Beyond stoking interest in his on-screen/off-screen romance, the shots had the net effect of transforming Efron’s image overnight—because they called attention to the fact that, out of his candy-colored HSM Garanimals, Efron has a body that’s only a few crunches short of a Fight Club–ready Brad Pitt. Suddenly, the world knew that the kid from High School Musical was an adult. The episode also ended up being his first lesson in the economics of the stalkerazzi racket. Before leaving Hawaii, Efron says, “the photographer left me a note with a disc of all the pictures, and on the note it said, ‘Thanks for the Range Rover!’”

When Kenny Ortega, the director of High School Musical, talks about Zac Efron, he sounds like he’s discussing a contract player from the golden age of movie-musicals. “He’ll sweat for hours in the mirror in prep for a dance number,” Ortega says, “then stay up all night to record a song.” Both HSM movies—which are jammed with virtually nonstop song-and-dance numbers—were notorious for their grueling, Chorus Line-style auditions and rehearsals.

Of course, the same cultural forces that have made PG-rated TV shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance pop-cultural touchstones laid the groundwork for HSM’s success. In other words, there’s something both profoundly retro and perfectly timed about Efron and his anti-bad-boy persona.

“I have to say this,” says Efron’s close friend and Hairspray costar Nikki Blonsky when asked for a Zac Efron story. “He and I were both so excited about John Travolta being in Hairspray with us. We knew that he was coming on a specific day, and the night before, me and Zac ran to a Subway, got sandwiches, and ran back to his apartment to watch Grease. We were just freaking out and screaming that we couldn’t believe that Danny Zuko was going to be in our movie!”

Efron is unapologetic about his gotta-sing-gotta-dance! passion. After getting cast, at 11, as a newsboy in a local production of Gypsy, he discovered his taste for musical theater.

“I wouldn’t say I got flak about it,” he says, “but I wouldn’t say I got support either.” Efron is telling me this in an off-the-beaten-path Hollywood coffee shop, which he’s possibly selected because it’s tween-free. “My friends—it was all about skateboarding, sports. It was kind of like, ‘Really? Like, really, you have fun acting? Dancing and singing? You really have fun doing that?’”

Unlike some past Disney stars—including Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, who were preteen costars on the Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club in the early nineties, not to mention Lindsay Lohan, who had a three-picture Disney deal by the age of 12—Efron wasn’t concocted in a petri dish in an underground Magic Kingdom laboratory. He only started auditioning in Hollywood on the recommendation of a high-school drama teacher, who hooked him up with her agent.