"High School Musical" alum Vanessa Hudgens is taking her song-and-dance skills to a brand-new stage. The actress appears this weekend in a Hollywood Bowl production of "Rent," helmed by Neil Patrick Harris, alongside stars such as Wayne Brady and Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger.

The award-winning Broadway smash, which explores the complicated lives of a cast of downtown New Yorkers, is a far cry from the cheery story lines of the "High School Musical" franchise. However, Hudgens said she's up for mounting the challenging play, which demanded that the cast prepare with only a single punishing week of rehearsals.

"It's been insanity," Hudgens told MTV News about the grueling schedule. "[The] first two days was [everyone gathering] around the piano and the rest of them [were] just trying to figure out where you are. It's kind of like, you do it [and then] it's like, 'You did it! Great, moving on.' You're like ... 'OK, it's OK, I'll just figure it out on my own time.' "

Like "HSM," "Rent" (which was brought to the big screen in 2005) has a die-hard following. Hudgens, who plays a drug-addicted dancer, has her own take on the play.

"For me I think the strongest thing is how my character Mimi finds strength within love," Hudgens said. "I'm a hopeless romantic, so it gets me every time."

The similarities pretty much end there, as Hudgens acknowledged. "It's 100 percent different than 'High School Musical' because the characters [have] so much more to deal with and [my character goes] through such a massive journey. Each song really shows a different side of the character," Hudgens said. The actress also credited her director for helping her get back into the musical mind-set. "It's exciting. Getting back into it has been kind of like a leap of faith, but I know I'm in good hands with Neil."

Harris said witnessing Hudgens' vulnerability in the play is compelling to watch. "As people get to be older and older, they start disassociating themselves from different types of people. And this 'Rent' world sort of does the opposite: It encourages all of that. The diversity that these 25 people have ... just fills your heart," Harris said. "To watch someone like Vanessa open up and allow herself to be so exposed to these people is really great for me as a director to see."

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