At East High School, the fictional setting of the “High School Musical” series, director Kenny Ortega is like a favorite teacher.
With the popularity of the first two films (both premiering as made-for-TV movies), it was an obvious choice for Walt Disney Pictures to release the third installment, “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” at theaters. And since the entire cast was returning for another run, it only made sense to keep the chemistry alive and well by bringing Ortega back to the director’s chair.
During a phone conference, Ortega talked about “Senior Year” and what he remembers most about his own final year in high school.
What new elements can we look forward to in “Senior Year?”
Our characters have grown up and have come of age and are beginning to look at the whole rest of their lives after high school. We’ve been able to realize this movie in a much bigger scale and can now splash it in a huge capacity across the big screen with more detail, dimension, and design. I’m thrilled to say that our cast has brought more heart and fun to the film than ever. It’s a wonderful celebration to the final chapter of “High School Musical.”
Does your Spanish background influence your choreography?
It does, absolutely. My grandparents were born in Spain. We grew up with a wonderful blend of old culture. My grandmother Juana was so deep and rich with her love for her country and its music, dance, theater, and food. I think I share her enthusiasm. It’s wasn’t uncommon for my grandmother dance flamenco in the kitchen while cooking migas on a Sunday morning. The sound of her heels clicking across the linoleum…became part of who I am as a human being. That sort of passion and excitement for life is something that has had an impact on everything that I have done.
Tell me a little bit about your senior year. Did you go to prom? The homecoming dance?
My senior year was complicated. I was a working actor, which was a thrill. I had to find a way to keep school and a career in balance. I didn’t go to prom, so this [movie] was wonderful because I was able to go to prom in during a second visitation. I didn’t go because I was working in theater. I absolutely went to homecoming. I was a cheerleader for the Sequoia Cherokees. In the [late 60s], we were the state champion football team.
What changes have you seen in these young actors since you’ve worked with them for the past two years?
Many of them came to me as kids. Vanessa [Hudgens] was barely 16. It’s been wonderful just to watch them grow into themselves as people and to watch them lean on each other and be supportive of one another as friends and actors. I’ve also watched them grow as performers. They are all very much into their work for the right reasons. Although the celebrity to a degree is probably flattering, they’ve all known for quite some time that [acting] is what they want to do. They don’t stop learning. It’s been fun to watch them blossom as actors. It’s kind of like being a schoolteacher watching students return for another year. You get to watch them grow right before you. I’m going to miss them.
Do you think the “High School Musical” films have giving teenagers a new sense of respect for the musical genre?
I remember not too many years ago people were saying we might be looking at the death of Broadway. I would hope that “High School Musical” was an opportunity for music, theater, and dance teachers to be able to bring kids together and produce more musicals in their schools. I hope that “High School Musical” has drawn the drape back a little bit for our next generation of theatergoers and performers.