Kenny Ortega Recalls Zac Efron's Inspiring Words About High School Musical on 15th Anniversary

As High School Musical celebrates its 15th anniversary, director and choreographer Kenny Ortega shares some of his favorite filming memories, including one involving Zac Efron.

By Corinne Heller, Alli Rosenbloom Jan 21, 2021 12:00 PMTags
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Feel old yet, Wildcats?

Jan. 20, 2021 was an historic day indeed. Politically, as it was the day of the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Wednesday, and culturally, as it marked the 15th anniversary of the release of High School Musical, a fan-favorite film and franchise that has inspired an entire generation.

The Disney Channel movie spawned two sequels and launched cast members Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens to international fame. In an exclusive interview with E! News, director and choreography Kenny Ortega said he recently rewatched the film for the first time in 15 years and recalled the inspiring words the 33-year-old actor, who played high school hottie Troy Bolton, said to him in the early stages of production.

"I think what moved me the most was just watching these kids and the effort that they put into this, how they just really rallied behind it," Ortega said. "Zac Efron, on day one of rehearsals, he said, 'We made the choice to make a musical. Don't apologize for working us. Let's make this—let's turn this into something great. Let's make it worth our while being here.' And he gave me permission. He gave me permission to be ambitious, he asked for it and to push our limits."

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Ortega recalled his favorite moment from filming: A pep talk he gave himself to the cast while shooting the "We're All in This Together" finale performance.

"We got on a circle right after I said, 'Cut,'" he said. "I pulled them over and I said, 'Get ready for your life to change, you guys.' I said it, 'Something's happening here,' and they were just all looking at me and wondering what the heck I was talking about."

The director said he still keeps in touch with High School Musical cast members. He and some of them reunited virtually via Zoom last April.

"I think I talked to Kaycee Stroh who played Martha [Cox] last week," Ortega said. "Vanessa and I have worked together, I went to Corbin [Bleu]'s wedding, Lucas [Grabeel] and I talk every once in a while. I know Ashley [Tisdale] and I send messages. Monique [Coleman] and I have gotten together for meals."

Ortega added, "I don't see or hear from Zac very often...I know that we've always had a strong connection. I love him and I'm so proud of him."


Disney; Gregory Pace/REX/Shutterstock

Ortega also recalled more fond memories from making High School Musical, including how as a puppy, his late Yorkshire terrier, who died in 2018, ended up starring in the sequels as Boi, Tisdale's character Sharpay Evan's pet, thanks in part to the actress herself.

"One of the great loves of my life was my little dog Manly, who I had for 14 wonderful years," the director said. "He was a puppy, he was a baby when I was doing High School Musical and I took him with me, and he traveled with me and he became my companion. And I remember one day Ashley Tisdale walked up to me, because Manly, he was either on my lap or sitting on a chair next to me whenever I was filming, and she said, 'Can I have Manly for one scene?' And I said, 'Well, I don't know I have to get permission for that because he's an animal, I can't just say yes.' And she's like, 'Let me have him for one scene.'"

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Ortega said he called the Disney Channels Worldwide president and chief creative officer, Gary Marsh, and asked, "Can I let [Ashley] have a little puppy? Can I let her have Manley just as her little sort of dog? She wants to dress him up," to which Marsh agreed, he said.

"So we got our pet wrangler in and did everything properly," Ortega continued. "And the next day, the dailies came out and Gary Marsh called me and said, 'I think you better put that dog in a few more places.' And so it was."

Ortega also talked about how High School Musical helped inspire fans. He said he thinks the film's characters moved on after high school to go "after those things that made them happy," adding, "Not necessarily always the safe choices or not necessarily the choices that everybody thought were the best, but the choices that they felt were the choices inside of them that were important."

"I'd get thousands and thousands of letters and then with social media coming into popularity, all of the all of the messages I've received of young people that were inspired by those themes in High School Musical," he said. "And they have said to me, 'I, after watching High School Musical, [got] the courage to pursue those things in my life that perhaps I might not have.'"

In recent days, Ortega has been involved in another inspiring project, Dance Across America, a prerecorded segment that was part of President Biden's virtual 2021 Presidential inauguration celebration, featuring 275 participants in 30 states and two territories.

"The request was to bring the nation together," Ortega told E! News. "And I think that what I would love to see in these next four years [is] just to feel united again, to feel a united America, united across America. And so our Dance Across America was just put out there as an idea to inspire people, to become united across America. And, and that's all. It's not political—It's just, you know? Let's dance! Let's be happy, let's enjoy one another."