Replay: ‘High School Musical 3: Senior Year’ Remains a No-Senior-Skip Masterpiece

Writer Caroline Bell reflects on the end of her college career through the lens of the third installment in the High School Musical Series, “High School Musical 3: Senior Year.”

I was 6 years old when “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” was released in 2008.

While Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez were saying their post-grad goodbyes, I was graduating kindergarten — not exactly the target demographic for the coming-of-age film.

I appropriately rediscovered “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” while in high school. Although it’s the franchise’s lowest-rated movie, it felt the most relatable. I was also applying to colleges, marking each of my lasts and navigating life as a high school senior.

Then, two months before my graduation, COVID-19 hit and the world shut down.

I craved normalcy, envying the characters’ mundane dilemmas. I wanted to pour over early admissions programs like Gabriella instead of waiting around to hear which schools had gone test-optional. I wanted to vigorously prepare for my last band concert like the ambitious Ryan Evans, who worked tirelessly to choreograph his last musical.

I wanted a senior prom with all my friends, just like East High School’s.

Now, as I close out my fourth year of college, I can’t help but feel drawn to the film’s soundtrack once again. Burdened with the stress of finding a job and entering the real world, I’ve found refuge in the campy, heavily-dramatized ballads sung by fellow graduates attempting to sort out their lives.

True to the anxieties of graduating, “Now Or Never” opens the album with the sound of Troy’s pounding heartbeat.

“The way we play tonight (Yeah) / Is what we leave behind (That’s right),” Troy sings from the basketball court as his Wildcat teammates cheer him on.

Voices overlap as Troy attempts to lead his team to win the championship. Cheerleaders, coaches and spectators all remind him how high the stakes of his last game are.

The album’s third track “I Want It All” features the ever-fabulous twins Sharpay and Ryan Evans as they manifest their goals. Every ounce of stage fright would escape my body as I performed the Broadway-esque tune from the driver’s seat on the way to school, my brother Josh rolling his eyes a seat over.

“Don’t you see that bigger is better / And better is bigger? / A little bit is never enough, no, no, no,” Sharpay sings.

Prom night hijinks and wardrobe malfunctions ensue in “A Night to Remember” as the characters prepare for a big dance, which — true to the meta nature of the movie — isn’t their actual prom but the rehearsal of a musical number.

My neighbor Grace and I would perform this number in her bedroom as kids. We’d go through her dress-up box and hold dresses to our chest debating which to wear to our imaginary prom, just like the girls in the scene.

“Just Wanna Be With You,” the obligatory Kelsi Nielsen-constructed Troy and Gabriella duet, has always served as a bittersweet reminder that no matter what I face in life, the people who love me will always be there for me.

During quarantine, I thought of the forced distance between my friends and I — now I think of the ways that distance brought us closer together.

“You’re on my mind, you’re in my heart / It doesn’t matter where we are / We’ll be alright / Even if we’re miles apart,” Troy and Gabriella harmonize.

Gabriella puts physical and emotional distance between herself and East High in “Walk Away,” a percussion-heavy ballad. She sings of cutting ties with high school relationships and memories after enrolling in an early admission program at Stanford University, desperately wanting to move on.

Although Gabriella and I don’t share the same philosophy, I can’t help but shed a tear over the line, “I don’t think I’ll survive a goodbye again,” as I think about my impending graduation.

“Scream,” Troy’s own moment of emotional catharsis, is male rage at its most melodramatic. He tears down banners, throws basketballs and punches walls, wreaking gentle havoc on the school.

In my mind, it’s the yin to the yang of “Bet On It”— swapping golf metaphors for basketball.

We’re brought full-circle through the franchise with “We’re All In This Together (Graduation Mix),” which plays in the background as main characters’ post-graduation plans are read off by East High’s drama teacher Ms. Darbus. I’m forced to recall my own high school graduation, which ended up taking place on my high school’s football field, everyone seated six feet apart.

I rarely watch “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” nowadays. It hurts to see the characters dance at prom and stand on stage at graduation together. Still, I listen to the soundtrack regularly to remind me of moments I did have — drives to and from school with the radio blaring, after school sing-a-longs in random classrooms with friends or parking lot dance parties after everyone else had gone home.

“High School Musical,” the last cast-led song on the album and my personal favorite, feels different than any other song. With an upbeat bassline, horns and tambourine, it’s a fitting way to mark the end of a nostalgic franchise as its characters move on to bigger endeavors.

As I move on to bigger and better things, I hold with me the memories I made in college — the friends I made, the laughs we shared, the fun we had. I know moving on doesn’t mean leaving behind — I’ll carry college with me wherever I go, just as I still hold onto high school.

“I want the rest of my life to feel just like a / High school musical,” the cast sings as a stage curtain closes.

“High School Musical 3: Senior Year” is available to stream on all major platforms.

Featured image courtesy of Disney+

Caroline Bell

Caroline Bell