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?'"
'We Knew Something Was Happening'
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."
Are Musicals Back?
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.
"The big thing is being able to surrender your disbelief," said Ortega. "Being able to accept that people are going to break into song and to say it's OK. It's OK. It's not life. Life is out there. And actually life is giving me a headache and so this is making me feel a bit better about myself, about the world."
Choreography for the camera has been at the heart of Ortega's career, a skill he first honed while working with the great Gene Kelly.
"It's like my life up until Gene Kelly and then everything after," said Ortega. "We worked together on 'Xanadu,' a failed musical, and yet I walked away from it with more than I'd ever gotten on anything that I'd ever done in my life.
"And he gave me a stopwatch and for weeks we looked at all of his old films and he would stop and say, 'Do you know why I put the camera there? Do you know why I did that?' And he'd say, 'I timed that. I timed that.'"
Later in the '80s, Ortega would earn his Hollywood stripes by choreographing Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray in "Dirty Dancing."
"Dirty Dancing was all about gaining the trust of all of those individuals and then going on that journey with me," said Ortega, "and I don't ask people to give me their trust, but you need it. You require it. And you just one day realize, 'Wow I'm in a room and I have it. And I better not blow it because I might not ever get it back again.'"
Ortega's Creative Rebirth
His first shot at a directing a movie musical came in 1992 with "Newsies," More than a decade later, his career bore witness to the tonal shift in teen culture: he was directing an episode of the irony-enriched TV series The Gilmore Girls when he got the call to helm "High School Musical," where the anything-but-ironic characters find themselves bursting into song.
"Why do they sing?" Ortega asks rhetorically. "I just think it just enables you to go to another level, it enables you to go to another level of expression. You can sustain a note. It's hard to sustain a word. You can give greater meaning."
Beloved "High School Musical" characters like Troy and Gabriella will definitely find senior year and graduation moving their storylines forward. But for the actors themselves, Ortega says the final group shots of "High School Musical 3"carried their own powerfully emotional kick.
"And I'll never forget we were all on the stage together and it was the last seconds of the movie and it was the six principals: Zac [Efron] and Vanessa [Hudgens], Corbin [Bleu] and Ashley [Tisdale], Lucas [Grabeel] and Monique [Coleman], and when they turned and the "High School Musical" sign came down and they turned back again and they looked at each other and this curtain closed ...and when the curtain came back up, they were just a mess," he recalls. "And they had to get in a van and go back to the makeup truck and it took 45 minutes because every time they finally reapplied their makeup they cried it all off again and they were laughing and crying and reminiscing."
What the young actors may not have known is that at that moment, Kenny Ortega was acknowledging their role in his creative rebirth.
"It has put a light on me," he said, "and it has put me back into the game, doing the things that I've always wanted to do. And that they were my helpers in making that real. And so I hope that they all walk with something that means as much to them, because what I'm walking away from with is enormously great."
Disney Pictures and the Disney Channel are owned by the Walt Disney Company, the parent company of ABC News.