‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ Director Kenny Ortega Looks Back at Early Days and ‘Hair’ Revival

With credits ranging from “High School Musical” to Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” to “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Kenny Ortega has become one of the go-to names in directing musicals for the big and small screens. His latest project, an updated take on cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for Fox — dubbed “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” — bows in a world premiere screening at Mipcom before airing Oct. 20 on Fox. Ortega got his start as a dancer and choreographer, earning his first Variety mention as a cast member in a ’70s revival of “Hair.”

What was your life like during the time of “Hair”?
There were a lot of things that were going on during that time. “Hair” was touring all over the United States and Canada, and I was heading in some incredible directions. The show was also an incredible bonding opportunity. I was in this extraordinary show that broke the fourth wall and talked directly to the audience, and traveled everywhere and impacted people’s lives, and also inspired people to rethink their lives, including my own. It was an incredible time for me.

Looking back, what advice would you give yourself during this time?
I think about this a lot. My younger self went through some tough times. The world was not as open to ideas when I was a young boy. If anything, I wish I had the adult self present that could have said, “you’re going to be OK” or “you’re going to get through this.” In my life now, I try to remind younger people [this], I would have liked to be there for myself. I wouldn’t have felt so alone or afraid.

Did you always aspire to direct?
My first grade report card said, “Kenneth gives direction beautifully, but has trouble following it,” so my mom and dad felt that I was always destined to be a director. I loved dance, and I would watch wonderful old musicals with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. There was always this love of music and dance, and somewhere along the line I eventually got involved in the conceptual side, and started to direct and choreograph rock ’n’ roll performances that broke me into the industry as a choreographer, most notably the parade scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” It was something that lived in me and something I aspired to, but always quietly.

Why is it the right time for a “Rocky Horror” remake?
“Rocky Horror” is great fun and camp, but there are important themes that live and float throughout it, like transcendence, transformation, and liberation. A lot of us in life relate to these outsiders, and it’s great fun to bring them back to life again with new actors and an inspired soundtrack. The show has been a significant part of people’s lives, almost like a church. It says, “don’t dream it — be it,” and embrace who you are.

What can fans of the original expect from this reboot?
The fans are a part of this. We wanted to make the fan relationship a part of the telling of this story. So we brought them in as a character. Another thing I would say is that we really are doing a deep bow to 41 years of great fun and that we all are fan of. We’ve come at it with an appreciation for what it is and what it’s meant to everyone over the years. We’re really trying to honor that.

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