Shooting just wrapped for their big-screen grand finale, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, due Oct. 24. While a fourth film is in the works, no one expects the primary players to return.
But for much of the spring and summer, the actors were together again at East High, where the original Disney Channel movie took off in 2006 and became a pop culture sensation, fueled by drama and dance numbers from Efron and Hudgens' sweethearts Troy and Gabriella; their pals Bleu and Coleman; and twin rivals played by Tisdale and Grabeel.
For the third time, set designers have transformed Salt Lake City's East High School into Disney's version of a freshly painted slice of academic Americana. Outside the main entrance, a red banner proclaiming "Congratulations Wildcats: Back to Back Champions!" has been hung. Broadway-grade red curtains hang in the auditorium for the musical numbers. And in the gym, Troy's basketball jersey has been retired, displayed up high next to those of his father and best pal, Chad.
The first HSM was shot for $4.2 million, the second, $7.8 million. Though there's more to work with for Senior Year (no one will say how much), the sets are still kept in the simple style of actual high school musical productions. Even a fantasy sequence features palm trees and flames made of paper.
"We always try to keep a naiveté," explains Kenny Ortega, who has directed all three films. "There is more scale and detail in High School Musical 3, but it's still our world — young people wishing and aspiring."
It has been a struggle to keep filming to its 45-day schedule, necessitating shoots that have lasted up to 18 hours. But the young actors aren't complaining. With summer temperatures on the rise, they have been hanging out in a inflatable kiddie pool outside Efron and Hudgens' trailer or in Tisdale's trailer, where the big draw is Guitar Hero on her Wii — a particular favorite of Efron's.
Efron, 20, was the last to sign on for film No. 3, but he says that had little to do with wanting a movie-star paycheck, which many believed he deserved after his lead role in Hairspray.
"High School Musical has always been a blast to work on since Day 1," he says. "I just didn't know if a third one would work. When the script came in, I thought it was very well done, and it was an easy yes."
Despite the cast's maturation, all the action on the screen remains strictly G-rated, which Ortega says has been a "great challenge."
Jared Murillo, who played a dancer in the first two films and took time off from his boy band, The Factory, to do a cameo in Senior Year. On set in the cafeteria, Murillo holds Tisdale's dog, Maui, and often hurries to her side during breaks for a kiss. "Thanks, baby," Tisdale tells him.
Another relationship that appears genuine: Ortega's with his "kids."
With the end of production drawing near, he is presented by the cast and crew with a bottle-cap necklace with three gems representing the HSM trilogy. A diamond represents Senior Year, which he views as his opus — though, he hopes, not his finale.
THE "I WANT IT ALL" SCENE
The film also includes sequences with a bit less flash but plenty of humor. Sharpay (Tisdale) gets an over-the-top I Want It All dream sequence, in which she envisions herself and twin brother Ryan (Grabeel) as superstars. Though only four minutes of screen time, the sequence takes three days to shoot.
Through Sharpay's eyes, her friends are seen in various subservient roles, including Efron, who plays a crazed fan at a movie premiere.
"It's pretty fun," Efron says between takes. He's dressed in a T-shirt with Sharpay's image silk-screened on the front and has a big red heart tattoo on his bicep with an "SE" (for Sharpay Evans) in its center. "It's my chance to switch roles."
Though Tisdale gets dolled up in a platinum wig for her fantasy scene, the cast seems to rebel against high fashion off-camera. Tisdale shuffles around in ratty old slippers, Hudgens has on short denim cut-offs, and Grabeel is wearing something his character never would — brown sandals and black socks.