A group of vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, energetic young people gather to audition to study at New York City's High School of Performing Arts. Miss Sherman, the homeroom teacher, warns the freshman class that it takes a lot more than dreams to succeed at "P.A." The students acknowledge that it takes ("Hard Work"). Before Algebra class, Serena meets Nick Piazza, he explains his passion for the performing arts and tells her he wants his acting to move people emotionally ("I Want to Make Magic"). Mr. Myers, the drama teacher, asks them to think about how a physical sensation can trigger an emotional response. Joe discusses the physical reactions that happen whenever he thinks of a beautiful girl (Carmen) in dance class ("Can't Keep it Down" or the alternative lyrics, "Can't Keep It Cool"). Meanwhile, in dance class, Tyrone can't get to grips with Ballet and states that he can do better, resulting in the whole class doing a hip hop dance. This makes Miss Bell sees Tyrone's potential as a choreographer, so she partners him with Iris, a ballerina. Iris mocks Tyrone's lack of classical dance experience. Enraged at her comments, he begins a rap expressing his anger ("Tyrone's Rap"). Iris apologizes and confesses that she is not really rich, but scared and they share a kiss.
At lunch, Carmen, a self-assured, cocky Latina spitfire, asks Mr. Meyers if she can skip class on Friday to audition for West Side Story, he tells her that it would just be another role for her to hide behind. Carmen enraged dreams of seeing her name in lights and people gasping as she walks down the street ("There She Goes/Fame"). The other students join in her fantasy and begin an exciting, electrifying dance.
Serena and Nick are rehearsing another scene and Serena confesses that she wants to try something romantic and passionate. Serena is in love with Nick, but Nick is mainly focused on acting. Serena laments her unrequited love ("Let's Play a Love Scene"). Afterwards, Carmen interrupts Schlomo while he practices his violin, giving him lyrics that she wrote for the melody he always plays. Schlomo tries them out, and changes some of the lyrics with Carmen, which results in Carmen joining the band. Carmen kisses Schlomo and leaves. Goody (also in the band, along with Lambchops) makes fun of Schlomo afterwards. At lunch, Carmen and the other students daydream of seeing their names in lights. Schlomo sings a song he wrote which excites the entire student body ("There She Goes/Fame"). In the hallway, Miss Sherman talks to Tyrone about his care-free attitude towards education. She threatens to keep him out of the Fall Festival if his grades don't improve. Miss Bell overhears and argues that Tyrone's artistic endeavors are more important than his academic performance ("The Teachers' Argument"). Tyrone threatens to drop out of school.
The students begin their junior year with the P.A. Fall Festival ("I Want to Make Magic").
At a dance rehearsal, Mabel, an overweight dancer, complains about retaining water, and other problems she faces with the size of her body. She confesses that, although she tries many weight-loss schemes and diets, she always goes back to the "Seafood Diet: I see food, and then I eat it!" She prays aloud for God's help in keeping her from becoming "the world's fattest dancer" ("Mabel's Prayer"), eventually having an epiphany and deciding to switch her major to acting. Later, Nick congratulates Serena for getting the lead female role of Juliet in their junior show, Romeo and Juliet. Serena gets excited and assumes that Nick got the role of Romeo. However, she is surprised to learn that Joe Vegas has the role of Romeo and Nick got the part of Mercutio. Lambchops suggests that Nick is gay, and when Serena confronts him about it, Nick angrily replies that he is straight. Serena so angry decides to channel it into her acting ("Think of Meryl Streep"). Carmen tells Schlomo of her plan to leave school and go to Los Angeles. She has met a Hollywood agent named Elliot Greene, who is sending her a plane ticket. Schlomo begs her not to go. He had seen her getting into Elliot’s limousine and accuses her of using cocaine with him. Schlomo tells Carmen he loves her, but is left alone with his violin/flute/keyboard (depending on what the actor can actually play).
In English class, Tyrone is reading a Superman comic book. Miss Sherman catches him, and forces him to stand up in front of the class and read from the comic book. He accuses her of trying to make him look stupid. He then accuses her of racism, Miss Sherman slaps him in the face and, shocked by what she has done, runs off. Tyrone says to his classmates he doesn’t need her help, or the ability to read or write - he is a dancer, and that's all he needs (“Dancin’ on the Sidewalk.”). Confronting his pain and frustration, Tyrone goes to the blackboard, writes “I WILL READ,” and runs off. Miss Sherman enters, sees what he has written, and is deeply touched. (“These Are My Children.”)
The students rehearse Romeo and Juliet. Joe, insecure playing Romeo, has been ad-libbing. Serena pleads with him to be serious in the part. Nick offers to show him how to play Romeo and winds up kissing Serena in their first romantic moment. Tyrone asks Iris why she has been avoiding him all year. She says she doesn’t want to be tied to a loser. To show her that he is serious, he tells her he is repeating his senior year and reads a passage of Leaves of Grass to her. They dance a pas de deux and walk off together, hand in hand.
A few of the teachers confront Miss Bell about influencing a summer school teacher to pass Tyrone. They insist he must repeat the year. The "Dance Theater of Harlem" is ready to take him, but he must repeat the year. Miss Bell finally admits she may be losing her perspective and decides to take a break. Carmen is standing in front of the school looking physically wasted and disoriented. She spots Schlomo and tells him the truth about her experiences in Hollywood (“In L.A.”). Carmen promises him that she will quit the drugs and get her GED. He gives her a couple of dollars and sadly departs.
At the farewell party, everyone is dressed up and the celebration is loud and festive. Nick confesses his feelings to Serena and they decided to try to date although they are heading to different colleges (Let's Play a Love Scene (Reprise)). On the day of the graduation ceremony, Schlomo tells everyone that Carmen has died a short while ago from a drug overdose, and they sing "Bring On Tomorrow" in her memory.
After the bows, Carmen comes back dancing on the roof of a taxi cab and sings "Fame" with Schlomo for the Finale. The students are all heading off in their respective directions excited about the future.
Four sopranos are brought to heaven's gates, but are stopped by St. Peter. Room has opened up in the heavenly choir for only one soprano. Each auditions in her own way with an aria that exemplifies the traditions and excesses of its time. The sopranos are told that if there were more tenors and basses that were in the heavenly choir, there would be no problem in letting them in. So, the sopranos go to hell to retrieve the men who have been condemned to eternal torment. Through a few operatic "tests" like trying to remain awake for an hour (a task made harder by a stage director boring them to sleep), all the sopranos successfully gain entrance to heaven with the men in tow.