When Kenny Ortega got his first look at the script for “High School Musical,” there was only one song — a karaoke bit — and the cafeteria scene was five pages of dialogue. Ortega then poured through the script and identified scenes that could become musical numbers.
“It was then a matter of suggesting songwriters who would have the right voice for each of those moments,” recalls Steven Vincent, Disney Channel music and soundtrack veep who worked with Ortega in developing the musical end of the cabler’s original telefilm.
Ortega and Vincent put together songwriters and composers who would constitute a musical dream team — scribes expert in different creative areas, such as pop-song crafting, Broadway and even comedy.
Among them were veteran pop hitmakers Jamie Houston and Matthew Gerrard, who had deals with Disney music publishing; and writers Randy Peterson and Kevin Quinn, who came from the animation side and also has comedy chops. Composer David Lawrence and his partner Faye Greenberg tapped their Broadway experience to create the pivotal “Stick to the Status Quo.”
“We were trying to create music that felt like our audience’s lives,” Vincent says. “The goal was always to try to make music that sounds as legit as anything else on pop radio.”
Despite having less than nine weeks — a nanosecond by comparison to typical production schedules — the writers delivered 10 tracks that would propel the first “HSM” soundtrack to sales reaching nearly 5 million discs domestically and become the bestselling album of 2006, according to Nielsen SoundScan
Though it would eventually evolve into a worldwide phenomenon, the soundtrack debut was far from auspicious: It landed a dismal first-week sales tally in January 2006 of less than 6,500 copies (compared with the first-week tally of 615,000 units for “HSM 2” in August 2007).
The debut “HSM” eventually would top the album sales charts in March — twice — thanks in part to the multiple reruns of the telefilm.
“The first (“HSM”) was such a success that it was amazing how many more people got involved in the minutiae of the second and third,” recalls Houston, whose works are heard on all three “HSM” discs and through acts as diverse as Kid Rock, Santana, Jessica Simpson and the Cheetah Girls.
By all accounts, the success of the “HSM” franchise is in large part due to Ortega’s ability to effectively communicate to the writers exactly what he is looking for in a tune to aid the storytelling.
“We’ve found the best thing is to let him talk and talk, and sort of egg him on to talk more because you want him to say every thought or visual he’s got in his head for the song,” says Gerrard, who, with co-writer Robbie Nevil, has several hits for all three “HSM” soundtracks, including four of the first five singles on “HSM 3.”
“Kids don’t listen to albums the way I did when I was younger. Kids create their own playlists,” says “HSM” series writer Peter Barsocchini. “Kenny really understood that and helped Disney Channel invent this form of musical. When Kenny gets the playlist in his mind, he works from there…. In ‘High School Musical 3,’ ‘Scream’ could be a concert song for a rock ‘n’ roller, while ‘I Want It All’ has a very theatrical, funny ‘Forbidden Broadway’ sensibility. Kenny Ortega is the one person who could link those two songs in the same musical.”
“He gives you incredible amounts of information, but he still wants our instincts from a musical standpoint,” Gerrard adds.
Indeed, those involved in the process note that the ritual Ortega uses to describe to the writers his vision for a song is nothing short of theatrical. They call it being “Ortegrified.”
“Kenny will not only articulate verbal direction, but he’ll also dance around the room and act out specific gestures, which passes along a critical glimpse of the passion, emotion, lyrical necessity and true energy of how he envisions the moment,” observes Mitchell Leib, president of music and soundtracks for Disney.
“What he says is going to be on the screen, actually is,” Nevil says. “I’ve done videos, and sometimes … on paper a scene looks one way, and then on the screen it’s not what you expected. But what Kenny says it’s going to be, it is, and then some. It’s genius.”