Kenny Ortega, director and choreographer of “High School Musical” 1 and 2, credits several factors for his recent success, but chief among them is his ability to relate to the young performers he’s marshaled to such winning effect.
“I started as an actor in musical theater as a young teenager,” says Ortega, now 57, “and my love of musical film also began at an early age. So I had some history to share that could excite and inspire the cast. I think that helped them know they were safe and that it would work.”
By way of example, he points to a scene in “HSM2” in which the pic’s main hunk, Zac Efron, dances across a golf course. “You have to have the trust,” says Ortega. “You can’t think that this isn’t going to work. They believe that I’m going to lead them to the right place, and because of that, we’ve come to accomplish what we have under the constraints of a TV budget and a grueling schedule.”
Of course, working with young performers presents special challenges. They can burn out physically and mentally more quickly than older artists. “You don’t want people limping,” cautions Ortega. “And you don’t want to remove the joy. You want to keep them healthy and happy.”
Yet Ortega seems to have struck the right balance. “I pay attention to what’s going on in music and dance,” says the director. “I try to keep one foot in the street. And having kept the enthusiasm that was there from the start makes it a little easier. I think that young performer still lives within me, and he shares the responsibility.”
Recent breakthrough: Thanks to “High School Musical,” Ortega says, “I’m in conversations about doing more of this type of work.”
Role model: “Christian Bale, whom I worked with in ‘Newsies’ when he was 17. He’s made great choices.”
What’s next: Developing a remake of “Footloose” with Zac Efron, plus TV pilots and a big-screen “HSM” movie.