Director Kenny Ortega on the queer aesthetic of his movies from ‘Hocus Pocus’ to ‘High School Musical’
Yes, there’s Gus Van Sant, Pedro Almodovar, Lee Daniels, Gregg Araki, Kimberly Peirce, Lisa Cholodenko and Dee Rees. But there is one director who arguably deserves to be included in that group of barrier-breaking LGBTQ filmmakers: Kenny Ortega.
Ortega, one of this year’s honorees on Variety’s Power of Pride list, made movies that queer kids could relate to, even if they didn’t know they were queer when they were watching them.
In 1992’s “Newsies,” Ortega discovered Christian Bale as a young actor, casting him as the star of Disney’s live-action musical about singing Manhattan newspaper delivery boys during the newsboys’ strike of 1899. The movie was so far ahead of its time that — despite soft box office receipts — it inspired a hit Broadway musical two decades later. Ortega next engineered the 1993 cult family comedy “Hocus Pocus,” with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as the cackling witches known as the Sanderson sisters.
And in 2006, Ortega launched Zac Efron and “High School Musical” trilogy on the Disney Channel, at the time the most successful TV movie ever with its soundtrack of songs (“We’re All In This Together”) that became the next “Grease” for a generation of tweens.
In his own life, the 70-year-old Ortega had ambitions of being an actor — starring in a touring production of “Hair” — before he moved on to becoming an award-winning choreographer (with one of his many credits being 1987’s “Dirty Dancing”) and director. On a recent day, Ortega spoke to Variety in a far-ranging interview about his career.
Congratulations on being named to our Power of Pride list. Do you have a message to LGBTQ youth?
Kenny Ortega: There are some interesting things that have happened in my life as a gay man. But I would say, “Continue to carry the torch.” There have been lives lost in the quest for change and acceptance, and many soldiers that have spent years working to create a world where we can walk freely and without discrimination.
So, just don’t forget the history and what it’s taken to get to where we are, and that we need to get further. It’s up to our young people to continue to carry that torch.
What do you remember from your acting career?
I nearly had my life taken away from me when I was 21-years-old by a crooked police officer, the chief of police in South Carolina, while I was starring in the American tribal love rock musical “Hair.”
They didn’t want us in South Carolina. They didn’t want us in Florida. They didn’t want us in Oklahoma. In Tulsa, where the KKK jumped on the stage, we were being chased and picked out of restaurants and discriminated against and being threatened. There was fear about what this show talked about and sang about. I played a character that was bisexual, and this chief of police did not like what I stood for and did not like that we were there. And he planted enough narcotics in my hotel room to make me out to be a major drug dealer. And I was arrested and facing 25-years-to-life.
It was at the top of Variety: “‘Hair’ actor arrested on drug charges.” It was right on the front page. And I spent weeks in jail and thousands of dollars for representation. And in court, it all came out. He was removed from office. I was freed, given a police escort to the airport and I was able to rejoin my company.
How did this police officer plant drugs on you?
I was onstage opening night. He was in the audience. No one knew it. He was a balding man, and I introduced myself as George Berger [his character]. And I jumped off the stage wearing hardly anything and climbed over the audience. And I picked him to sit in front of, and I kissed him on his bald head. And I called him “Mother.” And he decked me, and I fell backward out of my chair. The whole show stopped, and the cast jumped off the stage.
Then, days later — after our final performance — when we’re heading to New Orleans, we went back to the hotel to pack up our belongings and get into the buses. As I walked into my hotel room, I was thrown up against a wall, my hands thrown behind my back, and the next thing I knew I was in jail and being told that I was arrested on narcotics charges, which was a joke.
We couldn’t travel with narcotics. We were traveling through the South and the Midwest and across the state lines. I mean, we would’ve lost our job in five minutes.
So anyway, what was so beautiful was that the judge, she came to see the final performance. Her daughters had seen the show multiple times. And when she saw the show and heard about what happened to me, she thought something was up, and she did some digging. And first of all, he arrested me under the name of George Berger. He thought that’s who I was, because we broke the fourth wall.
People came forward and basically sort of threw him under the bus and said, “Yeah, he told us to do this and asked us to do that. And we put this in Kenny’s room and that in Kenny’s room.”
The entire thing was just — it was unbelievable. It was a horror story that just had this incredible bright ending in that the whole thing was thrown out of court. He was removed from office. I was set free, but never to be the same. Christ, I’m still always looking over my shoulder.
Had you come out of the closet?
Months later, I’m in Los Angeles in the show, and my publicity folks come to me and say, “The Advocate, the gay and lesbian periodical, is looking for actors that will come out, that we need soldiers to come out and stand for change.” And I thought, “Well, I’ve been singing for change for almost three years. I’d be a hypocrite If I said no.” And after long thought, my best friend and I, we came out on the front pages of The Advocate.
I was 21, 22-years-old. I’ve never regretted it, and I knew that at that time that there could be discrimination in the job, that as an actor that I might not get hired, that as a hopeful choreographer that I might be looked over. But I never regretted the choice and along with my brothers and sisters took arms and stood strong and raised my voice and managed to get to the ground that I’m standing on today. It wasn’t without a fight. And it wasn’t without putting myself at risk.
Did you initially feel like you were accepted in Hollywood for being gay?
No. I’ve got to tell you though, I would have never have dreamed that I would see the day. I was at McConnell’s ice cream parlor with a friend before the quarantine, and we were standing in line to get our favorite ice cream. And in walks these teenage boys, like six teenage boys, and they’re laughing and holding hands. And it is clear to me that they are gay young men and that they’re comfortable in their skin and in their shoes. Then they noticed me and they were like, “Oh, my gosh. It’s Kenny Ortega.”
I pulled them aside, and I said, “It’s just so exciting to be able to see you guys walk in with this kind of comfort and confidence, that you’re not even having to think twice about who you are or that anybody would have a problem with it.”
And I said, “Just remember that it wasn’t always that way.”
Do you think there’s a queer aesthetic that runs through all your movies?
Yeah, for sure. I do, because that’s who I am. I put a lot of who I am into my work. I mean, really all the way back from the earliest work that I’ve done, even as a choreographer in film and television. And I think, yeah, that it’s just there, and whether it’s screaming at you, or whether it’s just sort of quietly there, it’s there.
The character of Ryan [played by Lucas Grabeel] in “High School Musical,” Sharpay’s twin brother, we decided he’d probably going to come out in college. It was less about coming out and just more about letting his true colors come forward.
Would it have been possible when you made “High School Musical” to have had Ryan be openly gay?
I have to be honest with you. I didn’t think at the time — and Disney is the most progressive group of people I’ve ever worked with.
I was concerned because it was family and kids, that Disney might not be ready to cross that line and move into that territory yet. So, I just took it upon myself to make choices that I felt that those who were watching would grab. They would see it, they would feel it, they would know it and they would identify with it. And that is what happened.
Are there cues like that in your other movies, like “Hocus Pocus”?
The fun of “Hocus Pocus” is — I mean, the girls are almost drag queens. I pushed for them to go there and kind of felt that we have an audience if they did, and God knows we did. They’re beloved characters and emulated all the time. Every Halloween, they’re knocking on my door. Those Sanderson sisters are back.
There’s just kind of a spirit and a fun that is representative of my own spirit and fun that lives under some of my work. And that makes it, I think, queer-friendly — if that’s a good way to put it. And I think that there has been so much progress that you can actually say that now, and people won’t freak out. Because it used to be people, they’d be like, “Oh, no! What is he trying this message to children?”
I have to say thousands of kids that have said, “If it weren’t for ‘High School Musical,’ I don’t know that I would have ever been comfortable in my skin. I don’t know when I would have been able to feel comfortable enough to come out, embrace who I am.”
One of my favorite movies growing up was “Newsies,” which was the first movie that you directed.
That’s correct. It was a big, big project to be thrown into as a first-time filmmaker. And I think that, at the end, I would have wanted to accomplish more. But I believe that there was something special there that jumped off the screen in the performances of those young men, and that I felt that the musical and production work in it was deserving of attention. I was brokenhearted when it didn’t receive it.
But then I started to hear that it’s in the movie theaters. And then suddenly there were like these groups of people that were like fan bases. And over the years, it just kept getting bigger and bigger until the point where it became a kind of a cult film. And then, of course, they took “Newsies” and turned it into a Broadway musical. And I thought, “Well, there you go.” Sometimes things just take their time.
“Hocus Pocus,” same thing. They released “Hocus Pocus” in the summer, a Halloween movie in the summer. And I remember one review that came out that said, “The problem with the movie is Kenny didn’t know if he was making a movie for kids or for adults.” I was like, “No, I was making a movie for everybody.” I was going for something that I thought was a bit of a hybrid that could entertain a wider audience, and that it took though a long time for it to find that audience and to be able to accomplish that goal. And now it certainly has.