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What’s next for Kenny Ortega

'High School Musical' franchise keeps dancing

Wherever Kenny Ortega goes — be it a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires, an orphanage in Kenya or just to visit his 3-year-old goddaughter in Northern California — he encounters kids and parents who are stricken with “High School Musical” fever. Sometimes, they say things like, “I wish I could jump into that world and live there.” But more often, they just thank the franchise’s director and choreographer before adding, fervently, “Please don’t stop.”

“High School Musical 3: Senior Year” — the first movie in the Disney Channel’s series of made-fors to get a bigscreen release — opens Oct. 24, and a fourth installment is in the works. According to Rich Ross, the president of Disney Channels Worldwide, “HSM 4” is being written, though whether it will be seen in theaters or on TV screens is still “yet to be determined.”

Another question mark: Which members of the original cast — including stars Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens — would be willing to return? While Ross hopes to “have one or more of the cast members back,” the next sequel will certainly include a slew of new faces since Troy, Gabriella and the rest of the gang graduate in “HSM 3.”

Three of those new characters, all sophomores, are introduced to audiences in “HSM 3”: Jimmy “The Rocket Man” Zara (Matt Prokop), a rocker who hopes to fill Troy Bolton’s musical shoes; the impressionable and enthusiastic Donny Deion (Justin Martin); and Tiara Gold (Jemma McKenzie-Brown, a British actress who was selected after an intensive search across Great Britain and the U.S.).

“Tiara is an exchange student who presents herself as desiring to help Sharpay out in any way possible,” says Ortega, who adds that he is open to participating in future installments. “She’s a little ‘All About Eve.'”

“To introduce each of the kids, we created a special gag. With Matt Prokop, he’s on the basketball team, it’s the most critical moment in the game, and you realize Zac Efron has recognized his athletic ability. So you add dimension to your main character, Zac, who doesn’t have to be the star. He can really use teamwork,” explains producer Bill Borden. “We’re not trying to set up a new Zac Efron. We’re creating new characters, not people to step into the shoes of existing characters. It’s more of a handoff.”

An instant hit when it premiered on Disney Channel in January 2006, theatrical versions have already been released in Argentina and Mexico; a Brazilian adaptation is about to go into production; and Chinese and Russian versions are being written. “It’s been exciting to see how the ‘High School Musical’ DNA can be interpreted and expanded in many ways,” Ross says. “And certainly, the passion consumers have for the property is seemingly limitless.”

Which begs the question: Just how long can the beat go on? “I like to compare it to how fertile J.K. Rowling found the Harry Potter world,” Ross says of the franchise that encompasses seven books and, ultimately, eight films. ” ‘High School Musical’ is very much on our radar for many years to come.”

Ortega harbors even grander ambitions. “How long has Mickey Mouse been around?” he says with a laugh.

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