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Friday, July 24 2015 08:00

Exclusive: Talking the Musical Genesis of Disney's DESCENDANTS with Director Kenny Ortega

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When I found out that I'd get to spend some time with filmmaker/choreographer Kenny Ortega on one of my recent visits to Los Angeles, I was pretty excited. The Director of NEWSIES, HOCUS POCUS and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL actually helmed the film that was the very first Blu-ray I personally bought after beginning my format switch - the 2009 documentary musical, MICHAEL JACKSON'S THIS IS IT. I may not mention it often, but Jackson has been a big influence in my own musical life, so it was fitting that THIS IS IT was my first Blu-ray purchase, as THRILLER was the first album I remember asking for on vinyl. Ortega's connection to "The King of Pop" not only as a Director, but as a Choreographer, was not the reason for our meeting, however... it was all about his latest work, Disney's DESCENDANTS.

DESCENDANTS stars Dove Cameron (LIV AND MADDIE), Cameron Boyce (GAMER'S GUIDE TO PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING), Booboo Stewart (X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST) and Sofia Carson (AUSTIN & ALLY) as the offspring of some iconic Disney villains - and with Ortega at the helm, it's interesting to note that DESCENDANTS was almost not a musical at all. Impressed by watching the film (which far exceeded my own expectations), I asked Kenny about the timeframe required to build the musical numbers into the narrative...

"We started without music and dance as a part of the story," Ortega recalls. "The original story was written as an action/adventure/comedy and I was very happy with that. Just working with this wealth of characters was so exciting and challenging for me - And then Gary [Marsh, President & Chief Creative Officer of Disney Channel] said to me,  'I can’t believe we have you here and we’re not gonna have music and dance.' I said I’ll do it every day of my life given the chance."

Looking at the success of what Ortega did with the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL films, Marsh invited him to take a step back to "imagine how music and dance might be able to help strengthen and tell the story" of the DESCENDANTS. Hammering out ideas with music supervisor Steven Vincent, a plan was established and put into an initial development phase. "We go out to a number of different composers and lyricists and I meet with them, or get on the phone with them," explains the Director. "I guide them in terms of what we’re looking for in tone, tempo, feel and content. Then we start to get material back and then Steve and I and the studio sort through it."

For DESCENDANTS, music was a collaborative effort that saw the list of potential songs get smaller and smaller with each round of notes, but one show-stopping number coming from a heavy-hitter - GRAMMY and TONY-nominated songwriter Andrew Lippa, who previously worked with Kristin Chenoweth on the Broadway revival of YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN.

"Andrew wrote 'Evil Like Me' for Kristin's Maleficent-in-the-museum scene as his first demo," says Ortega. "We were like, 'that’s the song!' Other times it takes a while."

With music pretty much locked-in, it was a race to get prepped for cameras to roll.

"Paul [Becker, Choreographer] 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. We sketched it all out with our assistants, our skeleton crew and then the actual actors, who inside of three weeks learned the entire movie’s choreography. It’s unbelievable isn’t it?" 

Unbelievable indeed, for a film that looks and feels a lot bigger than I think anyone would expect. Disney's DESCENDANTS is available to watch right now on the Watch Disney Channel App, or you can check it out when it premieres on Disney Channel on July 31, 2015.

Check out Disney DESCENDANTS on Amazon:
 
DESCENDANTSAbout Disney's DESCENDANTS:

The story, set in the idyllic kingdom of Auradon, playfully presents the unexpected possibilities of what happens after the "happily ever after." As it unfolds, Ben, the benevolent teenage son of the King and Queen (Beast and Belle from "Beauty and the Beast"), is poised to take the throne. His first proclamation is to offer a chance at redemption to Mal, Evie, Carlos and Jay, the trouble-making offspring of Maleficent, the Evil Queen, Cruella de Vil and Jafar, who have all been sequestered on the forbidden Isle of the Lost for 20 years. These villainous descendants are allowed into Auradon for the first time to attend prep school alongside the teenage progeny of Fairy Godmother, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Mulan. Only time will tell if these evil teens follow in the footsteps of their wicked parents. As these sons and daughters of evil meet the children of goodness, their story incorporates empowering themes about self-confidence, finding the beauty within, freedom of choice, personal responsibility, teamwork, justice and empathy.

Bonus Fact: When Ortega realized that I lived in the Chicago area, he excitedly told me about one of his favorite projects - working with the late John Hughes on choreographing a little musical number for a film called FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF. That wasn't the only time that Kenny Ortega would work on a Hughes-associated film, as he logged time on PRETTY IN PINK and THE GREAT OUTDOORS as well. An interesting note is that I often pass relics of the cinematic world that those Hughes films created, as much of the fictional "Shermer, Illinois" is located here in Chicago's Northern Suburbs. 

James Zahn

James Zahn is best-known as The Rock Father™, a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur. In January, 2019, after nearly a decade as Publisher of The Rock Father Magazine, he joined Adventure Publishing Group as Senior Editor of The Toy Book—the leading trade publication for the toy industry since 1984, as well as The Pop Insider—a destination for all things pop culture. He is also editor of The Toy Report, a weekly newsletter published by The Toy Book each Thursday. Zahn has over 25 years of experience in the entertainment, retail and publishing industries.

He regularly serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for PRODUCT OF HATE, whose debut album was released by Napalm Records in 2016, distributed by ADA/Warner Music in the U.S. with Universal Music handling global. A new album has been completed and is set for release this year.

James and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, FOX Business, NBC, ABC, WGN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, BusinessWire, Babble, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for the Netflix Stream Team,  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

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