HIGH OCTANE: Kenny Ortega says he got the best work from the
cast in High School Musical by letting them be kids. "I want to
capture their real energy." (© Fred Hayes/Disney Channel)
In the high-stepping, beat-driven world that is High School Musical, the hit Disney Channel movie for television that took preteendom by storm last year, Kenny Ortega is like the prom king—or at least like the benevolent principal. He directed and choreographed the film and is now riding a wave of good fortune that has led not just to several successful spinoff projects—including live stage versions and filmed sequels—but also to recognition from his peers.
At this year's DGA Awards, Ortega won for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Children's Programs. The film also earned him an Emmy nomination.
Ortega says he is "still reeling" from the DGA win as he readies to shoot the sequel, also for the Disney Channel. Titled High School Musical 2: Sing It All or Nothing! it's scheduled to air August 17. Like its predecessor, the sequel, which has a 29-day shooting schedule, is being filmed in St. George and Salt Lake City, Utah, following a little more than two weeks of rehearsals in Salt Lake.
If that timeline sounds like a challenge for a production with 10 musical numbers and scores of teen extras and backgrounders, the director confirms that it is. But it's nothing new for Ortega, 57, who has worked with young performers for much of his career. He directed and co-choreographed the Disney feature Newsies in 1992 and not long after completing work on the first High School Musical, he applied his talents to The Cheetah Girls 2, another Disney Channel movie.
Yet he insists that there's something special about the group of rising triple threats who compose the student body in both High School Musical pictures. (The casts are nearly identical, with all the main characters reprising their roles in the sequel.) "It's incredible the level of talent that exists in these young people, with backgrounds in dance, music and theater," says the director. "I almost don't want to let people know that I found it all in Utah. There's an extraordinary investment in fostering such talent here."
As if to prove the point, Ortega notes that when casting the first film, he and his crew held no open call for talent. "It was invitation only," he says, "and we had just under 1,800 kids show up. It was like, 'Number 1763, can you move to the right a little?'"
Brats are absent from the High School Musical cast because, says Ortega, "that's the only way you can do this sort of project with this kind of budget and schedule." Most cast members range in age from 13 to 18, though some key performers are older; three of the four leads were between 19 to 22 while filming the sequel.
SMELLS LIKE SCHOOL SPIRIT: Director Kenny Ortega's young cast strike a
pose in a scene from High School Musical. (© The Disney Channel)
In any event, Ortega pushes his young cast hard. Doing so requires him to rely heavily on two other choreographers, Charles Klapow and Bonnie Story. "I have to count on Chucky and Bonnie to take these kids to the places where they can be taken," he says, alluding to his own physical limitations. He tore a rotator cuff while filming the first High School Musical and is still receiving physical therapy for the injury.
By now, Ortega has a rubric for such projects. At first, he puts all his energies into the musical numbers, focusing on music, choreography and script. As he gets closer to shooting, the emphasis shifts to the camera and breaking down the work with the cast. He says there's not that much formal rehearsal but that the kids do plenty on their own. He finds such commitment especially helpful, and rather uncommon.
"I've done a lot of work, so I can honestly say that it's not always like that," he says. "These young players come prepared. No one is tripping over lines. They come with the goods. You don't have to bark or demand. And that's good, because you don't have a lot of time."
Ortega's extensive experience working with young performers only helps matters. He maintains that the secret to getting good work from kids is to trust them. He encourages what he calls "a certain amount of fun and frolic" on the set. "I let them be kids," he says. "I want to capture their real energy. I don't want to stop it. It may sometimes feel like it's in the way, but it's not. That's the magic. And work no longer becomes work; it becomes play."
GOTTA DANCE: Director Kenny Ortega, who scored another hit
with Cheetah Girls 2, was inspired by Hollywood's great
director-choreographers, most of all his mentor Gene Kelly.
STUDENT TEACHER: Ortega is prepping 10 numbers for High
School Musical 2 with most of his cast from the first show.
HEAD OF THE CLASS: Ortega sets up a scene for High
School Musical 2. (© The Disney Channel)
That philosophy doubtless serves him in good stead when it comes to dealing with extras, who are essential to generating excitement in a production like this. "They're the extension of the energy," says the director. "Without them, the energy falls off. They make it bigger."
He acknowledges that his obsession with detail can drive people crazy. "I cast background [dancers] like I'm casting extras," he says, insisting that such elements are vital to a picture's rhythm and musicality.
The director is quick to credit his ADs in this regard. Marty Jedlicka holds that job on High School Musical 2, a position filled by Matias Alvarez in the first incarnation. "You have to have a good, strong AD team," says Ortega. "So you bring in people who have that same spirit and appreciate the environment you want to create, because you need to have the extras excited the same way you've excited the main cast."
One might expect that having to choreograph and direct would intensify the pressure on Ortega, but he couldn't do it any other way. "It's who I am, and it's one and the same," he says. "Even in my dramatic work, I'm looking for the choreography, the rhythms in the work. In defining myself, it's one head. I arc back and forth and live in the two places, but I don't feel like I jump from one to the other."
For inspiration, Ortega looks to some of Hollywood's great director-choreographers, including Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, Onna White and, most of all, Gene Kelly. He studies their work and regularly revisits a range of musicals, everything from Singin' in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers to Moulin Rouge and Chicago. "I'm constantly watching camera and light and movement," he says.
He credits Kelly, whom he knew personally, with making him think about directing. "Gene Kelly said that without directing, you'd never be satisfied with your work as a choreographer," he recalls. "So that's just my head: My director lives in a choreographer's head, which is a big advantage with a project like this."
Not that Ortega is trying to turn High School Musical into something out of Arthur Freed's unit at MGM. But he does occasionally indulge in subtle homages to those in his pantheon. "Every once in a while I'd like to think there's a wink, a bow, a curtsy in their direction," he says.
Ortega didn't see the huge success of High School Musical coming. The fastest-selling TV movie ever, it sold more than 400,000 DVDs on its first day to a rabid preteen audience. "Certainly it surprised me," he says. But he claims that once production started on the first film, he had a feeling something unusual was happening. "There's an energy and team spirit, and you think, we may end up with something kind of special. But I didn't know it would be so iconic or reach so far and wide."
He was in Australia working with Hugh Jackman on a Boy From Oz spinoff when High School Musical began making serious inroads with preteen audiences, especially girls. While the enthusiasm mounted, he was in Spain filming The Cheetah Girls 2. "Then it was everywhere," he says. "Even from far away, I started to realize what was happening."
What was happening was a franchise. And when Ortega returned to the States, he began work on a live stage version of High School Musical. (The jump from screen to live spectacle proved easy for Ortega, who had helped direct the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics.) The so-called arena tour consisted of 48 sold-out shows in 40 American cities. Disney is hoping to top that success with a new venture, High School Musical on Ice, which Ortega will produce but not direct.
Which brings us to the announced feature film version of High School Musical, scheduled for release in 2008 and tentatively titled Haunted High School Musical. All that Ortega will say at the moment is, "Disney has asked me to do it, and people are discussing it on my behalf."
Regardless, Ortega must first finish filming High School Musical 2. Taking his cue from one of the most popular songs in the original picture, he says, "I have to keep my head in the game and think about the movie I'm making. And that's taking just about all the head space I've got right now."