Master choreographer now helming his own vision

A few years ago, Kenny Ortega had his agent hunt around for a cable telepic for him to direct.

He wasn’t looking for anything too high profile, just a good script that would let him show off his chops as a longform helmer.

Ortega had spent the better part of 10 years concentrating on series television, where his versatility allowed him to move easily among dramas, dramedies and sitcoms.

But his helmer’s eye was on the bigscreen. For all of his accomplishments as director and choreographer — from designing stage moves for such megastars as Cher, Madonna and Bette Midler to directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics — Ortega still felt there was a hole in his resume. He’d directed two movies for Disney earlier in his career, 1992′s “Newsies” and 1993′s “Hocus Pocus,” but hadn’t been completely satisfied with the results.

A good cable movie, Ortega figured, could be his calling card for a feature assignment. He was jazzed when his agent turned up a project at Disney Channel that combined all of his strengths in working with music and dance to tell a sweet love story. Although Ortega knew nothing about Disney Channel, a project with the working title “High School Musical” sounded right up his alley.

Nearly four years and three “High School Musical” pics later, Ortega’s master plan has worked fabulously, but not exactly in the way that he’d plotted.

“After I read (‘High School Musical’), I said, ‘I love this.’ It was so perfect for everything that I am. My high school drama class was such a huge part of my life. Musical theater was my first love and still my greatest love,” Ortega says.

After the two “High School Musical” telepics exploded into pop-culture and record-setting cable-ratings phenomena, Disney opted to do a third installment as a theatrical release. Ortega is so intertwined with the franchise that there was never any doubt that he would helm the “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” feature, set to bow Oct. 24.

The Disney Channel had a draft script for “HSM” at the time Ortega was recruited, but none of the music had been developed, nor had any of the dance numbers been conceived. That was Ortega’s department, and he took to the assignment as if he were a high school senior looking to land a full scholarship to Juilliard.

Ortega worked closely with “HSM” exec producers Bill Borden and Barry Rosenbush, scribe Peter Barsocchini and Disney Channel execs to find the right tunesmiths for the various songs. In developing the dance numbers, Ortega sought to get inside the head of contemporary high schoolers for the inspiration and the settings, but he also wanted the musical

storytelling to reflect classic Hollywood and Broadway tuners.

“It’s like an old idea in new clothing,” Ortega says of the franchise’s spectacular success. “It’s the same sentiment (as classic movie musicals) but with a different beat, a different sort of musical vibe. … In ‘High School Musical 3′ especially you’ll feel the presence of motion picture musicals. Sometimes we’re just winking at them. Sometimes we throw them in the middle of the soup.”

Whatever the recipe, it’s all pure Kenny Ortega, says Disney Channel entertainment prexy Gary Marsh.

Marsh had the gut instinct that young viewers would respond to a contempo take on a traditional boy-gets-the-girl musical. But it was Ortega who steered the team that executed the idea in a way that surpassed Marsh’s highest expectations.

“Kenny juxtaposes the expected and the unexpected — the storyline you expect with the visuals you don’t expect,” Marsh says. “He surprises people, and it’s really hard to surprise viewers. … What really defines ‘High School Musical’ is that it has one foot in the reality of high school and teenagers and angst and one foot in the fantasy of a musical. That’s the straddle that Kenny created.”

Ortega’s other great gift is his ability to work with performers, particularly young performers. That comes in part from the many years he spent onstage, starting in his preteen years, and in part from his natural joie de vivre.

Those qualities have made him an invaluable resource to Disney Channel. He’s become a key figure in the professional lives of the channel’s brightest stars — not only the “HSM” troupe but also Miley Cyrus (Ortega is seen in action as a choreographer in the “Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds” concert pic) and the Jonas Brothers.

“There’s three parts of Kenny: He’s part father, part entertainer and part friend. And he pulls different levers depending on what he needs from his talent,” Marsh says. “He can be their best friend; he can be their harshest critic; he can be extraordinarily demanding. It’s not a walk in the park to be on a Kenny Ortega set, but they come away from it having done their best work ever.”

Ortega has an innate understanding of where his triple-threat proteges are coming from because he’s been there, sung it and danced that. He lived the “High School Musical” fairy tale as a kid growing up in Redwood City, Calif., a smallish city about 25 miles southeast of San Francisco.

Ortega began working an actor and hoofer in local theater productions as a preteen, and by the time he was 13, he landed a role in the touring production of “Oliver!”

When Ortega arrived at Redwood City’s Sequoia High School, his passion for theater was encouraged and refined by drama teacher Ray Doherty, who remains a local legend for his mentoring and tutoring of Ortega and others.

“Ray Doherty was an amazing teacher,” Ortega says. “He not only taught us style and technique and the mechanics of plays and production, but we studied the classics. We did Greek tragedies. He did everything he could to give us a real education in theater.”

Ortega’s innate love of music and dance was instilled by his parents, Octavio and Madeline Ortega. Music was a constant in the Ortega home when Kenny and his brother, Mark, and sister, singer-actress Debra Lee Ortega, were growing up.

“When I was a little boy, I remember watching my mother and father dance in the living room. They would jitterbug and mambo. Before we had TV, we had radio and records, and my mom and dad were always dancing,” Ortega recalls. “I remember her laughing, my dad dipping her, and the joy that was in the room when they were dancing. That was exciting and thrilling to me.”

Ortega had no trouble finding steady work as an actor after high school: He appeared in the San Francisco and touring productions of “Hair” (he played hippie George Berger), among other shows.

After 3½ years of letting the sun shine in, Ortega was back in San Francisco going through a series of auditions for his next gig. He was about to land a leading role in a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” when his career took an unexpected turn thanks to an offer he received on the dance floor of a hot San Francisco nightspot.

The two men who approached him were members of Bay Area rock band the Tubes. They told Ortega they’d been admiring his moves and that they were in dire need of a choreographer to guide their stage show as they embarked on their first national tour. The Tubes wanted their live show to be rock ‘n’ roll performance art, except that none of them knew anything about choreography.

Ortega wasn’t completely sold until the Tubes put on a performance just for him in their warehouse rehearsal space in S.F.

“It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever laid my eyes on. It was experimental multimedia,” he says.

Ortega turned down the better-paying gig with “Jesus Christ Superstar” to become the Tubes’ artistic director and unofficial eighth member. He would spend the better part of the next 10 years touring the world with the Tubes, and it was during this time that he got his first taste of working with film.

“It was such a great learning experience. It was a great period of time and a great group of people,” Ortega says. “I feel like much of what I do and who I am was defined by that experience.”

Ortega’s work with the Tubes eventually
caught the eye of Cher, who hired him to choreograph a TV special and concert tour. From there, he became one of the music biz’s most sought-after choreographers for concerts and musicvids.

Another turning point came in 1980, when he was hired as one of two choreographers on the pic “Xanadu.” The movie was a commercial flop, but not for Ortega. It gave him the opportunity to work with, and befriend, one of his idols, Gene Kelly.

Kelly had signed to do the pic with the stipulation that he would not dance, but he still wanted to sign off on the choreographer.

“I remember him saying, ‘I’m not going to say that I’m dancing in this movie, but if I were to, what would you have me do?’” Ortega recalls. “I got up and showed him some stuff. From that day we stayed great friends for 20 years.”

Kelly taught Ortega how to design choreography for the camera rather than the stage and, most important, how to shoot it for maximum effect. “He enlightened me to so many things,” Ortega says.

Ortega’s apprenticeship with Kelly is evident in the choreography he did in such 1980s movie hits as “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Dirty Dancing.”

Ortega credits helmer John Hughes with helping him to broaden his palette as a director. Hughes had Ortega serve as second unit director on “Ferris Bueller,” which greatly expanded his horizons.

In addition to numerous specials and live events, Ortega’s smallscreen work includes episodes of “Chicago Hope,” “Ally McBeal,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Grounded for Life.” Ortega likes to work in a range of genres, but more often than not, he’s drawn to projects where music is a key element of the storytelling. His credits even include the choreography for the famed “dancing fountains” outside the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

“If it isn’t there (in the script), I’ll find it. In the quietest moments, I feel rhythm. It’s just who I am,” Ortega says.

With “High School Musical 3″ now under his belt, Ortega will devote much of his energy to launching a touring stage show devoted to the history of dance in America. He’s also in talks with Paramount to direct Zac Efron in the studio’s remake of “Footloose.”

Although he’s got no shortage of movie offers, Ortega wants to remain connected to the “High School Musical” franchise. A fourth pic for Disney Channel is in the works with a new batch of stars, including three kids featured in “HSM 3,” Jemma McKenzie-Brown, Matt Prokop and Justin Martin.

Disney Channel’s Marsh jokes that Ortega may now be out of the channel’s price range, but Ortega sure sounds like a proud papa as he sings the praises of his graduating class of stars and the newcomers. He’s also excited because his nephew Kyle Robert Ortega has a role in “HSM 3,” and the pic even has a few choice scenes for his beloved Yorkshire terrier, Manly.

“I’m very proud of this movie. It’s big and bold,” Ortega says. “My heart is up there all over it. And I’m proud to say that.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more