"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.'"
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."
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