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Back in May, the cast of "High School Musical 3" was basking in the warm Utah sun outside East High School, yet sensing the beginning of the end.

"It feels like we're graduating from a very important chapter in all of our lives," said star Zac Efron, who has played heartthrob Troy Bolton through three movies. "This is how it all began for all of us. There's no describing how many good times we've had making these movies; they've literally been a dream come true."

On the set of the third and final of the smash-hit Disney movie series (at least with this cast), the crew was setting up a shot in front of East High's parking lot. Ashley Tisdale, who plays the snippety Sharpay Evans, was in costume (except for slippers) and playing with director Kenny Ortega's Yorkshire terrier Manly (who scores a cameo turn). Ortega was tossing around a football on the front lawn with several kids in between takes.

But for all the actors, the mood at this point during the 46-day shoot in Utah was a little bit somber, even reflective.

Just the day before, the cast assembled with about 900 extras on East High's football field to film the movie's grand finale, a graduation scene in which the six main characters sign off with a literal curtain call.

"Afterward I was surprised how emotional even I got," Efron said during a break in filming at East High. "We grew up together, all of us, in a lot of different ways, and this really feels like the final chapter."

As co-star Corbin Bleu said: "It was like a real graduation. It was crazy how this movie mimics real life."

For the Wildcats of East High, it's the last year of singing and dancing as the characters who have been in the dreams of tweens across the country consider their next step after high school.

"High School Musical 3: Senior Year" opens today, and the Disney Channel movie franchise hits the big screen for the first time with more songs, bigger dance numbers and the prospect of everyone moving on.

For most of them, the decision of what to do next is easy. Troy's best friend Chad (Bleu) wants to play basketball in college, brainiac Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) is heading to Stanford, and songwriting pixie Kelsi (played by Utahn Olesya Rulin) will head to music school.

But Troy is at a crossroads. Does he want to play basketball at the University of Albuquerque with friend Chad, pursue his newfound love of singing and dancing onstage, or be with girlfriend Gabriella as she leaves for college?

"High School Musical 3: Senior Year" is about making that important decision while saying goodbye to friends. "It's a lot of decision making, a lot of growing up," Bleu said. "This movie has a lot of that. This movie is definitely the most mature out of any of the three 'High School Musicals.' You see it in all the characters, within the talent, within the storyline, within the numbers themselves."

And let's not forget about those breathless musical numbers, the cornerstone of the "HSM" franchise, which has brought old-fashioned musicals to a new generation of TV viewers. Now filmmakers have to translate those moves to the movie theater.

"The whole screen has to live," said the movie's co-choreographer, Bonnie Story, the Emmy-winning Utahn who has choreographed all of the movies. "We were more aware of the big space we've had to play with. In that way, it's been so much fun because it's so much bigger and better."

This time, the Wildcats will be dancing on the football field, in the school's now-famous lunchroom, and even in a Salt Lake City junkyard.

There also are more dancers this time. In all, more than 80 principal and featured dancers are hoofing it on screen, and nearly all of them are from Utah.

"We have so many great dancers in Utah that we're able to do that," said Story, who stressed that the new movie will feature ballroom dancing, break dancing and everything in between.

"I feel like one of our most important jobs as choreographers with [director and co-choreographer Kenny Ortega] is to have him walk in and be inspired," she said. "He always comes in and puts his signature on it, and he is so brilliant."

It also means Story, along with co-choreographer Charles Klapow, had to push the stars even harder than in the first two movies.

"I get back to the hotel and I don't feel like doing anything but sleeping," said Lucas Grabeel, who plays Sharpay Evans' brother, the flamboyant Ryan Evans. "Everyone's just kind of like in the normal 'High-School-Musical'-zombie stage where we're just kind of like on the rollercoaster. We're riding it and having a great time, and we'll see what we end up with."

"It was tough," as Efron put it, rubbing his arms, ". . . a lot of hot tubs."

Just because the movie is out today and the stars have gone on to different projects, it doesn't mean the "High School Musical" franchise will be taking a final bow.

As co-producer Bill Borden told an audience at a screening in Utah of another movie several months ago: "There will be a 'High School Musical 4,' and we're shooting it here."

And it will star a new cast of Wildcats (whom audiences will get a glimpse of in the new movie), and maybe with a little luck they'll be as wildly popular as Troy, Gabriella and the rest of the movie's East High graduating class of 2008.

"It seems like East High is a place where anything can happen," Efron said. "It's what we all wish high school could be like . . . for future generations."