Since moving to Salt Lake City a year ago, I’ve learned that if I were to walk outside and throw a stone, I’d hit someone with a connection to the High School Musical movies. Last week I found out that Gabriella Montez’s house is about five minutes away from mine. One of my Twitter friends auditioned to be a dancer in the sequel and met Kenny Ortega. The guy my roommate’s dating swam in the pool next-door to the Bolton basketball court when Disney was filming. He could have kissed a sweaty Zac Efron between the fence slats.
High School Musical is almost a second language here, and fourteen years after it premiered on Disney Channel, it continues to live on through sheer nostalgia and its very meta, a-mouthful-to-namedrop-in-casual-conversation Disney Plus spinoff High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
What’s unique about High School Musical is that it’s one of the first coming-of-age musicals to fully belong to the iPod Nano-toting Y2K kids who were born when the internet was invented and came of age in a post-9/11 world. High School Musical is the Grease of the early aughts, if Grease had the sexual tension of a Kid’s Bop album and significantly more diversity. Its message of embracing your individuality, even the parts your friends think are strange, even if other people might reject you, resonates in the lunchroom, at the watercooler, and at the dinner table. Combine that with earworm-y pop tunes, a vanilla romance, and an attractive cast, and you’ve got yourself a preteen sugar trap.
When it first dropped, High School Musical spread like a fever. It took one month to film in Salt Lake City and only weeks to become a global phenomenon when it was released in 2006. The High School Musical album was the first TV movie soundtrack ever to grab the number one spot on the Billboard Top 200 Charts and sold 3.7 million copies. Its follow-up film, High School Musical 2, became the highest-rated Disney Channel original movie of all time when it premiered, and when High School Musical 3: Senior Year was released in theaters in 2008, it grossed $252 million worldwide. Everybody was watching it and everyone was listening.
Even I–the fantasy nerd in stained Converse sneakers who was in a constant state of revolt against traditional femininity and quietly planned on overthrowing the school athletic program in a coup on a bi-weekly basis–wasn’t immune. One of approximately six songs I had downloaded onto my cherry red slider phone in high school was “Get’cha Head in the Game.” The dribble made the hair on my arms stand on end.
Half the boys in my ninth grade class started wearing that swoopy Zac Efron bowl cut, and half the girls, beyond all reason, were into it, including me. I timidly sent my friend Ann out like a homing pigeon at the school dance once to shoot my shot with the Zac Efron of my graduating class. I remember souring like milk when she told me that he said if I wanted to dance with him, I’d have to wait—the guy was apparently so popular he had a queue running through the room like he was a Megaplex snack bar. I never did get that dance, but boy, did shy Gabriella Montez, inventor of women in S.T.E.M., give me faith that it was possible.
It’s been one decade since I graduated from high school and one year since I moved to Salt Lake. Facebook notifications about my ten year class reunion have begun pinging my inbox. Having recently watched the High School Musical films and the first season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (HSMTMTS) for a Utah film itinerary I wrote recently, it all feels too timely.
So I wonder: what is it like to walk through East High, the most iconic high school of the past decade? How does it feel to be in the places that subconsciously shaped so many of my expectations of what high school would be like ten years later?
To find out, I drove 20 minutes out of Salt Lake.
Murray High School
My first stop was Murray High School, home of the Spartans and the crime scene where Ryan and Sharpay were robbed (only years later am I able to respect their hustle): the High School Musical stage. If you’ve seen the movie, you might think all of the school scenes for High School Musical were filmed at East High, but like the kid who does most of the work in the group project and gets none of the credit, Murray High hosted the audition scenes.
I realized as I walked into the open courtyard right outside Murray High’s south doors that I’d seen this school in more than one Disney Channel movie. Six months after High School Musical was released, its nerdier, less popular younger sister named Read It and Weep shuffled in on its coattails. The film is about a girl whose diary is accidentally entered into an essay contest and goes on to become a bestselling novel. It’s not great. Approximately ten people in the world have watched it. Laura W., a Rotten Tomatoes reviewer, said, "This movie was just short of torture."
I loved it.
Walking into Murray High, I stepped into that familiar lunchroom with the circle tables and the south wall that arcs into the room like a full belly. A collegiate orange "M" circled by filigree hung on one side and an image of a grounded gladiator looking out towards a sea of Greecian ships was on the other. I wondered if there was a metaphor there: "Soon you will voyage from the confines of prom and acne into the thrilling seas of generals, dorm room bunk beds, and heaps of student loan debt." To me, it felt like an artistic depiction of FOMO, the garnish of youth. There wasn’t any teenage author abandoning her friends to sit at the "cool table" or signing autographs, just a janitor on a Zamboni. The halls were quiet, the floor was wet.
I wandered into the office because “Breaking Free,” while filmed at Murray High, isn’t actually allowed there, not when you’re a grown adult walking into a high school in 2020. You need an escort to see the stage. I was helped by an office aid who has a name but prefered I didn’t use it. Near her desk was a poster. “S.P.A.R.: SERVE, PARTICIPATE, ACHIEVE, RESPECT,” it said.
Disney harbors a bit of a crush on this school. Aside from High School Musical and Read It and Weep, Murray High has been featured in the Disney Channel Original Minutemen (2008), which seems, from the trailer, to be about a boy who builds a time machine to get himself out of the friend zone, and a 1970s wrestling film called Take Down (1979), Disney’s first PG movie. I’m told by the aid who helped me that Murray High admins were contacted last year about using the school for another unnamed series. It could be HSMTMTS. It could also be the Obi-Wan Kenobi spinoff. I, for one, can’t wait to see a pubescent Luke Skywalker getting his head shoved into a vac tube after whining about droids in shop class.
High School Musical feels warm and bright. The first thing I observed about Murray’s auditorium when I walked in is that it seems cold. The lights are an almost arctic white that makes all 1,500 of the red chairs look like a dark wave of blank stares. Even without an audience watching, I felt a flicker of anxiety standing onstage.
The stage hasn’t changed much from how you see it in High School Musical, except for some bright orange chains lining the wings on OSHA’s orders. Soaring and flying is a risky business when you’re four feet off the ground next to an orchestra pit and your parents can sue. You won’t find that blue crescent moon with a nursery rhyme smile that lowers from the ceiling during Troy and Gabriella’s callback anywhere backstage. Nor will you find it anywhere in the building.
Lauren Finlinson, a former member of Murray High’s drama club presidency, told me in a Twitter message that the moon was left behind and sat unused in storage for years after filming wrapped for High School Musical because students were told they couldn’t use it in any of their own productions due to copyright issues.
Finally, in 2015, the drama club dragged the moon out into the courtyard and put it up for auction at the Murray High Arts Fest. It sold for $20 to some kids with a truck.
“I think they gave most of us a vibe that they were probably going to take the moon and smash it somewhere,” Lauren said.
She never saw it or heard about it again.
At the back of Murray High’s auditorium, there’s a balcony where the light and sound crew operate. I was told it’s called the sparrow’s nest, and it’s honestly the most interesting thing about the room. You get to it by slipping into a narrow closet that has a Rocky Balboa quote–"...you, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life..."–taped to the wall and a metal, spiral staircase twisting towards the ceiling.
The sparrow’s nest felt sheltered, like a place you’d slip away to avoid cafeteria class wars. Triscuits, plastic water bottles, and Armour Treet lined a shelf on the back wall above a row of headphones dangling on hooks.
There was a pan of what looked like pink, heart-shaped cookies sitting open on a table. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Lauren was here,” and “Are you a campfire? Because you’re hot and I want s’more!” were written in chalk on the back wall. There was also a motivational poster of a cat staring longingly up at a birdhouse with “GOALS” written in big letters at the bottom.
In a small way, it’s thrilling to stand in this room and pretend you’re Troy or Gabriella doing the bravest thing you’ve had to do in your teenage years: opening yourself up in front of the entire student body and getting a standing ovation for it instead of cold rejection. That’s what gave the sparrow’s nest a kind of funny irony. You won’t find “we’re all in this together” written anywhere on the walls right now, but you will find a Pink Floyd lyric: “All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.”
Troy and Gabriella’s Houses
In my attempt to find the homes Disney filmed for Troy and Gabriella’s houses in High School Musical, I ended up driving my peeling gold-green Subaru very slowly around a quiet roundabout in a wealthy neighborhood three or four times. A group of preteen boys hanging out on a curb nearby shot occasional glances towards my tinted windows as I passed. I decided I needed a new plan.
After going home and getting more information from a friend who knows the area, I returned, this time with my sister Kori driving her car.
I won’t tell you the streets the houses are on—only the locals have the privilege of knowing that—but I can tell you that the homes in this neighborhood cost well over one million George Washingtons. The lawns are neatly curated and flow together like a river. Tall trees line the sides of the smooth, concrete street that cuts between them.
The home used for the Boltons’ residence is covered in green creeping plants and has a beautiful pitched roof. We didn’t stick around for too long because there was a car in the driveway and we got nervous, but I did learn some interesting facts about the place in my conversations with friends. I’m told there’s not only a basketball court outside of the house, but one on the inside. Like Murray High, Disney has used the Bolton house in a previous film. The last one was about dogs—apparently, they had 14 or 15 pups running down the street for one of the shots. I’m told that while High School Musical was filming, Disney housed the family in the Grand America Hotel. I would like to know where one signs up for that kind of gig.
After the Bolton house, we drove to the Montez house. The first thing I realized is that Gabriella’s house is close enough that a real-life Troy could have walked there instead of driving his beat up, toxin spewing pickup truck every time. I give some blame for our red air days to the Bolton family. The next thing I realized is that, save a few lawn ornaments that have been moved around, Gabriella’s house looks exactly like it does in the films, though the naked trees of early March and the vines crawling up the north-facing side give it a vaguely spooky look from the street on a cloudy day. It’s even got that backyard balcony that Troy climbs to make amends with Gabriella, though Troy definitely would have had to hop a fence to get to it. I’ve heard a rumor that the pictures of Gabriella’s family that you see around the house in High School Musical are pictures of the actual family who lives there, but I can’t confirm that.
One day I might find the chutzpah to knock on the door and ask for a tour. That day, Kori and I simply parked next to the curb and drawled, “Wow. Yep, that’s it, alright,” to each other for several minutes before slowly driving off.
East High School
About 20 minutes north of Murray High, tucked in the center of Salt Lake City, is the High School Musical mecca, the Sacred Grove of Disney Channeldom, the goose that laid Bob Iger’s golden egg: East High School. Yes, it’s a real school. No, it’s not actually in Albuquerque. And yes, East High is what it’s called offscreen, too.
East High is a great-grandfather of a fixture that’s been part of Salt Lake City for 106 years--you can find Russel M. Nelson’s photo in a display of “distinguished alumni” in the main hall. The school’s undergone reconstructive surgery several times since it opened in 1914, first in the 70s when its interior was almost completely gutted by a fire and later in the 90s when concerns about Utah’s pending “Big One” hitting the Wasatch fault led to a completely new structure being built 15 feet behind the original and attached to the fieldhouse and auditorium. Today the school is shaped like a “U” with the main entrance facing the rising sun. It feels aggressively on-the-nose for a school featured in a series the New York Times once dubbed “a new religion.”
Of the 300 plus Google reviews for East High, a good 60-80% are by people who’ve never been. A lot of them read like prayers flung into the ether by preteens desperate for the universe to one day guide their feet to the same linoleum Zac Efron’s feet have touched. Having Google Image searched “Zac Efron with bleached hair” at least three times this week just to ogle, I can’t say I don’t understand the obsession. From a distance, the school is a shimmering mirage, one where zits don’t exist and every life problem can be solved by song.
“I[ve] never been and won't be attending this high school,” wrote Erica Jackson in a Google review. “But I am giving it 5 stars bec[a]use it's the most popular high school in America. After appearing on High School Musical 1-3 I know the high schoolers here are happy to be attending.”
Up close, East High is comically normal.
Student Diego Ceja wrote in his review that the janitor named Mark is “VERY RUDE” and doesn’t do his job.
“The school is not any better or worse than most high schools,” student Alexis Higginson said. Plus the floor is dirty. Three stars.
East High’s school boundaries look a bit like an outstretched arm that begins at Emigration Canyon, bottlenecks in the buzzy grid of downtown Salt Lake City, and ends in the shape of a pointing finger near the Kennecott Copper Corporation Pond. There are moments in HSMTMTS where unknowing fans might surmise from things the characters say that “the real East High” is nestled in a pastoral town with a single blinking stoplight where students leave school to milk cows and herd sheep until dark. As someone who moved here to get out of a town like that, I can attest that driving in or around Salt Lake City is an acute hell that real-life Utah dairy farmers avoid at all cost and compare to the trials of Job over the pulpit on Sundays. If there are cows to be milked in this city, I haven’t seen them, heard them, or smelled them, and trust me. I’d be able to smell them.
Other than those niggling inaccuracies, Disney gets a lot of the surrounding East High environs right. It’s fun to see the main characters Nina and Courtney hang out at Publik Coffee Roaster downtown. It makes me reminisce about the inch-thick slice of avocado toast I unironically ate there on the outside patio one morning last summer. There’s also a scene wedged somewhere in HMTMTS where you get a beautiful shot of the Utah capitol building at night. In a small way, it captures what I feel every time I’m driving on the freeway after sunset and see the city lit up.
School had been out for two hours when my roommate Stephanie and I cut across the circle drive to tour East High—visitors can pick up a map near the main office and explore the building on weekdays between 2:30 and 7:00 p.m. during the school year. East High looked exactly the way it looks on-screen, and we weren’t the only ones there Fun Dipping our toes in a packet of straight nostalgia.
Four girls in sweaters and boots were taking pictures of each other posing beneath the iconic clock that graces the front wall. From a distance, they looked like they were in their late teens and early 20s. I could hear one of them singing “we’re all in this together” as she bounced toward the front doors.
Trailing behind the group of girls was an older man with a huddle of six or seven teenagers. They wore matching green and black shirts with what looked like geometric bulls heads and the number 701 printed over their left breasts. I learned later that they call themselves the RoboVikes. They were here from Fairfield, California for the Utah Regional FIRST Robotics Competition and they were touring East High for fun.
I saw several things all at once when Stephanie and I walked through the doors at East High: there was a lot of red, two girls bumping a volleyball back and forth in the hall, and a bronze leopard statue dead ahead. The real-life East High’s mascot is a far more specific member of the genus Panthera.
You can stand next to the leopard to look down into the iconic tiered, sunken cafeteria where “Stick to the Status Quo,” “What Time is It?”, and HSMTMTS were filmed. It’s a bit like looking down the shaft of a microscope and feeling that weird wonder of seeing something familiar in a new way.
We descended to the middle mezzanine, the one where Sharpay scowls over her sack lunch kingdom in the first High School Musical film, and I took a seat at one of the round tables. It’s easy to understand why this cafeteria worked so well in the films—the natural light that poured through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the west side was enough to make a Utah Instagram influencer quake in her Roolee mules. Posters of the East High wrestlers dressed in their singlets hung over one of the guardrails in the room. Speaking of breaking the status quo, one of those wrestlers was a girl.
After exploring the cafeteria, Stephanie and I meandered until we found Sharpay’s lockers. They were easy to find, because they were the loudest colored things in the hall. They’re painted hot pink to this day.
One thing that’s fun about this school is the way real-life students are involved with the films. High School Musical was filmed when school was in session, and you’ll see a few actual students in the movie. You know that scene at the beginning of High School Musical 2 when Mrs. Darbus’ class throws their homework in the air? That homework was the real homework of East High students. The film crew had to go through each paper one by one to make sure nothing embarrassing or vulgar was written there. Joke’s on them, though, because in 2006, Utah high school kids were only drawing that Suzuki-shaped superman “s” on their papers in gel pen over and over again.
After wandering the halls, Stephanie and I made our way to the Holy of Holies: the stage for the meta-production of High School Musical in HSMTMTS and the gym where Troy Bolton led the Wildcats to victory. We arrived during the last minutes of parent teacher conference. Tables and chairs were being folded up and pink papers listing teachers’ names hung on the walls. There was an unnerving instance when I felt like I was back in my high school gym sitting next to my mom during my own parent teacher conference. I don’t think other kids really went to those things, but I was the chump who got a real high off of hearing teachers tell my parents I was smart.
I wandered over to one of the free throw lines. “EAST” was written in big letters on the floor in front of me, and even though the pep in this school was toned down significantly compared to how it is in the films, some of the same red banners from High School Musical hung above me. Almost without thinking about it, I started bouncing from side to side.
“Why am I feeling so wrong? My head’s in the game, but my heart’s in the song.”
It came out my mouth with all of the planning and grace of a wheeze. That’s the funny thing about being in that school and having even a sliver of a history with the movie: at any given moment, a song feels seconds away from falling right out of you.
Beneath the clatter and din of clapping tables, I could hear excited chatter. The girls who were taking pictures of each other at the front of the school were now filming each other doing the “We’re All in This Together” and “Get’cha Head in the Game” dances. As Stephanie and I approached them, I realized they all had glitter in their highlighter.
Emily, 24, and Hallie, 25, were the youngest of the group. Emily wore a light denim jacket and a red headband that kept her blonde hair behind her ears. Hallie’s strawberry blonde curls bounced against her maroon sweater. Chelsea was 28 with dark eyes and a fluffy white sweater. Christy was the tallest of the group. Her black hair fell in waves down the front of her gray and red sweatshirt, framing the “EHS” and swooping wildcat decal emblazoned across the front. It was her 28th birthday, and her friends made the pilgrimage to Utah from Orlando, Florida with her just to see East High (and do a little bit of skiing on the greatest snow on Earth while they were here).
All four of the girls worked at Disney World. They said they weren’t allowed to tell me what they do, but what they could say is they’re frontline cast members in the park—I guess Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, and the Evil Queen. Emily was the only one who’d been to Utah before.
“As someone who has never seen real mountains truly, this is really pretty out here,” Christy said.
All of the girls were stoked about the lack of humidity. Their voices fell into an excited sync when they talked about it, and it was hard to separate them.
“We’re used to hot, humid weather, and to be able to come here and have our hair stay the entire time–,” one (I think Hallie) started.
“It’s so great,” another said.
“It sounds, like, silly, but–”
“My makeup has been on since we left this morning, and I haven’t had to do anything to it.”
I learned a lot of things from Emily, Hallie, Chelsea, and Christy, like how Drew Seeley sang most of Zac Efron’s songs in the first High School Musical film and how High School Musical On Ice is a thing that actually happened once. When I asked them how they felt about the new series, they told me they were skeptical at first, but they loved the music. Emily slipped into what I can only infer is the Disney royal “we” when she talked about it.
“We do a lot of remakes,” she said, “so I think we were concerned that they were going to try and remake what they did before, and you can’t touch High School Musical.”
“Holy ground,” Christy said.
“Holy ground,” Hallie echoed.
The girls, like me, grew up in what they called the era of pinnacle Disney Channel films. The Cheetah Girls, Camp Rock, Hannah Montana, and Lizzie McGuire were all part of their childhood lexicon, but Christy said they didn’t really have musicals for their age before High School Musical—I can’t really think of any when I think back.
“It kind of transcends boundaries,” Chelsea said. “For us, that was kind of the first time we saw someone on screen and were like, ‘That’s okay. You can play basketball and be a lead in the musical’.”
When High School Musical 3 came out, some of the girls were close to graduating. In a way, it felt like Troy and Gabriella were walking across the same stage they were.
“At the very end, when they’re walking up towards the curtain in their graduation–” Christy began.
“Stop. I’ll cry,” Chelsea said.
“And the curtain falls,” Christy continued, “I was going to be in that place in two years...that part was always really special to me, because it was like the closing of a chapter. It was the end.”
That’s the thing they all circled back to: High School Musical marked both the start (please forgive me) of something new and the end of something significant for Emily, Hallie, Chelsea, and Christy. They said they wouldn’t be friends without it.
We talked about goat yoga and I told them where to ski near Salt Lake. Afterward, I filmed them on Christy’s phone as they attempted that corkscrew-like wave you see the cast do in the hallway during “What Time is It?” in High School Musical 2. It’s a lot harder than it looks. Then we parted ways.
I was left alone to tour the rest of East High—Stephanie had left at that point to get to a concert on time. Mrs. Darbus’ room was locked, and contrary to popular belief, the rooftop greenhouse in the films doesn’t exist in real life, so I settled on the second floor, watching the words “Achieve” and “Inspire” approach and pass on their respective step as I ascended. Pictures of East High alumni with inspirational quotes beneath them hung over so many of the doorways there. It’s as if the entire school is one big cairn directing weary travelers to the next leg of the trail—”You’re almost there!”
Troy Bolton’s locker faced the south windows of East High. There was nothing notable about it, really, except for a Buckminster Fuller quote on the wall above that read, “Don’t fight forces, use them.”
East High’s second floor was a lot quieter than its first, but it felt more like the schools that I went to as a kid. Faded paintings of classical composers were hung in a row down one hall. Strings of paper cranes dangled from the ceiling in another, and some of the doors were decorated. One teacher had a tribute to Kobe Bryant on theirs.
Being there reminded me of seeing my writing in the school newspaper for the first time, spinning in my borrowed red prom dress under the stars senior year, watching my relationship with the best friend I ever had deteriorate in eleventh grade, and deciding on graduation day that I never wanted to look back at any of it. Ten years later, I find myself 25 photos deep into old Facebook photo albums and yearbooks before I’ve even realized it.
I met up with Hallie, Chelsea, Christy, and Emily one more time in the courtyard before I headed home. Hallie and Emily were delighted by the small piles of snow left on the lawn—you don’t see much of that in Orlando. TikTok is all the rage these days, and I filmed the last piece of a TikTok video Chelsea was creating where all the girls jumped together in front of East High and shouted, “Wildcats! Get’cha head in the game!” As of the publication of this piece, it had 50 thousand views on the app.
I keep thinking about how nostalgia took Hallie, Chelsea, Christy, and Emily halfway across the country to see a high school with a friend on her birthday, how, like moths to flame, we’re all drawn back to our childhood one way or another. It’s why the Jonas Brothers are selling out stadiums in 2020, why most of the texts in my sibling group chat are screengrabs of Postopia.com and computer games we played in the 90s, why “Stacy’s Mom” comes on in a room full of millennials and we all scream “HAS GOT IT GOIN’ ON.” There’s a thrill that comes from feeling even a sliver of the things we felt when the world seemed bigger and we loved things harder. Even some of the awkward and painful moments can have their edges softened with age.
Last Friday, neck deep in bills and projects, I opened up my bullet journal to look at my calendar. The tentative date of my ten year reunion is written down and circled. I turned on Spotify and just for kicks played “Get’cha Head in the Game.” Fourteen years later, I still sometimes get goosebumps.
(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)