When High School Musical 3 hit Sydney this week, Joanna Hunkin was there to talk to the cast and creators of the runaway teen screen phenomenon
Who: Actors Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens play Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez in High School Musical 3, directed by Kenny Ortega
What: High School Musical 3: Senior Year
When: In cinemas December 4
Also: High School Musical 2 screens 7.30pm TV2 Friday
A breaking news banner scrolls across the television screen, interrupting a daytime soap opera. Sydney is under siege.
Hundred-strong crowds are forming in downtown Sydney and the police are on hand to prevent over-eager fans from hurting one another as they jostle for prime positions.
It's only 3pm, leaving another three hours until the night's stars arrive on the red carpet. But many in the crowd have been camped out since daybreak, wagging school for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see their heroes - the cast of High School Musical.
The three young stars - Zac Efron (21), Vanessa Hudgens (19) and Ashley Tisdale (23) - are some of Hollywood's hottest property, proven to sell tickets and shift magazines.
Their latest film High School Musical 3: Senior Year - the first theatrical release for the Disney franchise - has already topped box offices around the world and entered the record books with the highest earning opening weekend for a movie musical - outselling even the Abba-mania of Mamma Mia! earlier this year.
Waiting to meet the cast, on the upper floors of the Intercontinental Hotel - the same venue that hosted this year's Apec conference - tabloid photographers have camped out in a high-rise opposite, their cameras poised for payday as they take aim at Efron's room.
The previous day, as the trio enjoyed Sydney's sunshine with a quick water-taxi ride across the harbour, they were stalked by a boatload of paparazzi. The morning's papers are filled with unsolicited shots of the young stars.
"I noticed something odd about the boat following us," says Efron, who plays star basketballer and closet musical enthusiast Troy Bolton. "Sure enough, the next day you find out," he says, casting his eyes downward, clearly embarrassed by the attention.
"It's an inherently awkward situation. You don't really know what to do. It's not so much that they are taking photos. That's harmless. It's the fact there has to be some sort of story associated with it."
But while the media attention and fan mobbings may be trying for the 21-year-old, he wouldn't change any of it. As the cast embark on the fourth leg of the film's global release, Efron says he is determined to have fun.
"You have to enjoy it. Because the next one could be your last."
Having already opened in North and South America, Britain and Europe, even director Kenny Ortega has lost track of how many premieres the cast have attended. In Britain, the London premiere was simulcast in five other cities, such was the demand for tickets.
Back in Sydney, the publicity team have been fielding calls all day from the country's A-listers, desperate for a golden ticket. Even with five theatres screening the film, there isn't a spare seat in the house.
It's a remarkable feat for any film, let alone one from such humble beginnings. Originally a made-for-TV movie, no one could have predicted the success and phenomenon of the High School Musical franchise.
But Ortega - who directed and choreographed all three films - says he had a sneaking suspicion they were on to something.
"Somewhere towards the end of filming High School Musical 1, I got this feeling that I'd had before when I did Dirty Dancing and a few other projects. Suddenly you know you're somewhere special.
"I remember telling the kids, if everybody else does the jobs that you've done here, your lives are going to change. But I had no idea how much."
Vanessa Hudgens, who plays demure good girl Gabriella Montez, remembers Ortega's premonition. But she thought little of it at the time. "We were like, okay cool. But it's only talk," she explains. "The moment where I really realised High School Musical had taken on a league of its own was when we were in Brazil. We were on tour performing in a stadium for 75,000 people and they were all singing our songs - in English. It was just incredible."
Two years on, Hudgens still can't quite believe her luck and says she is thankful for the film, which helped her grow both as a performer and a person.
"I look back and realise I was a lot like my character. I was really shy and timid. I've grown so much. I'm a lot more outgoing and more comfortable in my skin."
But while she will always be indebted to Disney and High School Musical, Hudgens is adamant this is the final number for Gabriella.
"We've been through so much together. We've had the most incredible time. But at the same time we're graduating. I feel like High School Musical was my childhood and we're all growing up now. It's time to move on."
Moving on for Hudgens will see her steer clear of musicals in the future and bring some darker shades to her acting palette. Her next film Bandslam, due out in July, is the first step in that direction.
"It's really different. I play a character who's a lot darker, very deadpan and monotone. I'm excited to see what the fans think because it's so not Gabriella."
Hudgens may have closed the book on movie musicals but her boyfriend (both on and off-screen) has no such plans.
Having starred alongside John Travolta in last year's hit remake Hairspray, Efron has also signed on to star in an upcoming remake of Footloose, in the role originally made famous by Kevin Bacon.
"I know I'll always be open to doing musicals," enthuses Efron. "It's liberating. And not everyone else can do it. So there's an element of pride there too."
Efron may be proud of his musical abilities but he denies any responsibility for bringing the genre back in vogue.
"I wouldn't want to take the credit for that," he laughs, pulling a face of bemused horror, before admitting, reluctantly, "there was kind of a void."
That void had seen Ortega - who will join forces with Efron once again on the set of Footloose - shunted to the outer-orbit of Hollywood's solar system. Having worked on iconic 80s films such as Dirty Dancing, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ortega had all but given up on film-making when he signed on for the original High School Musical.
"I was hoping this was a movie that might put a light back on me and say 'Hey, hey! I'm over here and I can still do this. I'd love another shot to get out there as a film director'.
"But I never thought this would be the piece."
"I believed we could deliver something that would perhaps be iconic for the Disney Channel, but never did I imagine it would have the sort of legs to spread itself out to the farthest ends of the world."
As Ortega talks, with his back to the sweeping view of Sydney's harbour, he says the experience has been a dream come true. But the third film is the final act.
"It is the end as we know it with these characters. There's a possibility [of a new class] but I wouldn't be the person instigating it.
"I think this has played itself out now nicely and I like the way this has concluded. I don't think you want to see the next Sharpay, the next Troy and the next Chad. I wouldn't want to do that."
7.7 MILLION The number of viewers who watched the original High School Musical premiere on the Disney Channel in America
3.8 MILLION The number of album sales the original soundtrack clocked up in its first year of release, making it the biggest selling record of 2006
17.3 MILLION The number of viewers who watched the sequel High School Musical 2, when it premiered in America
$US13.3 MILLION The budget of High School Musical 3. More than three times the original film's budget of $US4.2 million.
$US80 MILLION The amount High School Musical 3 made in its opening weekend at the international box office.
18 The number of songs performed in High School Musical 3, seven songs more than High School Musical 2 and twice as many as featured in the original film.
113 MINUTES The running time of High School Musical 3.
41 The number of days spent filming High School Musical 3.By Joanna Hunkin Email Joanna