In New York City, teenaged actors, musicians, and dancers audition for enrollment in the prestigious High School of Performing Arts. Among those accepted are Montgomery McNeil, an aspiring actor who grapples with his “closeted” homosexuality; Lisa Monroe, a fussy, unmotivated ballerina who prefers gossip over dancing; Coco Hernandez, a street smart singer-dancer with unwavering ambition; the shy and awkward Doris Finsecker, who is bullied by her overbearing “stage mother”; Raul Garcia, an arrogant compulsive liar who masks his Puerto Rican descent by changing his name to “Ralph Garci”; pianist Bruno Martelli, who vexes the conservative music teachers by infusing classical compositions with electronic synthesizers; and Leroy Johnson, a gangster with a special talent for dance, but no interest in school. On the first day of freshman year, homeroom English teacher Mrs. Sherwood insists the teens must excel in their academic studies as well as their performance skills. Throughout the afternoon, the students are warned that their ambition will most likely lead to rejection, as well as physical and emotional hardship. Only the strongest will survive high school, and the chance of gaining fame after graduation is highly unlikely. At the cafeteria, the students improvise a chaotic music and dance party with Bruno on piano and Coco singing about the school’s “hot lunch.” Aspiring actors Doris Finsecker and Montgomery McNeil are intimidated by the ruckus and huddle outside the cafeteria, becoming fast friends. Later, singer-dancer Coco Hernandez tracks down Bruno Martelli, her accompanist during the “hot lunch” jam session. She suggests they form a duo and perform at social events to earn a living, but the young man does not wish to collaborate. By sophomore year, however, Bruno hesitantly allows Coco to record lyrics over some of his compositions. When Bruno’s taxi driver father, Angelo Martelli, discovers a cassette tape of Bruno and Coco’s song “Fame,” he parks his cab on 46th Street in front of the school and blasts the tune through makeshift bullhorn speakers. Students love the song and create a traffic jam, dancing in the road and on top of cars. Bruno scolds his father for broadcasting the unfinished song, but Coco is elated to hear her voice resounding through the busy street. Sophomore year also marks a transition for dancer Leroy Johnson, whose illiteracy is exposed by Mrs. Sherwood. Although Leroy is enraged by the school’s high standards, he wants to keep dancing and slowly trains himself to read. Meanwhile, Leroy catches the attention of a new addition to the dance department, a wealthy and highly talented ballerina named Hilary van Doren. The overconfident girl fends off Coco, who is already courting Leroy. In the sophomore year drama program, students are instructed to recreate their most painful personal memories, and Montgomery reveals his homosexuality to the class. Although jokester Ralph Garci maliciously teases Montgomery and his best friend, Doris, he later reveals his own vulnerability while performing a monologue about the recent death of his idol, Freddie Prinze. As the year comes to a close, Miss Berg, the dance department head, tells her awkward and distracted student, Lisa Monroe, that she does not have the talent or ambition to be a professional dancer. Despite Lisa’s protests, she is expelled from school and terrifies her friends by walking toward an oncoming subway train. When the train passes, Lisa declares she will stay in school and transfer to the drama department. By junior year, Montgomery McNeil and Doris Finsecker become allied with Ralph Garci, and Ralph and Doris fall in love. One night, while the friends rehearse, Ralph’s five-year-old sister is attacked by drug addicts at their home in the Bronx, and the Ralph blames himself for not being there to protect her. He later tells Montgomery and Doris about his abusive father, who beat Ralph when he entertained his sister with comedic antics. On one occasion, Ralph’s sister was caught in between the two men, and her father smashed her head into a wall, leaving her disabled. Ralph’s father is now in prison, but the young man believes his gift for comedy provoked the attack. As Doris comforts her sobbing lover, Montgomery tosses his apartment keys on the bed and leaves. Doris and Ralph later bond at a raucous midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show while Montgomery stays home, playing guitar in solitude. As the kids head into senior year, Ralph auditions at a comedy club called “Catch a Rising Star” and his stand-up routine is received by a cheering audience, as well as an offer for future work. However, his success leads to alcoholism and drug abuse. One evening at the club, Doris accuses Ralph of emulating Freddie Prinze and begs him to follow his own path. As Ralph takes the stage, Doris storms away and he botches his routine. Ralph mourns the loss of his girl friend and his good standing at the club, but Montgomery consoles his companion backstage. He reminds Ralph that fame comes at a cost. High school offers them training and a “hot lunch,” but in the real world, they may never be satisfied by their own success, just like Freddie Prinze. Senior year also brings tragedy to ballerina Hilary van Doren, who becomes pregnant with Leroy Johnson’s baby. She secretly decides to get an abortion, drop out of school, and move to San Francisco, California, where she has been offered a place with the city’s ballet company. Meanwhile, Coco and Bruno continue to collaborate and become close friends. One day, a shady American named “François Lafete” approaches Coco in a diner, and offers to make her a star if she takes a screen test. She expects to audition for a blockbuster, but finds herself in a seedy apartment, sitting in front of an amateur camera set-up. Lafete suggests she “make love to the camera” and orders her to expose her breasts. When she objects, he accuses her of being unprofessional, and she cries as he films her naked body. Back at school, Leroy learns that his nemesis, Mrs. Sherwood, is at the hospital with her mortally ill husband. There, Leroy tries to bully the English teacher into giving him a passing grade, because he will not be able to join the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater company if he fails to graduate. As the two argue, Leroy realizes that Mrs. Sherwood has problems of her own. He lets down his guard and comforts her. At graduation, the students who began their journey four years earlier showcase their talents with new ingenuity and confidence. Their song and dance performance is cheered by teachers and parents, who championed the youths all along.