent days working on these demos of those songs. And Jim’s a great singer, as well. Jim Wise is a huge part of it, especially his ability to write lyrics. He’s so fast. If I, for example, were to be working on “Master of the Gym,” I came up with a rough musical idea for that and then he would come up with 20 different ideas for the lyrics.
Wise: I was driving to a Dodgers game or something [Laughs.] and I was like, “Oh this is how it’s going to go.” And I recorded into my phone. It wasn’t even an iPhone at that point, it was some flip phone and I called myself or made a recording somehow and sang it into the phone. I didn’t have the lyrics or anything like that, so I just went, “Bum, bum, bum, bum, da, da-da, da, da-da, da, da-da.” Because I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Coda: “I Always Find a Way,” I wanted that song in particular to sound kind of like the theme song, just to give it that flavor because I almost felt like the theme song fit Louis Stevens’ personality, so I wanted to give that particular song the personality of the show. Versus say, “We Went to the Moon,” which had a different style altogether and if it was about the moon landing in 1969. I wanted to give it, for some reason, a little bit of a ’60s sound in terms of the arrangement.
Wise: If you’re a good musician you probably listen to a lot of music and I listen to a lot. I will tell you this, I completely ripped off the feel of The Beatles song “Penny Lane” for “We Went to the Moon,” that’s what that was based on. For the song “Sixth Period,” it was supposed to be this intense, overwrought, over-the-top, but dramatic, like it was Les Miserables. “What’s the matter with Ren,” now that’s a waltz. [Laughs.] That’s the other thing [laughs], the producers were like, “We should have Larry rap, Larry Beale.” And I’m like, “Oh, because he’s African American? Really?” And I was kind of against it because it seemed like such a cliche. I wrote that section and it comes out of the waltz. I was very proud of the waltz. It’s 3/4 time, it’s almost like I could see that song being in The Sound of Music or something like that. I was a little bummed by the, “Yeah let’s have him rap.”
Brookwell: When we first heard the music, the test tracks, we’re all laughing our butts off thinking, this is going to be great. It was such a crazy idea, but what was cool about Even Stevens, especially the second season, is when we really started feeling our legs and getting our legs under us. And Disney Channel was really busy with a bunch of other shows so they started leaving us alone and so we really were able to stretch out and do some different things.
“We’re the Masters of the Gym”
Despite any reservations cast members, writers, and producers may have had as they embarked on “Influenza,” everyone fully indulged in the process. The musical was much more involved than a typical episode and a week hiatus was utilized to do the necessary pre-recording and song and dance rehearsals. Granted not everyone was aas experienced with the mechanics of a musical, but the Broadway spirit was infectious for everyone on set.
Brookwell: I think we all were [worried]. We were all biting our nails going, “Oh shit, is this going to work or not?” But when everyone started rehearsing and actually dancing, when we had it up on its feet — you can read the script and you can listen to the music and that’s one thing, but when the actors actually read the lines and rehearsing the dance as they’re singing the songs, that’s when you start going, “Oh my god, this is really coming together.”
Dearborn: I was a little nervous, but the [cast] rose to the occasion. Even Louis himself. Shia isn’t really a singer. He sort of talked his way through it, but it worked. Christy can sing and a few others, but I think the others were like, “Really? You want me to sing?” It was more of, “Trust me, you’re going to be fine.” And it was fine.
Brookwell: It was very exciting because it was different. It wasn’t just, let’s drop the kids in a vat of chili, let’s fly Louis around on a wire like a ninja. It was different, we’re doing a musical episode. Like, Broadway musical type of thing? Yeah! Cool, let’s do it…We prepped the episode over a hiatus because we needed to pre-record all the music and then there was a day or two of rehearsals where we brought in a choreographer and that was kind of fun. Sean McNamara directed the episode, and it was right up his alley because when he was in college and out of college he directed a lot of musicals on stage and so he wasn’t afraid of that. It was an easy episode for him to really dig his teeth into.
Wise: I gotta say that I’ve tried to pitch a musical series since and they just haven’t hit it yet. But it’s tough. It took twice as long to put this together because you have to choreograph it and you have to work on the music and do all that stuff as opposed to just writing an episode which you can bang out in a week and then have it good to go the following week. How normal TV works. We had two weeks. We had a full week of rehearsal, then we blocked and shot everything the following week.
Ty Hodges, “Larry Beale”: I think everyone was very excited and geeked about doing it. No one cared if they had a good voice or not. I didn’t even think I had a good voice. Jumping into this none of us were limited to, “I don’t know how to do this,” or “I feel uncomfortable.” It was, “Let’s do this, let’s have fun.” I think that’s what made the show so serious is that we didn’t take ourselves so serious.
Frost: I personally felt like I was back doing a theatre show, which was cool. And then we had to individually record our parts and while shooting we were lip-synching. I was pretty much living out my fantasy of being Mariah Carey in a music video. I got the best of both worlds, the theatre girl in me was really excited and then, also, I’m singing on TV. I felt really cool. [Laughs.]
Wise: We didn’t know that Shia could sing at all. Not that he’s Pavarotti or anything like that, but he could actually carry a tune and he’s got a character voice, an interesting voice. And A.J. was far more musical and Margo was a decent singer, which was fine for what we were doing. But Christy was the real good singer and George Anthony Bell, who played Principal Wexler, I thought a Motown song would be kind of fitting for his whole vibe, so I wrote “The Morning Announcements” song. You definitely have to keep in mind who you’re writing for, for anything really.
Trauth: Some of our cast members were very talented when it came to musical theatre. And then there was me and — not to say anything against them — but Shia and Margo. I think we were all on a different level in terms of being able to sing and dance and do them both at the same time. I think it’s pretty apparent. You hear Christy, Lauren, and Ty sing and they sound great, and Jim Wise, they sound great! Margo, Shia, and I it’s like, oh my God, this is rough.
Romano: I think Shia was a little uncomfortable with it initially because I think he was like, “This is so weird.” But as you can see, he really made the most of it and I think did a really great job once he threw himself into it. I also think when he does the obstacle course song, it’s pretty obvious that he’s having a good time. That’s the key to it. We’re just having fun. For me, on the other hand, I was like, ugh, no. I Ren’d it. I was type A. We had rehearsal for “Sixth Period.” We had lots of dance rehearsals. Instead of extras, we had professional dancers, so it was really was like High School Musical before there was High School Musical.
Nick Spano, “Donnie Stevens”: When you watch the episode, I think I have two words. Not two lines, two words. [Laughs.] I think I had all of two words to sing.
Frost: I loved doing “What’s the Matter with Ren,” because we got to dance on tables [Laughs.] and I got to sing with Gary [Gray], which was fun. The whole thing felt really cool. I thought I was in Sister Act II or something.
Wise: You know how it’s Lauren Frost and then the kid, the little guy — his name escapes me. Why am I not on the Even Stevens IMDb page? Let’s see here…Gary [Gray], he couldn’t sing, so that’s actually my voice coming out of him. [Laughs.] You know who was on Even Stevens way after or way early was Efren Ramirez from Napoleon Dynamite.
McNamara: Did you know that I’m the singing cowboy? That’s me riding the horse singing, “We’re riding the range in 1869, not 1868, but a year after.” It was fun, to really be in it.
Coda: By the end I think when you watch it, it speaks for itself. I think it holds its own. And that’s part of the charm. It’s not like everything’s perfect. It wasn’t too polished. We tried to do as good of a job as we could at the time.
“I’ve Got Hot Soup, Delicious Chicken Soup”
Disney Channel couldn’t deny the success of “Influenza,” and with its success, the executives shifted their programming accordingly. Future stars of their television shows were also fostered into musical acts who would have recording deals starting with Lizzie McGuire’s Hilary Duff on through Hannah Montana’s Miley Cyrus. The success of this one episode also inspired the idea for an entire movie musical, leading to the network’s highly successful High School Musical. Beyond the realm of the channel, the show also influenced a myriad of trends we see today. For example, in one episode, Ren gets a job at an all toast eatery at the mall showing that the fancy toast trend all started with this show in 2002. And it’s worth mentioning that the show fostered the early talent of Shia LaBeouf—his dancing skills in Sia’s “Elastic Heart” all trace back to his expertly choreographed performance in “Influenza”.
Frost: I think Even Stevens did a lot for the Disney audience in general. If people didn’t respond well to that musical episode, who knows, maybe High School Musical wouldn’t have happened? Also, I think everything we dealt with as teenagers or high schoolers on that show was still pretty real and their humor was a little more skewed older, a little more adult then other shows of its time.
Hodges: After that High School Musical sparked and it really went in that direction. I think when we did it everyone was surprised because we weren’t that type of show. Yes, we were campy. Yes we were artistic. Yes it was about adolescents in high school, but to do a musical comedy at that time, we had a mostly boy fanbase, they really didn’t understand it until they saw it.
McNamara: We were simultaneously producing That’s So Raven and the next thing we produced was the That’s So Raven musical. They liked it so much that the channel said, “Let’s now do it at That’s So Raven.” Then they developed High School Musical and the rest is history. I think what it did was it made the executives feel comfortable that people would respond to musicals.
Romano: Disney internally called me and told me that the episode, the musical, was officially named one of the pinnacles within the channel’s history, that was looked at as one of the biggest shifts in the channel’s history. And it must be because they then realized it was something they wanted to do across the board.
Trauth: Jim Wise and John Coda did such a great job with those songs. It’s grown so much and they were really at the forefront of something, specifically with Disney Channel and how much they do now with musicals, even recently with the Descendants. It’s been very successful for them and they were the first ones to do it and put it forward. The music’s gotten a lot more contemporary, et cetera, as time has gone on. And John and Jim’s is maybe a bit more, not musical theatre-ish, but just a little bit sillier and a bit more fun and less serious than contemporary. But I think they did a really good job with it.
Brookwell: I just remember Gary Marsh, [President of Disney Channel], coming up to me after High School Musical was a huge success, I remember seeing him, I remember exactly where it was, we were in studio lot in Hollywood, in the parking lot, and I congratulated him on the success of High School Musical. And he said, “You know, we wouldn’t have done that if you guys hadn’t done that musical episode of Even Stevens. That gave us the confidence that musicals could work.” And that was really a great compliment.
Coda: I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves, but it definitely, both [Even Stevens and That’s So Raven] musicals, deserve a lot of credit for setting that trend. They were the beta testing.
Romano: It’s funny because after that people knew I could sing, I don’t think they really knew before. So after the musical episode I got a record deal a couple years later. And then a couple years later, as well, I was on Broadway for Beauty and the Beast. It created a lot of opportunity for me and I think subconsciously I was nervous because I knew that it was my big moment and I have to thank the writers because they gave me that moment to shine.
McNamara: I have kids now and they watch it and then go, “God, this is so much better than the stuff on Disney Channel today.” And I say, “Oh, you think that because of Papa,” and they go, “No, because we watch it and we just love it.” I think there was some magical alchemy that happened on that show that not every show gets to have.
Spano: I didn’t expect much out of [Even Stevens]. I certainly didn’t expect it to have the following that it still does. Back in the day when the show was on, there wasn’t a whole lot of recognition because the kids who were watching the show were obviously not hanging out in the same places I was [laughs]. But now, man, it’s almost 15 years later, it’s been quite a while, now all those young people have grown up and I see them out and about and it really holds a special place in people’s lives.
Coda: I would have loved to have seen it continue beyond the 65 episodes and I think Shia did, too. It was like a big family. It seemed to be getting better and better then all the sudden they just said, “Okay, that’s it.” I know they did The Even Stevens Movie which was a nice punctuation to the series.
Trauth: Even Stevens was the first show to shift the voice of what the Disney Channel was going to become. You were moving away from So Weird, The Jersey, it was a shift away from that and towards the comedy that they still do today. So Lizzie McGuire came after us and there was a certain rivalry there. I’m almost positive Lizzie McGuire was much more successful, but we felt a lot of pride in our show, considering ourselves funnier and better written, and sort of at the forefront.
Romano: They had The Jersey, they had Jett Jackson. So they had a lot of different things they were trying out and I think for the most part ours won out of the lottery.
Hodges: If the show would have lived on, there probably would have been a musical every week. The show had so much life in it and I think the talent in it is incredible. Everyone from that cast, they’re just doing amazing things. Of course Shia’s career has been able to take on a life of its own. But he’s an artist.
McNamara: It was funny because [Shia] had done a lot of serious movies after Even Stevens, he did Charlie’s Angels, he did Constantine, he did I, Robot where he was playing serious parts and I was going, the adult world is missing on Shia’s comedy.
Hodges: He’ll do the Sia music video and he’ll do all these things so you think, wow, this guy did a musical back in the day and his coordination was a little, you know, and now he’s doing movement with a young woman that’s an incredible dancer. So for me it’s kind of cool how it just confirms that where our cast is at.
Trauth: I don’t think there’s any denying Shia as a talent and as a comedic talent. He’s a very talented dramatic and, to the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t gone back and done any comedy, but as a teenager he was pretty brilliant. And it goes without rivalry that Lizzie McGuire, at that time, there was no comparison between Hilary Duff and Shia LaBeouf, those two, there’s not really a discussion. He was definitely wise beyond his years and I only realized that going back and watching episodes of the show a couple years ago. I had no idea at that age. At 14 I thought he and I were doing the same thing. And going back and watching it as an adult I realize, oh no, no, no. I had no idea what was going on and Shia was so aware. So aware and so good at it.
Brookwell: It’s so funny, we’re all very, very protective of him. When the media really starts jumping on his misfortunes and that sort of thing, those of us that stay in touch with one another that worked on the show, we get very defensive in front of other people who might say something bad about him because we all grew up together, that show. Those guys were kids at the time.
Trauth: I’m still acting on occasion, I suppose. But I had moved into production and actually worked with Matt Dearborn on a number of things, so we’ve got several project in development and some are in television. So who knows, maybe we’ll have the next Even Stevens-esque show out there and I’ll be working on it with Matt, but time will tell.
Romano: I’m teaching acting classes now to kids. I’m really passionate about advocating for children who are in the entertainment industry. I’m looking to produce a documentary about child actors rehabilitating into society after fame. It’s something that’s my passion project that I’m working on right now. I’m still acting, I’m actively working, but looking to move towards producing. It’s not enough to be an actor anymore, you kind of have to do everything.
Frost: I’m a producer of a comedy festival called The Funny Women Fest and this is our second year, and we’re looking to expand and tour. It’s a celebration of women in comedy, the idea behind it is to create a platform and an opportunity for female comedic voices in the community and it’s taking off and I’m so happy to be a part of it. I’m also a writer now too, so I write features and television shows and TV pilots.
Spano: I’ve been coaching and training in acting for a number of years and I opened a solar-powered spa for seven years that I just sold. And I have another business called City Farm, which manages farmers markets in Los Angeles. Now I have another venture of mine that’s bringing me back to the creative world and allowing me to really be an artist again and how I connect with people in my community, so I started a group called Recreation. I host a lot of creative, cultural experiences that are designed to bring people together in positive unique ways.
Hodges: I actually wrote a musical called You, Me & The Circus, wrote all the original music with another fellow actor named Omar Epps. It’s about a breakup — at a certain age everyone has experienced some sort of breakup and for me it was playful to write music around that. And it was definitely a seed that was planted, it’s inspiration from Even Stevens. I definitely will say that I am excited that I carry that on into my life and my career and now create content with those elements.