NEW YORK — The star, burgundy sweater knotted around her tiny waist, raises arm to mouth and hacks out a phlegmy cough.
Vanessa Hudgens never thought about calling in sick on Day One of rehearsals for the pre-Broadway revival of “Gigi.”
“You can’t miss the first day of school,” she says with a smile.
It’s a clever analogy considering that Hudgens made her name as Gabriella Montez, the brainiac with the booming voice in Disney’s “High School Musical” franchise.
Since the third installment in 2008, Hudgens has been busy. She has recorded albums, acted in nine films and stoked her social-media standing thanks, in part, to her onetime relationship with Zac Efron and a steady stream of posts with such BFFs as Ashley Tisdale and Selena Gomez. But like the rest of East High, Hudgens has struggled to match her Disney stardom after graduation.
“Gigi” is a new start. At just 26, Hudgens has a chance to reinvent herself as a Broadway triple threat. To do so, she’ll have to convincingly play a giggly teenager in Paris, circa 1900, being groomed as a mistress for a wealthy suitor, Gaston. The actress will also have to hope other factors fall into place.
Producer Jenna Segal has television development experience at MTV and Nickelodeon, worked for years to bring the musical to the stage and takes care of her cast like a den mother. Still, she has never produced a musical. “Gigi” itself has a spotty history. Audrey Hepburn wowed audiences in the original production, in 1951, and Leslie Caron helped the 1958 film version to an Oscar. But a return to Broadway in 1973 stiffed, and the team behind this revival, which includes Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, hopes to distance itself from that failure.
“Gigi” also doesn’t yet have dates on Broadway and will open on Jan. 16 at the Kennedy Center.
That’s the big picture. On Day One, the more pressing issue is the star’s head cold. Segal, naturally, scrambled out to a drugstore and returned with a bottle of Delsym. Hudgens quickly cracks it open and sucks down a cup of the cough syrup. Within minutes, she’s out on the floor of the studio, twirling a parasol and testing out a Michael Jacksonesque double spin.
“That’s it,” says associate choreographer Alison Solomon as she pulls it off.
Hudgens is, in person, approachable. She doesn’t sulk or ask for special treatment. It is hard to distinguish the playful laughter she delivers while in character at rehearsals from the giggle she offers in conversation.
“Vanessa’s just a ball of happiness,” says actress Laura New, a close friend. “I’ve never seen her grumpy.”
“She is literally the warmest, sweetest person in the world,” adds Victoria Clark, the stage vet who plays Gigi’s grandmother in the production.
Of course, being bubbly sweet isn’t a prerequisite to earning back a $12 million Broadway investment. What’s impressed Clark most about Hudgens is what she sees when rehearsal starts.
“She comes in, knows her lines and remembers her blocking better than I do, and this is my 13th Broadway show,” she says. “She’s a true triple threat. When Vanessa dances, she really dances. She’s doing all the hard choreography that the ensemble’s doing. And it’s not easy.”
In an interview during a rehearsal break, Hudgens nurses a peanut butter acai bowl, a lunch staple, as she fields questions. She’s unguarded, open to answering anything and passes on phone numbers her publicists have been guarding dearly. What she’s not willing to do is talk about her career strategy. What could a successful Broadway run do for her? How much pressure does she feel to deliver?
“It’s not all on me. It’s such an ensemble,” Hudgens says, reeling off the names — and praise — for the production’s set designer, costume designer and director. “It’s about the overall show and how it’s going to make the audience feel.”
Hudgens knows how “Gigi” makes her feel. After years focused on movies, she’s thrilled to be returning to the stage. The most surprising part of the experience, she says, is how much it reminds her of playing Cindy Lou Who, in 1998 at the age of 9, in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at the Old Globe in San Diego.
“I keep thinking of making hot chocolate at break time and just the giddy feeling of excitement because of what we are doing and how comfortable I feel in this space doing a musical,” she says. “I was surprised by how familiar that feeling felt to me.”
Hudgens started early. She grew up mainly in California, the daughter of Gina, a native of the Philippines, and Greg, a firefighter from Illinois and the son of a jazz trumpeter. Greg and Gina met by becoming pen pals, with Greg eventually flying to Southeast Asia to marry her. They returned to California together. Vanessa was their first child. Stella arrived seven years later.
Gina, who is Catholic, made sure the family went to church every Sunday. The couple also worked hard to get Vanessa proper dance and voice lessons. They say they first saw signs of her being a poised performer as a preschooler in a Christmas pageant.
As a girl, Vanessa would sometimes talk of becoming a pediatrician. Then she began performing. The Old Globe production of “Grinch” led to other shows and eventually roles in films, including 2003’s coming-of-age drama “Thirteen” and 2004’s big-budget sci-fi adventure “Thunderbirds.”
“I was leery from the beginning,” Greg Hudgens admits, adding that his parents divorced when he was a boy largely because of his father’s packed concert schedule. “As she got more immersed, we made a pact. As long as she still applied herself to school and kept her head out of the clouds, we would continue to help her.”
The star of “High School Musical” would, in fact, never deal with gym class, lunch-table politics or mean girls. She was home-schooled, getting her GED at age 15, she says.
“High School Musical,” which came out in 2006, just weeks after her 17th birthday, made Hudgens a household name. Disney’s TV movie spawned two sequels and changed her life forever. She dated co-star Efron, toured arenas and watched movie offers flow in. She also learned that every latte run would be documented by TMZ, JustJared and KPopStarz.
Buzz is the blessing and curse of being Vanessa. A stroll through Central Park isn’t a chance to decompress. It’s a spontaneous fan event, with Sharpees and cellphones drawn. Hudgens also has had to apologize for a pair of embarrassing incidents involving nude photos leaked onto the Internet.
The buzz, though, maintains her market. It’s why she pays a Beverly Hills firm, Digital Media Management, to run her public sites on Facebook (15,401,799 likes), Twitter (4.8 million followers) and Instagram (6.1 million). Her social media influence is significant.
“Did we just get 15K Instagram followers today?” producer Segal texted during a rehearsal just after Christmas.
“Yes,” her assistant replied. “Vanessa posted 2 pics this morning mentioning gigi.”
On Christmas Day, boyfriend Austin Butler took a picture of Hudgens standing by her tree wearing “nothing but a festive red jumper,” according to the Daily Mail in London.
Brian Ogilvie, a member of the “Gigi” ensemble, saw the post on Instagram. The bearded performer, in New Jersey with his family, promptly dropped his pants to create his own version of the shot. Hudgens, amused, had it retweeted.
“I had 250 followers on Christmas Day and now I have 2,000,” Ogilvie laughed.
Jokes aside, the Hudgens brand is another tool for a production trying to sell tickets in a competitive market.
“It brings in people to come see a show that might not have gone to see the show before,” says Segal. “Her reach is pretty unbelievable, and a lot of these people don’t go to see live theater, and they’re buying tickets because they want to see her. For a long time there’s only been ‘Wicked’ for that teen, tween audience.”
The only time Hudgens seems to get down is when she talks about her film career. It has been spotty. She long ago left her Disney image behind, playing the potty-mouthed party girl in Harmony Kormine’s debaucherous “Spring Breakers,” a prostitute in “The Frozen Ground” and a pregnant runaway in “Gimme Shelter.” Only Kormine’s movie brought both critical acclaim — though many hated the film, other critics praised it — and box office. And the scripts that began to roll in were, she felt, one-dimensional. At one point, she talked of feeling liberated by the roles and told Marie Claire she longed to model herself after Meryl Streep. Now, she says, she just wants to be herself.
“You’re only as good as your last project, so people project that onto you and come to you with that,” Hudgens says. “They see me playing a stripper, drug addict and prostitute, and then I get a bunch of offers to play a prostitute or a stripper.”
She first heard about “Gigi,” she admits, during a low point. Hudgens was at Coachella, one of her favorite festivals. She and her friends could barely move around. Everybody wanted a picture. Everybody wanted an autograph. She had been hoping to relax and listen to Arcade Fire.
Evan Hainey, her manager, called to tell her about a new Broadway production of “Gigi.” He had arranged for her to audition.
Hudgens read the script, watched the 1958 film and listened to the score.
“I called him back and was like, ‘Evan, do you really think I should go do this? I don’t see how they see me as a teen in Paris in the late 1800s. I’m Filipino.’ He said, ‘No, they’re interested.’ ”
Segal and director Schaeffer were as surprised as Hudgens to make a match.
“I always said, ‘Let’s make someone a star,’ ” says Schaeffer. “Let’s find this kid just out of college and make her a star.’ It was just one of those things when Vanessa came in. She was Gigi. None of us thought this was ever going to happen.”
As soon as Hudgens had left her audition, Segal e-mailed her.
“I just want you to know we’re offering you this role, but we’re not offering it to you because you’re Vanessa Hudgens,” she wrote. “We’re offering it to you because you were the best Gigi who walked in this room.”
With opening night approaching, Hudgens says she’s just working to do her best. She’s found the comparisons to Hepburn, the girlish, wide-eyed beauty who would become a movie icon, flattering and amusing. But they don’t change the task in front of her.
“Pressure?” she repeats when asked again about whether she feels it. “I feel pressure from myself when I don’t get it right. Not from anyone else but just for myself to be satisfied and feel like I’ve got it. To be really proud of what I’m doing. From an external standpoint and a future standpoint, I’m not thinking about it at all.”
She pauses for another bite from her acai bowl.
“I’m just trying to do my best.”