For anyone who’s ever been involved with music theatre, sitting down to interview legendary director-choreographer-producer Kenny Ortega is a dream come true. There are very few instances where I’m sitting a room with a celebrity and I’m speechless or awestruck, but interviewing Kenny Ortega was one of those moments.
We had an exclusive screening of the new Disney Channel movie DESCENDANTS and then a Q+A with Director Kenny Ortega. My daughter loved the book, so I was excited to see Descendants before the July 31 Disney Channel debut!
Having a been a vocal performance major for 2 years of college and spent many years on stage singing, acting, and dancing, there’s something that can’t be put into words about being able to interview someone as talented as Kenny Ortega. The man can do it all—produce, direct, act, choreograph; he’s a ninja, a secret weapon. From High School Musical to Hocus Pocus, from Newsies and now Descendants, Kenny Ortega is magical. He’s fun, humble, and incredibly entertaining. He started the interview by thanking us for taking the time to talk with him about Descendants!
Kenny: Thank you so much for flying in. I understand that you have a big Disney weekend, and thank you so much for spending time with us and with Descendants. We really appreciate your invested time and I'm here for you whatever you’d like to chat about; let’s begin.
On what inspires him
Kenny: Great. What inspires me is, you know, years and years and years ago I had the opportunity to work with Gene Kelly. Xanadu is what brought us together. Gene Kelly was someone who I grew up, so wanting to be singing, dancing, acting, directing, choreographing. I loved all of it, and we became friends. He became my mentor, and he used to say to me that there needs to be a reason at the center of your ideas that motivates all of your work and so that and things that I shared with Michael Jackson and other amazing people that came into my life as mentors and teachers and friends.
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 excited 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 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 what those and how the staging or choreography would be designed.
On why Descendants has special memories for him
Kenny: I think perhaps it had a lot to do in the beginning Gary Marsh [President and Chief Creative Officer for the Disney Channel] 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 read it, I was blown away. I mean that here I was, a kid that grew up watching Disney and watching Disney animations, Cruella De Vil, Maleficent, 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 like 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, the wonderful writing team that I had to work with, the openness of this studio and the support that I felt from them, 5 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.
On the challenges of working with actors with minimal dance experience
Kenny: It’s something that I’ve done all along all the way back to Newsies, which was my first film as a director. Christian Bale had come to us. He was not a dancer, not a singer. David Moscow and just all of the leading kids were actors. Gabriel Damon, Max Casella, Marty Balasko. All these amazing kids were these amazing actors but that had this sort of drive and ambition, and they were ready for anything and they wanted to be challenged and they were brave and courageous kids, and I felt that with these people. And that I’ve always found that like with High School Musical, one and two and three we incorporated sport into choreography, sport as dance, and so we would use real baseball players with actors and dancers.
We would use real basketball players with actors and dancers. And what it did was, the actors would raise the bar of the dancers and the athletes and all the way around, it worked. So that on Descendants we had kind of a factory. We had three different rooms. I had an amazing group of assistants that worked with Paul Becker, my associate choreographer, and I and these kids were given dance class, improv. They were stretched. They were given private tutoring and then also the dancers generously sort of took it upon themselves to sort of mentor the actors.
So you watched kids learn really 10 times as fast as they might in an ordinary situation. Dove went from being a none dancer to being able to attack the movement as ferociously as anybody in the room. And again, that takes not only focus and determination but a lot of bravery. We had some brave kids working on this movie.
On his favorite song in the movie
Kenny: We really wanted that in there, and there was a time where we weren’t sure that we were gonna be able to get it in for rights, and so we were really thrilled because I wanted a song that would establish a kind of safety and a kind of energy that was fun and up and safe and embracing so that the Descendants would be a little thrown off and a little vulnerable and to suddenly when the Queen turns to Mal and says, “You,” and thinks that she’s looking at Maleficent, that the safety suddenly just gets yanked out from underneath them and I thought it was the perfect song to do that.
My favorite? I think, I think “Rotten to the Core,” and I’ll tell you why. I started it as, 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 Dickens and a little kind of old London town under the bridge, that darker underworld and I always 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 then 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.
On the dance move inspiration, was Thriller one of the inspirations?
Kenny: No, but Thriller was an absolute sort of like energy reference. We wanted it to have that kind of, sort of looseness and be deconstructed and in fact when the kids—when we finished the number kids said it reminded them of “Thriller,” which was thrilling to me. You know, Michael being one of my favorite human beings ever that I’ve ever worked with in my life and a huge influence in my career to be compared to any of his work is great.
On how long it takes develop a musical number and work it into the story
Kenny: We started out without music and dance as a part of the story. The original story was written as an action adventure comedy and I was very happy with that, very excited about that and looking forward to being a part of that. As I said to you, just working with this wealth of characters was so exciting and challenging for me. And then Gary said to me, “I can’t believe we have you here, and we’re not gonna have music and dance.” And I said, “I’ll do it every day of my life given the chance.”
So he said, “Why don’t you go away, and like we did with High School Musical, create an arc of how you imagine music and dance might be able to help sort of strengthen and tell story.” And so Steve Vincent [Vice President of Music and Soundtracks at Disney Channel] and I came back and presented it to Gary and Adam and Makita, our executive here and that began the process and that was early on in our sort of initial development phase. Then the music goes through—we go out to a number of different composers and lyricists, and I meet with them or I'm on the phone with them and I guide them in terms of what we’re looking for in terms of tone, tempo, feel, and content, and then we start to get material back and then Steve and I and the studio sort through it.
We give second sets of notes, third sets of notes, and that group of songs start to get smaller and smaller and smaller until we land on them. Andrew Lippa wrote “Evil Like Me” for Kristen Chenoweth as Maleficent in the museum and his first demo, we were like, “That’s the song.” Other times it takes a while. It could take months, and then Paul and I talked about the staging, and we went into only a week of preparation for all of the music and dance in the movie where we sketched it all out with our assistants, our skeleton crew, and then the actual actors all inside of 3 weeks learned the entire movie’s choreography. It’s unbelievable isn’t it?
I hate to even share that because I want 5 weeks next time.
On the conscience decision to have no kissing in the movie
Kenny: Absolutely, yeah, leave something, you know? There’s too much pressure put on that aspect of relationships. Get to know somebody, really know somebody. That was a conscience decision, and also I just think that we all have hopes that perhaps this might grow. You don’t know. You can’t predict, but it allows these children to mature into young adults and to blossom in ways that they’re not there yet.
On what made “Be Our Guest” less behind the scenes and more upfront
Kenny: You saw that. You’ve seen more than I have. Time. I had a certain amount of days to be able to realize this entire movie and budget that I had to work with the days that I had for that particular whole sequence outdoors in the garden, the family party, the family day, all the way down to the croquet field, and Queen Lea mistaking Mal for Maleficent, and all of that—I had a day.
And so I had to storyboard everything out very, very carefully for this movie, and the studio agreed with me that they thought “Be Our Guest” would be a wonderful sort of addition to that moment, but because of the time that I had, that the practical way to approach it would be just to have it going on in the background. I devised a way with my assistants, the cast, and our crew to figure out a way to get it all in the time that we had. Our schedule actually opened up a little bit, and I was able to get a day and I think a quarter, and I think that quarter made a difference in being able to go in and shoot that piece or to just have it happening in the background. Choices, tough choices that you have to make.
On the creative license
Kenny: Creative license? You know, I think that I step into my role as a director when the cameras are ready to roll with a good understanding. I'm on the same page with all of my partners, the studio. We all understand what our goals are and what we wanna accomplish, and if I ever find myself suddenly with a spontaneous idea, or an actor’s coming back to me and wants to try something, I’ll do it a couple of ways because I do have partners, and I at the end of the day this is a partnership and you wanna deliver something that everybody is excited about and believing in.
The last thing you want is somebody to go, “Why’d you do that?” “Well, I also did this and this, right?” But no, I have a great trust and relationship here, and I'm given a lot of freedom, a big voice and a lot of room to move.
On the cast on whether or not Kenny actively sought them out or he had them in mind
Kenny: I tell you. I worked with Kristen Chenoweth. I directed her before, and I'm in love with her and I saw her four times on Broadway in “Wicked.” I did get to see her opening night of “On the 20th Century,” and I'm going back for her closing night and party. I'm going to be part of the introduction of her getting her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and so I'm a huge fan. I blush. I blush. She sends me videos and I drop the phone. But anyway, we were getting ready to cast our movie before the movie Maleficent came out.
And suddenly we kind of realized that Angelina was sort of taking up a lot of territory with her interpretation of Maleficent. Gary Marsh called me and said, “What do you think of Kristen Chenoweth to play Maleficent?” It was not only a “What, yes I wanna work with her in any capacity, but what she’d do with this.” She’s so brilliant. She’s so versatile, so capable. You know, she’s such fun, a real team player, and so it was a delight, and I was like, “Yes, let’s go after her.” And it wasn’t easy. She was a busy lady. When we finally got her to commit, it was a joyous day and no one was more excited than Dove who grew up idealizing her, and when Dove found out that Kristen was playing her mother in the movie, I mean fireworks went off and Kathy Nagimy is one of my favorite human beings on the planet.
She is an awesome lady. We stayed friends for over 23 years since we did Hocus Pocus and she always brings something to the table doesn’t she, in everything that she does and these kids. I can’t say more about them. I mean we took our time. We put them through heck. Some of them auditioned, you know, eight, 12 times back again, back again, back again. That they came back and didn’t just say, “Oh, forget it.” That they kept coming back was a part of what helped me realized that they were in it to win it and that whatever it took for them to land these roles.
I mean Booboo Stewart had already done X-Men and Twilight and came back eight times, eight times. You know, when they first told me what about Booboo Stewart I was like, “He’s not gonna come in.” And Judy Taylor, our casting director, said, “You’re wrong, he wants to come in.” And not only did he come in, he came back eight times to ready with other actor and actresses, and what a dream he is. What a dream. Isn’t he wonderful? A real star. They all are.
On working with Kristen Chenoweth and the irony of her playing the Bad Witch
Kenny: Yeah, did you see any of the backstage? Did you see her on the floor laughing on the floor on the back? There were many times where not only Kristen but the camera operator, myself, everybody was on the floor. No, I'm telling you with no exaggeration, I love what I do and I’ve been doing it since I was 13 years old. Fifty-one years in one version or the other, as I started out as an actor and a signer and a dancer, to what I'm doing today. And what keeps me going and what keeps me excited and invested and still loving it is choices, and this movie’s a lot about choices. It was something that I really liked about it was that you know, given choices.
Not everyone is blessed in this world to be given choices but those of us that are given choices, those choices can determine, you know, who we become, what are destiny is and the choices that I’ve made have landed me in some pretty fantastic places, places that have been fantastic enough to keep my fire burning, to keep me excited, to keep me wanting to continue doing what I've been doing for all of these years.
On working with anyone who he could work with that he has yet to work with, who would he choose
[This question actually made Kenny get up and walk around while he mulled it over, almost as if we stumped him. He really thought his one through.]
Kenny: Wow, Meryl Streep. Janet Jackson, Bruno Mars, George Clooney, and I would love to work with Christian Bale again. There are a lot of people, a lot of people out there. There’s so much talent in the world, Broadway talent.
[We told him how how we talk about Les Miserable all the time and that we are huge Broadway fans.]
Kenny: Broadway needs to wake up and get all of you out there for like a week. They do. They really do.
I'm going back in July. I can’t wait. There’s so many more things that I wanna see. I was there as I said for Kristen’s opening and I got to see “On the Town” and the “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” and I got to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical, “Hamilton,” which is absolutely unbelievable, a hip-hop opera about the American Revolution.
There’s a lot of people in New York on the Broadway stage and in England on the West End and in music and in film and in theatre. I'm thirsty to work with lots and lots more people.
On the idea of a sequel, the fans want to know
Kenny: 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.
On how many dancers they work with in the ensemble
Kenny: We had as many as I think 70 for the finale but smaller groups of dancers for other parts of the movie. I think the finale set it off we had a main ensemble and then a second tier and I think somewhere around 70.
Cameron Boyce and Dove Cameron on working with Kenny Ortega
We were also fortunate enough to spend time with Cameron Boyce and Dove Cameron on the sets of their shows “The Gamer’s Guide to Pretty Much Everything” and “Liv and Maddie,” respectively, later the same day, too. Such great kids and super talented you actors. They shared their sentiments on working with Kenny Ortega on Descendants with us.
“The experience was amazing. We worked with Kenny Ortega, and Vancouver, Canada, is beautiful. We had a really great time, the cast was really close. We spent a lot of time together just hanging out, and we were a really tight knit group.” -Cameron Boyce – Carlos, Disney's Descendants
“Filming Descendants was some of the most fun that I've had in my entire life. It was the most incredible and magical cast and crew. Kenny Ortega is a genius. All of my costars are absolutely talented and magnificent, and everybody was handpicked so specifically. They're all my heroes, and I really hope that we get to work more together.” -Dove Cameron – Mal, Disney's Descendants
Watch the first 6 minutes of DESCENDANTS with an intro from Kenny Ortega himself!
Check out the DESCENDANTS trailer: