Kenny Ortega’s strength as a helmer doesn’t lie in shooting panoramic vistas or creating thrilling action sequences replete with special effects. Instead, he focuses on old-fashioned directorial virtues, nurturing talent with his trademark combination of exacting standards and patient understanding.
“Kenny has the amazing ability to bring out the best in his performers,” says Lucas Grabeel, who plays Ryan — he of the funky hats — in the “High School Musical” franchise. “He is very personable and charming, which creates a comfortable environment, especially for people who are new to the filmmaking process. He doesn’t just tell you what he wants; he paints the whole picture by giving you the energy he needs. He makes sure that everyone from the crew to the background actors and the rest of the cast understands his vision.”
And though that ability may be most obvious in his TV and film work, which is seen by untold millions, it is not restricted to the screen. Ortega is also an accomplished director of live musical events, including “The Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds Tour” and “The Boy From Oz Arena Spectacular,” in which Hugh Jackman toured Australia in his Tony-winning role as Peter Allen.
“He has an undeniable joie de vivre, which infects everything he does,” says Jackman of the director. “Kenny is able to make the most massive shows feel both spectacular and intimate. He intrinsically understands how to make things work for every person in the stadium, from the front row to the very back. He also empowers his cast and crew with such positivity that the energy and confidence oozes from the stage. It is especially extraordinary how he directs the younger performers. He brings out the best in everyone.”
In Jackman’s case, what may impress most is that Ortega took pre-existing material and reinvented it for new circumstances. “What Kenny gave me were real tools to be able to transfer the performance from a 1,600 seat theater to a 15,000-person stadium,” says Jackman of the move from the Rialto to several urban arenas. “He encouraged me to play more, to be freer, and he also really helped my dancing. He makes dance an extension of the story, and emotion of the piece. Dance is in his blood — he knows how to take actors and make them believe they are dancers.”
Grabeel seems to concur. “Dancing is all about telling a story with your body, and Kenny brings all of his passion to the dance floor,” he says. “He knows it’s not all about the ‘moves.’ It’s about the emotion and the spirit that you express with your body. Kenny stresses that more than anything and never holds back when he teaches. That passion that he talks about in our dancing directly relates to the scenes as well. Everything in the scene must have an emotional driving force behind it, just like the dance moves.”
Naturally, actors inculcate what Ortega has taught them, but sometimes the effect goes beyond the performance. “I’ve learned a great deal from Kenny,” Grabeel says. “I’m a better dancer, actor and performer because of him, and I’m also more confident. Being a part of these movies and live shows has given me life experience. I take all of those lessons to heart and apply them to not only my work, but also to my life.”