How can you tell a movie musical is likely to be a major hit? When, a month before it opens, its director is already working on a sing-along version.
At the age of 58, Kenny Ortega, who choreographed "Dirty Dancing" and brought "Newsies" to theaters, is putting the finishing touches on the third installment of his hit franchise, "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" -- the first "High School Musical" to be debuting on the big screen.
"You know, it's the strangest feeling," he said. "I'm not ready to let it go [laughs]. You know it's like sending your kid out there to go to school for the first time, having these questions: 'Is it ready?' 'Is it finished?' 'Is it pretty enough?'"
No one else seems very concerned, especially the millions of devoted tweens who've been counting down the days until the Oct. 24 debut of "High School Musical 3." These fans have spent the last 33 months turning a Disney Channel musical romance about a jock and a math whiz into a huge franchise for Disney, the parent company of ABC News. Its overwhelming success was anticipated by few -- except Kenny Ortega.
"We knew something was happening," said Ortega. "Before we walked out of 'High School Musical One' we were in the gymnasium in Salt Lake City at East High School and we had a little circle and I said, 'Gosh, this is feeling awfully special, folks. I think you better buckle down and get ready. I think we may have something here.' ... I give so much of that credit to the company, to the cast."
Their dancing, singing and comedic skills -- all honed by Ortega -- have made them a who's now of young stardom.
"You know, when you talk to Kenny you feel like you're talking to -- it's amazing, I feel like I'm talking to a fellow 20-year-old when I'm talking to Kenny," said HSM star Zac Efron. "And he knows this audience very, very well. He knows what works and what doesn't. He knows dancing; he can create a dance for camera unlike anyone I've ever seen before. And so that's really comforting, just knowing that he has all that under his belt. He can really take care of you."
And so he has. But High School Musical has taken care of Kenny Ortega, too: by completing his nearly three-decade quest to bring back the old-school Hollywood musical, the genre he grew up loving, only to spend many of his professional years in fear that it might be gone forever.
"Leading up to 'High School Musical,' you know there were more failures than successes for me in the genre," said Ortega. "And I was really concerned... and as much as I've loved my life and enjoyed it and had extraordinary adventures and it's been a great journey, without this I would have felt deprived. I would have felt that I didn't get it all."
Two decades ago, the Hollywood musical looked as washed up as Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond, rendered irrelevant by the jump cuts and outrageous images of music videos, with only animated films carrying the musical torch. But in recent years, the musical pendulum has swung back.
"We live in cynical times," said Ortega. "And we live in difficult times. And I think sometimes it's good to return to an innocent idea. It's helpful you know. It reminds us of our fragility and good side and connects us with our heart.