High School Musical: Kenny Ortega reflects on the (unexpected) success of the series
'I can remember just being in the mix of an extraordinary group of passionate people,' the director-choreographer says
It may be hard to believe, but High School Musical is officially a decade old.
The film told the story of the sporty Troy (Zac Efron) and scholarly Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), who discover a common love of music and audition for their school’s musical — leading to a major clash of cliques because, you know, people didn’t stick to the status quo. Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, and more also starred.
It originally aired on Disney Channel, and led to a second TV movie for the network. Its third film, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, was released theatrically. While many have called the series an unexpected success, director-choreographer Kenny Ortega tells EW he always knew there was something special from the start.
Ortega — whose credits include Hocus Pocus, Descendants, and Fox’s upcoming TV movie treatment of The Rocky Horror Picture Show — recalls a multitude of memories from his HSM days, including his experiences on set, why he thinks the films have really resonated with audiences and the moment he felt High School Musical would take off. Read on for more Wildcat fun, because it’s what you’ve been looking for…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to High School Musical, and what attracted you to the project?
KENNY ORTEGA: I was brought in by Bill Borden and Barry Rosenbush, who were the [executive] producers. They had known my work in other areas and thought that I would be a good person to bring in. We had a meeting with Gary Marsh, the president of Disney Channel. I was looking to get behind the camera. I wanted to work again in full-length. I was doing a lot of television, a lot of series, so my agency sent me this script and I really loved it. I thought it was charming and it reminded me of my youth, growing up and doing musical theater in high school, and watching the old MGM backyard musicals. I thought “Wow, this could develop into something really quite charming.” So I shared that with Gary and he said, “Well, I’ve been waiting for someone like you to walk through these doors for like four years. I want to do this. How do we get started?” The rest became our history. He’s been a great partner for all these 10 years and I hope to be looking back in another 10 years having continued. It’s been a great company to work with. In a world where there are not too many musical opportunities for director-choreographers, this enabled me to do what it is that I really enjoy.
Speaking of, what was your experience like working as both a director and choreographer on the first film?
I do my best to surround myself with a great team, and in the [choreography] of High School Musical 1, 2, and 3, I had partners in Chucky Klapow and Bonnie Story, both of whom come from incredible backgrounds in dance. Chucky was an up-and-coming choreographer, and Bonnie had already been choreographing with Vincent Paterson and doing a lot of important work, so I had this incredible, elite team working with me. They were fast, smart, and were able to get into my head — we shared a language on all three movies. On the director side, having a great A.D., a great A.V. team and all those folks behind the director that kept me organized and enabled me to stay focused. Again, Disney Channel has always been really good from the very beginning in enabling me a strong team.
You had a pretty strong team in your actors as well. What did they bring to the film?
We knew before we started day one of rehearsal that we had an incredible rat pack. We knew that these kids had the potential to really create some thunder. There was no doubt because I had put them through what was more like a Broadway audition. We narrowed down hundreds and hundreds of actors to, I think, 18 on our final day of casting. We were mixing them up and they were improvising, playing with basketballs, singing, singing in pairs, and they were doing dance combinations and scene work. They were in and out and in and out, and they’re agents were going crazy. They couldn’t figure out what the heck I was doing, but all of us — Disney and my producers, all knowing what my vision, which was ambitious, was for this little TV movie — realized that it was important that I had it in these kids.
So by the time we stepped out of auditions and we had selected Zac and Vanessa, who had incredible chemistry together, and Ashley and Lucas, who were riots, Monique, Corbin, and everyone, we all knew that they had firepower. It was a joy waking up knowing that I was going to work with them everyday for all these movies. We had such a good time working together. They were inspired, real players. They came to work everyday with ideas. Ashley and Lucas always had the set in hysterics. They were all participants, real partners. Zac, I think, was 16 turning 17 on the first movie, and Vanessa 15 turning 16, so these were their sweet years, but they were bright and they were above average, all of them. They made it possible to aspire and to work at the capacity that I did.
Do you have any particularly memorable moments from your time on set?
All the musical stuff was really extraordinary – to be able to realize this level of musical material in a television schedule and with young people who only have a certain amount of hours to work everyday. When we got to the finish line of a musical number, for example “Get’cha Head In the Game” or the finale, “We’re All In This Together,” those were real momentous moments for the crew, the cast, myself, those watching the dailies, picking up the phone and calling me from L.A. because we were in Utah, just like, “This is unbelievable. You’ve exceeded our expectations.”
We were putting together these musical numbers in a day, and the finale in less than two. Again, it was because of the level of commitment that was there from every direction you looked and you don’t always have that. I had that with the Dirty Dancing experience, I had that with John Hughes experiences, working on [Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, etc.]. There are a handful of experiences in my lifetime as a choreographer or as a director where I can remember just being in the mix of an extraordinary group of passionate people who were all there for the project and I felt that from the beginning of my work on High School Musical and throughout. We had the same team for three years, the same line producer Don Schain, who just passed away, and great filmmakers. All the same people kept coming back, which is a testament to the joy and fun that everybody was having making these movies.
Do you have a favorite song-and-dance number from High School Musical, or the sequels?
From the first one I would say “Get’cha Head In the Game,” only because coming from the Gene Kelly school of dance, I always loved the merging of sport and dance, so working with athletes and dancers — athletes that had never danced, dancers that had never held a basketball — and being able to, in a record amount of time, create a basketball team and then do a musical production number. In the second movie, we also did it with baseball [with “I Don’t Dance”] and then we returned to basketball in the third movie [with “Now or Never”] so those were really great moments for me personally. Then all the finales, whenever we had the entire cast, when all the principals were all engaged in a musical number together, like “We’re All In This Together,” looking up at that cast, looking into their eyes, looking at that energy, excitement, commitment was always emotional and fulfilling to me standing behind the camera.
What do you think of High School Musical, and the series as a whole, looking back on it now, 10 years since it was released?
I’m really proud of it. We had a goal, which was to entertain a very specific audience that we believed was out there and would be ripe and ready for something like this and we found them. We not only found them here in the United States, but with Gary and his team’s help, [and] Rich Ross back in the day when he was there. They discovered that [in] international markets, whether young kids even related to this kind of school set up, there was something underneath the story, underneath that belonged to the sort of spirit of High School Musical, that kids everywhere would connect with and they did from South America, Australia, Asia, Japan, Korea, Great Britain. Everywhere you looked on the map, High School Musical just scored incredible high numbers, and there was a universal kind of connection with these movies. It’s awesome when you’re able to be a part of something that could cross borders and connect, even when the language is different.
What is it about these films specifically that you think resonated with viewers?
There are certain things that I discovered in the way that I approach work and especially the way that I approach it with young people because they’re a little bit more open and receptive and trusting. That’s not to say that I haven’t worked with mature actors who have those same qualities, but lots of times actors have their methods that they’ve developed and ways of approaching their work and you kind of stay out of their space. You selected them because of their talents. You allow them their way of working. With young people, they often come to you and aren’t all set in the way that they approach their work, so you have a little bit more responsibility in trying to create a scenario for them, an environment for them to be creative.
I like to create a place where the actors feel safe, where they can express themselves, where they have a voice, where they know they matter, and what it does is provide me with this energy and enthusiasm that lives underneath the dancing, singing, and words. There’s this enthusiasm that is just underneath everything and an excitement to be there, and I think you feel that as a young person and you connect to that fun, enjoyment, exhilaration that the actors all have while they’re in the midst of the work. It’s a sort of other dimension that’s working alongside the memorizing of dance steps, learning of songs, and working of scenes. There’s something else present and I think that it isn’t the language. It’s a feeling, an emotion, and that’s something that [is] underneath all of the High School Musical [movies]. It was relevant and young people connected to it everywhere.
You mentioned earlier that you were getting good feedback as you were filming, and that you knew that there was something special. Did you have any idea that these films would take off in the way they did?
I did, and I don’t say that with any arrogance. Again, I was fortunate enough to be a part of some movie experiences already where I could feel something familiar, working with Emile Ardolino, Patrick Swayze, and Jennifer Grey, and other experiences like that in television. There were times in my life that preceded High School Musical where — and again, High School Musical is naive and young and a different genre than something like Dirty Dancing — there’s something when you’re standing there in the middle of this whole organization that feels special and I recognized it while we were in the midst of doing our finale on the first movie.
After we did a huge master of “We’re All In This Together,” I walked over to the cast and we huddled into a circle. It was our last day, and I said, “If all the Disney folks put the same kind of effort into their work, I have a feeling that there are going to be some lives changed from what we’ve accomplished in these weeks together,” and I thanked everybody. I said, “I feel something here and I have a feeling that we’re going to be back.” Monique loves to remember that story. She said she remembers looking in my eyes and having a glimpse of the future before we really stepped away and finished, and I did too. I felt like we had delivered. We did everything we set out to do [and], as you always do, you have to place the work into the capable hands of others in hopes that they get the word out and know how to manage it, market it, and present it, and we were fortunate enough to have those partners.
That’s a crazy story, but I guess sometimes you just have that feeling.
Well yeah, there was magic in the air. The chemistry that these kids had, it was unbelievable! They were a family from day one. You’d say, “Ok, everyone is on a break. Take 10 minutes and relax and get some fresh air and drink some water and keep your bodies warm,” and they’d go off together. They were inseparable. They had this incredible friendship in life. They really loved one another, so that was there, that was in the work. I think kids identified with that. They felt that.
Lives did certainly change, like you predicted. Zac has been in a handful of feature films, so has Vanessa, who is going to be in Grease: Live at the end of the month. What do you think of where the cast is now?
I’m so proud of all of them. They’re all working, and they’re all enjoying their lives. Corbin is going to be married, and he’s been on Broadway. Monique is in the movies, Lucas has a series, Olesya [Rulin] has a series, KayCee Stroh has two beautiful babies, but all of them, they’re enjoying their lives, they’re happy people, and they’re doing what they set off to do. I’m very proud and happy for all of them.
I must say too, we can’t forget that Bill and Barry nurtured this idea and that Peter Barsocchini wrote this script that enabled me to have a vision and to pull in a group of people who could realize it. You have to have it on paper. There has to be something there that stimulates the work. I just want to say that I’m so grateful that these guys thought of me because I look at these 10 years [as] having had a precious opportunity, a once in a lifetime. I look back at it with great fondness.
Do you have any lingering thoughts?
I’m hoping that we’re going to spend some quality time with each other. We’re all group texting in the hopes that we’re going to have a movie night, a dinner, or an appearance somewhere. I’m hoping that I will be able to look into all of my Wildcats faces and smile and wish them a happy anniversary. Also, to the fans of High School Musical, they haven’t quit us. They want a fourth [movie] so desperately. They’ve never left! They’ve grown up. I’ve met them in life all over the world. They’re bankers, lawyers, and doctors, these people that have become working members of our society that grew up on High School Musical. It’s a little crazy to believe. If you watched High School Musical at 15, you’re 25 today and you’re out there in the workplace and you have a life, so I’m grateful to all of them who keep Instagramming me, saying “Please, another one!”
Is there a chance that there could be another one?
Certainly not with the original cast, but hopefully down the road there’s a new generation of High School Musical. Wouldn’t that be fun?