Likely one of the nicest people I’ve met on any of the press trips I’ve been a part of is also one of the most talented. Kenny Ortega has been a powerful force behind Disney’s High School Musical, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, Gilmore Girls, and now Disney’s newest TV movie, Descendants.
Ortega has worked with Cher, Madonna, and Elton John and it’s been reported that, if you’re on set with Ortega and you’re caught yawning, you owe him a dollar. After production he donates all the proceeds to “The Make a Wish Foundation”.
Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with the extremely talented and multifaceted Kenny Ortega to talk to him about his new project with the Disney Channel.
Q: What inspires you to create a particular dance or movement for each scene?
Kenny Ortega: “Years and years and years ago, I had the opportunity to work with Gene Kelly. Xanadu was what brought us together. Gene Kelly was someone who I grew up so wanting to be like, you know. Singing, dancing, acting, directing, choreographing; I loved all of it. And, we became friends. He became my mentor. He used to say to me “There needs to be a reason at the center of your ideas that motivates all of your work.”
Then, I’m always looking when I’m read a script, or when I’m pitched an idea for those things that live in the center of the big picture, that move me, that motivate me, that excite me and they give me purpose and reason to get up and go to work every day and to have ideas. And so when music and dance become part of the storytelling, it’s fairly simple for me when, you know, when you can turn a page and there’s a reason for it to exist. Part of my work is already accomplished, that the writer has the characters go from here to here and this is what happens in between. Now you wanna develop a musical number that helps you achieve that, and that not only goes for the lyrics but the feel of the music, the style of the music, and how the staging or choreography would be designed.”
Q: You said out of all the musicals this one had very special memories for you. Why?
Ortega: “I think perhaps it had a lot to do with, in the beginning, Gary Marsh reached out to me and said ‘I’ve been waiting ever since High School Musical and our success together as a team to find something that had your name on it, that would give me purpose to call you and to say ‘Come on back”, and so I’m sending you something tonight. Will you take a moment to look at it? I hope that you feel about it as I do’ and when I ready it I was blown away.
I mean, here I was a kid that grew up watching Disney and loving Disney animation; Cruella Deville, Maleficent, you know, all of these magnificent Walt Disney characters and suddenly they were on the page, and I was like ‘I’m being invited to be able to play with these iconic heritage characters and their offspring, to develop brand new characters for Disney.’
So right there it was like, so thrilling for me and then everything that happened thereafter – my saying yes, the wonderful writing team that I had to work with, the openness of this studio and the support that I felt from them, five months of looking for the cast, looking in Great Britain, all through Canada, all across the United States and even as far as Australia to find our Prince. And then to show up and to realize that everyone was excited in bringing something to the day. That there are selections that landed us with a company of people, whether they be behind the camera or in front of the camera, that really wanted to be there and so it was joyous, every minute of it. Every day I opened my eyes I couldn’t wait to get on the set.”
Q: Which musical number from Descendants is your favorite?
Ortega: “I think Rotten to the Core and I’ll tell you why. I started as an actor at 13-years-old and I was lucky enough to be in the original London touring production of ‘Oliver’ and when I first read the script and started to imagine the world, I thought of the Island of Loss, a bit of Dickensian and a little kind of old London town under the bridge, that darker underworld, and I loved the idea of being able to take Rotten to the Core, use it as character introduction and also to introduce us a bit to the island, what this place is.
And we found, in a few of our screenings for young people, that when we asked them after ‘If you would prefer to visit the Isle of Lost or if you would prefer to visit Auradon, where would you like to visit?’ and the first kid raised his hand and said ‘Would we be able to leave when we wanted to?’ And I said, ‘Of course,’ and he said ‘The Isle of the Lost.’ So we made it, I think, a kind of fascinating and interesting world and that particular number was just lots and lots of fun to create as a choreographer and to imagine as a designer.”
Q: I noticed that in this movie there’s a central love story but there’s no kissing which is awesome. is that a conscience decision?
Ortega: “Absolutely, yeah, yeah, yeah. yeah, leave something, you know. there’s too much pressure put on that aspect of relationships. Get to know somebody, you know, really know somebody. yeah, that was a conscience decision and also I just think that, you know, we all have hopes that perhaps this might grow. You don’t know. You can’t predict but, you know, it allows these children to mature into young adults and to blossom in ways that they’re not there yet.”
Q: The fans want to know will there be a sequel?
Ortega: “It’s up to them. You ask for it, you get it. No, I would love there to be one. I think I can speak for everyone from Kristen, to Dove, all of us. We have the times of our lives. We hope that there’s an opportunity for us to continue this and, you know, forward but the fans will have to be the deciding factor.”