The director-choreographer Kenny Ortega is known for his work in film and TV, including the “High School Musical” franchise and “Newsies.” But he points to his early career in the theater as the experience that laid the groundwork for his Hollywood success.
Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:
Ortega, whose new series “Julie and the Phantoms” drops Sept. 10 on Netflix, attributes his eye for promising young talent to his stage experience. On the new episode of “Stagecraft,” he recalled how his casting practices were influenced by his audition for the touring production of “Hair” in San Francisco in 1970. As an actor, he stood in line for five hours, and the overall process of casting the show’s ensemble took a whopping three months.
Ortega said he takes the same time and care in discovering new talents, as he did with Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens for “High School Musical” and as he hopes to do again with “Julie and the Phantoms,” which stars newcomer Madison Reyes as the title character. “What I came to appreciate was the value of that, [of] what the end result became,” he explained of the patience needed to find the right team of performers for a project. “[Casting] is taking my time and looking for the promise, looking for partners, looking for young people that are going to be brave and are going to spill it and bring something to the day, and be generous. And who want to grow, and want an experience, and are willing to learn.”
Another early influence that set him up for success: An early gig with Gene Kelly, with whom Ortega consulted on the choreography for the Olivia Newton-John roller-disco musical “Xanadu.” Kelly, according to Ortega, taught him that “if you’re ever going to realize your goals as a choreographer for film, you’re going to have to be responsible for where the camera is,” he remembered. “You need to learn how to design your choreography for the camera and you need to pitch that, put that forward. … [Gene] took me through all of his films, and he broke them down. We sat in his living room and he broke them down!”
Also on the new episode of “Stagecraft,” Ortega breaks down his philosophy of filming and editing dance for screens; picks his favorites of his past work; and reveals why, as a teenager, his parents kicked him out of the car when they took him to the drive-in to see “West Side Story.”
New episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week. Download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, the Broadway Podcast Network or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Past episodes are available here and on Apple Podcasts.