If you close your eyes and listen hard, you can almost hear the faint, sweet sound of two teenaged star-crossed lovers breaking into song.
The year is 2006. I'm 10-years-old. My hometown football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, wins their fifth Super Bowl. George Clooney is named People's "Sexiest Man Alive." Brangelina welcomes Shiloh, the couple's first biological child in the Jolie-Pitt party of six. I'm in the fifth grade wearing uniforms to school and carpooling to theater rehearsal everyday after the last bell, and Disney Channel's Kenny Ortega-directed worldwide phenomenon High School Musical is released, changing our lives forever.
Whether you were an HSM fan, a Broadway aficionado, or a theater kid in a past life, this Disney Channel original had something for everyone. It brought us Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, basketball choreography, "We're All In This Together," and so. Much. More.
That said, this is about me right now (spoken like a true theater kid), and how formative this movie was to my childhood. More importantly, it's about how the real-life relationship between Zac Efron, who played high school heart-throb basketball player Troy Bolton, and Vanessa Hudgens, who was cast as the shy-but-beautiful math club nerd Gabriella Montez, shaped my view of life and love.
Rumors that the co-stars were dating started swirling in 2006, right at the peak of HSM's success. But it wasn't until later that year and into 2007 that the two started posing as a couple on red carpets. In August of 2007, Zanessa posed at the premiere of High School Musical 2 and gave a rare show of PDA. Their IRL relationship made their on-screen chemistry that much more electric and believable. As a pre-pubescent teen, it hit me straight in the feels — like, the I've-never-felt-this-before feels.
You see, as a theater nerd myself, the fantasy of Gabriella and Troy hit close to home. I started singing and dancing at a very young age, even before the High School Musical franchise rocked my world, and my local theater academy was basically my second home. I liked to think I was sweet like Gabriella, but a bit of a diva like Sharpay — though I never stuck to the status quo. So the thought of me, a spunky theater kid, dating a cool kid jock (whatever that looks like in fifth grade) was all the more exciting.
You better believe that everyday at rehearsal I got my head in the game as I looked for a charming musical theater boy to crush on. I dreamt of finding a "man" who embodied all of Troy's attributes — he was kind, funny, a jock, popular (for good reasons), hot (obviously) — but also sang ... and well. In my small hometown with a very limited selection, I had never met anyone who checked off all of those boxes. Though, believe me, I did manage to find several theater "hotties" that filled the void in the meantime. (We even held hands backstage). But Zac and Vanessa gave me real hope that one day I, too, would meet a someone like Troy.
After rehearsal, I'd come home and sing more, blasting the HSM CDs and putting on performances in my basement for my family. (True story: It was a one man show, starring me as Sharpay, Ryan, Gabriella, and Troy). I'd sing "Bop To the Top," "The Music In Me," and "Gotta Go My Own Way" in the car, in the shower, in my bedroom, pretending Zac stood next to me. I never dreamed that he and Vanessa would actually go their own ways.
High School Musical 3 came out in 2008, and the two were still going strong giving us swoon-worthy red carpet couple moments. And they just made sense together — two young actors launched into global stardom during their awkward phase (the most beautiful awkward phase I've ever seen, mind you). They had each other to lean on during experiments with singing careers, hair, and fashion that all took place in the public eye. In 2019, during an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast, Hudgens got candid about her relationship with Efron, saying she was "grateful" it happened.
"It was this massive phenomenon, and [all] eyes were on me," she said. "And it's just a really weird, foreign thing to go through, and by being in a relationship, it kind of kept me stabilized and grounded and I had someone to lean on who was going through it as well." They were truly that pair of high school sweethearts you just expect to be together forever.
In 2009, the couple attended their first Golden Globes and Oscars together. She even attended his 17 Again premiere as his plus-one. And in 2010, they attended their second (and last) Academy Awards and another one of his movie premieres for Charlie St. Cloud. By then, the HSM craze was slowly dying down, and I had just out-grown all of my High School Musical merch, but I was still doing musicals and was young and naive enough to believe that Zanessa would last forever. But on a cold, chilling day in December 2010, they called it quits — just in time for my 14th birthday.
For a lot of millennials/Gen Zers, the breakup marked the end of our childhoods. It was symbolic in a way; the closing of a book. I gave up on the fantasy of singing with my crush, of locking eyes with a stranger and breaking into song. As I continued to grow up and go to college, I also sadly threw in the towel on my theater career and gave up my dreams of starring on Broadway. Their breakup, however, subconsciously shaped a lot of my major life choices.
To this day, over 10 years later, I still think about their time as a couple. Their relationship instilled a deep desire to duet with a handsome stranger, but their breakup brought me back down to reality. I always wonder, "Where would I be if the couple was still together?" Would I have given up on that fantasy so quickly? Would I be on Broadway? Would I have saved myself a few heartbreaks along the way?
If anything did come out of their breakup, it was the knowledge that Zac was single. I held onto the teensy-tiniest bit of hope that we could one day meet, sing together, and fall in love. And it just so happens that single Zac is back after his breakup with another Vanessa as we exit this pandemic era. It's almost as if history is repeating itself. And after a year inside, the thought of singing karaoke with a hot stranger in a crowded bar is once again sounding incredibly appetizing to me. I'm not saying hit me up Zac ... but maybe this could be the start of something new.
Breakups That Broke Us is a weekly column about the failed celebrity relationships that convinced us love is dead.