‘High School Musical’ director guided by classics

'High School Musical' creative force Kenny Ortega cites Gene Kelly as a source of inspiration


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – -Kenny Ortega has a way of making America move. The latest celebration of his talent will come at 8 p.m. Saturday, when Disney Channel presents the dance-along version of High School Musical 2.

Ortega directed and choreographed the sequel, whose premiere drew a record 17.2 million viewers for basic cable. He performed the same duties on the original High School Musical. He looks forward to directing a big-screen sequel scheduled for release next year.

"I love the big screen. There was a time when I thought I'd never get to do a wonderful musical for the big screen," Ortega says. "I'm hoping High School Musical impacted the industry and inspired them to do a little more of this."

Ortega, 57, has electrified moviegoers with the choreography in Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. His work has ranged from music videos (Madonna's "Material Girl") to TV series (Gilmore Girls) to other movies (The Cheetah Girls 2) to the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He is a producer on High School Musical: The Ice Tour, which opens Friday at the Amway Arena.

But the movies hold a special fascination for him. Screen legend Gene Kelly became a mentor when Ortega choreographed Xanadu, a notorious 1980 flop that is enjoying new life on Broadway.

"Gene Kelly — I don't know that there is a day on the set where I don't at one point genuflect or take a moment to just kind of think, 'What would he say?' " Ortega says.

Ortega loves the simplicity of old MGM musicals that starred Kelly, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Ortega wanted to capture the Garland-Rooney "let's put on a show" spirit in High School Musical 2.

That feeling is central to his life. His grandparents were immigrants from Spain, and he grew up in a working-class family.

"My background is very simple," Ortega says. "For me, it was all about imagining."

That spirit seems key to the original film's status as a phenomenon.

"Kids watch it, and they just feel like they're part of this whole other world," says Corbin Bleu, who plays Chad. "They really want it in their lives. It gives them a wonderful message."

Bleu and Lucas Grabeel, who plays Ryan, cite "I Don't Dance" as the most difficult number. Grabeel was wearing back and knee braces after surgery for an old injury.

"The number was done in two days," Bleu says. "It's a huge number on the baseball field."

Because of cable's fast shooting schedule, Ortega had less then three weeks of rehearsal for 10 production numbers. In his era, Kelly had three months to prepare his numbers and weeks to shoot them.

Despite the limited time, Ortega's dances have spread through High School Musical stage productions and through the concert tour, where he saw kids dancing his choreography in stadiums. His steps will be repeated by young fans during the dance-along this weekend.

Ortega cites the audience's appetite for more musical storytelling as the most thrilling part of the High School Musical phenomenon.

"I'd like my work to mean something," Ortega says. "High School Musical has turned on a generation of kids to an idea. Maybe they'll keep it alive."

Hal Boedeker can be reached at hboedeker@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5756. Read Hal's TV Guy blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/tvguy.

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