It's springtime in St. George, Utah, and the hills are alive with the sound of "High School Musical." The production has invaded this small desert town to film a sequel, much to the delight of the students at Coral Cliffs Elementary School, located about a mile from the set. At recess, the kids swear that if they listen really hard, they can hear the movie's new songs echo on the horizon. "They filmed for two weeks on our baseball fields," says music teacher Stacie Bowden, who often uses songs from the TV movie in her choir class. "We had a lot of kids trying to get up there. It was crazy." Just as surreal, the film's stars—Zac, Ashley, Corbin, Vanessa; in the tween world, they're all one-name superstars—seem to be everywhere: at the movies, the go-kart track, even the bus stop, according to one sighting. "One day in PE," says Anje Olivas, a 9-year-old third grader, "I was doing the long jump. I looked up and I think I saw Zac Efron."
Was it just her imagination? It's hard to say. But when "High School Musical 2" premieres on Aug. 17, Efron & Co. really will be everywhere. The first "HSM," which debuted last year on the Disney Channel, became the most successful made-for-TV movie ever (total worldwide viewers: 160 million). It was like "Grease" for the "American Idol" generation, a squeaky-clean valentine that played like a time capsule from the 1950s—the happy couple didn't even get to kiss at the end. Which is one reason why parents liked it, and liked watching it with their kids. But now the movie's fans, and its young cast, are a year older. Growing up in real life is hard. Growing up with a multimillion-dollar franchise at stake is terrifying.
"High School Musical" was already an endangered species: the G-rated blockbuster. So much of kids' entertainment has been reprogrammed to also appeal to adults. The "Harry Potter" movies are dark. "Shrek" is crass. Even "SpongeBob SquarePants" was so packed with innuendo, the reruns migrated from Nickelodeon to MTV. There are no tentpole G-rated movies anymore, because G doesn't sell: "Surf's Up," "Bridge to Terabithia," "TMNT," "The Last Mimzy" and "Nancy Drew" all carried a PG. The only G-rated hit at the box office this summer is "Ratatouille." "When the writing is more edgy," says Al Kahn, CEO of 4Kids Entertainment, "it gets into the psyche of teenagers, like 'The Simpsons.' You get a much broader audience."
Rest assured, "HSM2" is still young, but it's restless, too. The sequel takes place during the summer before senior year, at the diva Sharpay's (Ashley Tisdale) country club. She's trying to woo Troy (Efron) from Gabrielle (Vanessa Hudgens). There is a kiss this time, and Troy is more touchy-feely with his girlfriend. The movie's music has also matured—less bubblegum, more R&B. The last "HSM" soundtrack became the No. 1 album of the year, but its Broadway-lite songs hardly got any radio play. "In this movie," says Efron, "the songs really come from passion and teen angst." The edgiest number, a breakup song called "Bet On It," has Troy swiveling his hips in the desert like Justin Timberlake. The lyrics are angry and self-loathing; the beat is closer to Maroon 5 than "Hairspray."
Still, Disney was careful not to stray far from the candy-colored playbook. The story may take place at a country club, but none of the girls—who are supposed to be 16 or 17 years old—wears a bikini (though Efron shows a fair amount of skin). An earlier version of a baseball song was rejected because it sounded "darker, a little more Snoop Dogg," says Steven Vincent, Disney Channel's director of music. Director Kenny Ortega says that at one point he was arguing for a line that he thought adults would snicker at. One of the producers stopped him and said: "Don't make the movie for parents."
Parents aren't the only grown-ups whom Disney needs to watch out for. Even though they are playing high-school kids, the cast is older—Monique Coleman (Taylor) is the elder stateswoman at 26—and prone to acting their age. Disney may have set the movie in Utah, but when the cast wanted to let their hair down, they headed for nearby Las Vegas. Just don't ask them about that stuff. Talking to the "HSM" actors, you can hear them reciting their Disney-approved bios. Vanessa Hudgens, 18, says her idea of fun is "running around in the sprinklers!" Corbin Bleu, who plays Troy's friend Chad, makes a point of saying "I was the guy voted teacher's pet in the yearbook." Efron brings up his squeaky-clean past, too: "There's nothing I do wrong. I don't think I ever got a referral in high school—not one!" You can't blame Disney too much. It is, after all, the studio that created Lindsay Lohan.
It can start to feel a little like the "Stepford Wives." Ask Hudgens whether there's any romance on set, she flashes a naive smile: "We don't look at each other that way," she says. "We're just like brothers and sisters." A few months later, the paparazzi catch her holding Efron's hand on a beach. "I guess in the middle of the first 'High School Musical' they fell in love and started dating," says Ortega. "I was the last person to find out." Since then, gossip sites have turned their fangs on the "HSM" stars. "People are trying to find things wrong with us," Efron says. He was already stuck in a sticky situation from the last movie. Disney told him he could pretend he was singing, even though another voice was mixed in for his songs. "We were all given talking points," Efron says. "When 'High School Musical' became successful, that's when we found ourselves having to backtrack." Efron claims it's really his voice in the sequel, but he worries that when he talks about it to reporters, he'll come across as cocky: "Even if I just say, 'Yes, it is my voice,' it makes me sound like the worst person ever." He pauses to reload the studio's happy message. "I'm so grateful that it's my own voice and I'm so excited." But sooner or later, you know he's going to rebel—though probably not before "High School Musical 3."