Identifying the Kenny Ortega touch

Five ways helmer made 'Musical' his own

The hoopla surrounding the “High School Musical” phenomenon has focused on the hard-working onscreen performers, often overlooking the talents of the series’ director, Kenny Ortega, in the process. So, when the third installment hits theaters this month, will the helmer’s signature touches be recognized? With help from some of his collaborators, here are five ways the “HSM” series simply wouldn’t be the same in the hands of any other helmer:

CUSHIONING THE BREAK-INTO-SONG STYLE

For young crowds, the biggest obstacle to accepting a musical is getting past the moment the characters first open their mouths to sing. “The strength of Kenny as a director is the transitions of scenes into songs, the seamlessness with which that occurs,” observes Peter Barsocchini, who wrote all three films. Consider the first movie: Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) meet at a resort party where kids are doing karaoke. Embarrassed, they are thrust onto the stage together to sing “Start of Something New.” “Halfway through the song, the way Kenny staged and imagined it, it was like nobody knew they were watching a musical,” Barsocchini says.

THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

“He has the Broadway discipline to understand how the songs have to be woven into the arc of the story, but he has the heart of a wild rock ‘n’ roller, which connects with kids and what they want to listen to,” says Barsocchini. Ortega has even been known to identify a key dramatic sequence and reinvent it as a dance scene. That’s what happened with “Stick to the Status Quo” in the original movie: Ortega took the cafeteria standoff between rival cliques and transformed it into the film’s centerpiece musical number.

KNOWS WHAT HE WANTS, BUT STILL OPEN TO SUGGESTIONS

Another Ortega signature: listening to his cast’s ideas. “Half the stuff in ‘High School Musical’ comes from improvising,” says Ashley Tisdale, who plays Sharpay. “In the first movie, Sharpay hears Gabriella singing, so she goes in the bathroom to find her, and I asked Kenny, ‘Can I karate chop the door like I’m a secret agent?’ It’s fun because we create the backstory of each character.”

REAL-WORLD INSPIRATIONS

“HSM” regular Corbin Bleu remembers how warm-up exercises at a rehearsal session inspired Ortega: “We had a massage train going on, everybody sitting down and massaging each other in a row. He walked into the room, scratched his head a little bit, then put his hands up as if he was looking through a camera,” Bleu says. Ortega invented “the roller coaster” on the spot, incorporating the rippling hands-on-shoulders wave into “HSM 2” opening song “What Time Is It?”

A CERTAIN THEATRICALITY

Ortega’s influence can best be seen in campy little touches throughout — a gesture here, a bit of clever staging there — that amplify the underlying dramatics. “Generally speaking, I think Kenny adds a kind of life that’s slightly bigger than real to things and makes it feel completely organic to the piece,” producer Bill Borden says. The actors tend to telegraph their inner thoughts, as fresh-face Jemma McKenzie-Brown does in “HSM 3”: “When people walk off (a scene), Kenny always says, ‘Look at them in such a way that says Tiara’s conniving mind is working,'” the thesp explains.

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