BACK TO ‘SCHOOL’
When Kenny Ortega was a high school student in Redwood City, Calif., his counselor told him he had to choose between his two extracurricular passions: track and drama. He couldn’t do both. It was policy.
Now some 40 years later, that dream-squashing counselor has been paid back -- big time. “High School Musical” -- the Disney TV movie Ortega directed and choreographed urging kids to be true to their dreams -- has been seen by more than 160 million people around the world. The little $4.2-million project has morphed into a $100-million-plus franchise of chart-topping CDs and DVDs, concert tours, live stage performances, even an ice show.
A sequel, the logically named “High School Musical 2,” will premiere Friday on the Disney Channel. A deal is nearly finalized for a trilogy-completing feature film, aimed for release next year.
While enthusiasts sometimes describe the movie’s transformative effect on youngsters in Lourdes-type imagery -- they’ll tell you it makes even the frail ones come alive -- “High School Musical” also rejuvenated Ortega’s career. What had been a long and bountiful path (choreographing “Dirty Dancing,” “Pretty in Pink,” the opening sequence at the 2002 Winter Olympics) now has the glow of a legacy.
Ortega first heard about a “High School Musical Project,” the script’s working title, two years ago, when he was directing episodes of the “Gilmore Girls” and looking for a way to return to feature films. He thought the small project would be a good way to brush up his feature-film skills.
“This has become bigger than any movie could become,” Ortega said recently after a presentation for television critics in Beverly Hills. “It’s like everything I was preparing for with ‘High School Musical,’ it has become for me,” he said.
Looking sharp and friendly in a crisp shirt and flipflops, Ortega was ebullient despite a long day and a painful ear infection. Known for being uncynical and enthusiastic, he gestured freely to illustrate his points.
“High School Musical,” he said, is all about choices. “You shouldn’t be forced into making a decision about ‘Do I want to be an athlete?’ or ‘Do I want to sing and dance?’ You should be able to have options! You should be able to let all of them blend and balance into your life.”
In the Disneyfied East High School, unlike Ortega’s real Sequoia High, basketball star Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) ultimately gets to lead his team to victory and sing and dance in the school’s winter musical with his girlfriend, Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens). But not before battling prejudice and stereotypes from East High’s rigid cliques and misguided adults. “High School Musical 2" follows the kids into summer, where they all work at a country club and confront jealousies, opportunities and torn loyalties.
The sequel is “just a deeper, richer version of what it was” in the original, Ortega said, and since the players are close to their characters’ ages, Ortega doesn’t worry about their getting too old for the sequels. (Cast members Efron and Hudgens have deflected questions about rumors they are romantically involved. A friendship ring he wears came from “a friend,” Efron recently told Rolling Stone.) The film will presumably take up where the sequel left off and follow them in their senior year.
At first, some critics denounced the show and its spinoffs as thin and formulaic. Theater critics tended to be less enthuastic than music and dance critics. But no one argued with their success. The simple, satisfying view of high school is exactly what Ortega believes kids want. “I think they’re saying they’d like high school to be more like that than perhaps the way it really is. They’d like things to lighten up, to be safer, to have more hope at the center,” he said. “To be more fun.”
The basic script had been developed by executive producers Bill Borden and Barry Rosenbush and writer Peter Barsocchini before Ortega was brought in. “Having never done a full-blown musical before, we were looking to find an inspired choice for director,” said Gary Marsh, president of entertainment at Disney Channel Worldwide. They were particularly impressed with Ortega because “his palette is different from other directors’. He’s a choreography-driven rather than a song-driven director. He paints with motion and movement, not just the words. For us, that was vital,” Marsh said. From the beginning, the material touched Ortega, 57, “in a way he hadn’t paid attention to in years,” Marsh said.
Barsocchini said he and Ortega immediately connected over emotional high school issues as they started talking over and enacting the musical numbers in Ortega’s San Fernando Valley home. Barsocchini had been a star basketball player growing up in San Mateo, but withdrew from social and athletic life in his senior year after his father died. They agreed that the movie would be about the emotional life of high school rather than the literal reality.
Ortega said he had always been drawn to the MGM-style, break-into-song musicals such as “An American in Paris” and “On the Town.” But by the time he had obtained the training to direct such films, no one was making them, he said.
In 1980, he met his idol, Gene Kelly, working on the film “Xanadu.” The film was a turning point for Ortega when Kelly showed him how to design choreography for a camera instead of a theater audience, fitting the dancing into a drastically shortened production time.
Kelly also told him a story that would become relevant later. “He got a call from one of the studios saying, ‘We’ve got this guy named Sinatra. We want to put him in the movies, but he says he has two left feet.’ The first thing Gene said was, ‘Ask him if he can play any sports. Because there’s a connection. They belong in the same body.’ ”
On a baseball diamond in Beverly Hills, “Gene goes out with a couple of gloves and a bat and a baseball and shows Frank Sinatra the connection,” Ortega said.
That theme gets reprised in a highlight of “HSM2" -- a number called “I Don’t Dance,” an unusual mix of swing and hip-hop in which athletes and dancers are pitted against each other on a baseball diamond, each side showing off its dual talents to drive home the point that they aren’t mutually exclusive.
For his part, Ortega credits the success of the franchise to his young cast’s “spirit and soulfulness and generosity.”
Almost everyone involved in the original, including himself, did it to gain experience, he said. “I don’t think any of us expected it would shine this light on us. And look what’s happened to Zac alone.” After “High School Musical,” Efron, 19, starred in “Hairspray,” released last month, and he appears on the cover of the Aug. 10 Rolling Stone magazine. Paramount recently announced he will star in a film version of the musical “Footloose,” scheduled for release in 2009. Ortega was chosen to direct. Now, he says, his goal is to help bring back the musical form to film.
“The biggest success for me is that it’s turned on a whole new generation of kids to musicals, and for me that’s the one I’m proudest of,” Ortega said. “It has this greater massive impact and this delicate, poignant simple one-on-one impact. And that’s the miracle of this little project.”