When director/choreographer Kenny Ortega got the call to help organize a grand finale for The Disney Family Singalong, he didn’t hesitate to say yes.
The at-home special, which premiered Thursday night (April 16) on ABC, needed an inspiring closing number — one that was worthy of following performances from Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Christina Aguilera and dozens of other stars. (The special came together in an impressive “two weeks,” according to Rob Mills, ABC Entertainment’s svp of Alternative Series, Specials and Late Night.) Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, had the perfect idea: a High School Musical reunion.
Back in the winter of 2006, the premiere of High School Musical marked the start of something new for the Disney Channel. Premiering to a jaw-dropping 7.7 million viewers upon its initial broadcast, the little made-for-TV musical about jocks, overachievers and drama kids coming together over their love of musical theater shattered the status quo.
Virtually overnight, the film turned Zac Efron, Ashley Tisdale, a then-unknown Vanessa Hudgens and the rest of the East High Wildcats into global superstars. It also spawned two massively successful sequels (as well as a meta 2019 series on Disney+) and inspired an entire generation of Disney-loving millennials with its idealistic message that “We’re All in This Together.”
Fast-forwarding to 2020, Ortega — who helmed the franchise as director and choreographer of all three HSM films — was the one person who could get the gang back together.
Within days of their trusted director reaching out, the idea to close the show with a special performance of “We’re All in This Together” took shape, with the entire original cast — including Tisdale, Hudgens, Corbin Bleu, Lucas Grabeel, Monique Coleman and an eleventh-hour Efron — signing on to participate. “Kenny was really the only person who could rally all these people, including Zac Efron, to return,” Mills adds.
From there, support began pouring in, with the cast of the Disney+ series as well as stars from other Disney Channel Original Movies like The Cheetah Girls (Raven-Symoné) Descendants (Dove Cameron, Booboo Stewart, Sofia Carson) and Zombies (Milo Manheim, Meg Donnelly) jumping aboard the HSM bandwagon.
What culminated at the end of the concert special on Thursday night was truly a sight to behold: More than two dozen stars, led by Ortega with a special introduction from Troy Bolton himself, singing and dancing along to the empowering message of “We’re All in This Together,” reminding millions of viewers quarantined at home that the best way through troubled times is, indeed, together.
Below, Billboard chatted with the High School Musical director before the sing-a-long special about what it took to pull off the epic closing number, the HSM trilogy’s enduring legacy, and why the message of “We’re All in This Together” resonates now more than ever in the age of social distancing.
How are you doing? How’s quarantining been going for you?
You know, it’s been a little challenging, but this whole coming together for the ABC special tonight has just really lifted my spirits, and certainly our reason for doing it is to lift others’ spirits.
Another huge reason why I think all of the artists jumped in so quickly — not only as an opportunity through music to raise the spirits of those watching — but also this whole FeedingAmerica.org [fundraiser]. To help families that are in a real vulnerable place right now that need food banks to put food on their table…we’re going to have lots of music and lots of familiar faces, but also really driving the importance of people knowing about FeedingAmerica.org.
How and when did Disney approach you with the idea to do “We’re All in This Together”?
Gary Marsh, the president and CEO of Disney Channels Worldwide, kind of gave me a heads up that something was in the works. And no sooner did he do that then I got a call from Raj Kapoor, the producer working for the project, and [he] just said it was kind of a call to arms from [Walt Disney Company executive chairman] Bob Iger.
Iger was saying, “Let’s put our music together and get out there and do something to raise the spirits and to make people aware of FeedingAmerica.org, and would you be interested in perhaps helming the ‘We’re All in This Together’ segment?” And I was like, “Absolutely!” Which was the exact reaction that I got from every single person who I called.
People have been clamoring for a High School Musical reunion for years. Why did now feel like the right time for it to happen?
You know, it’s an unprecedented coming together of Disney stars and ABC stars. But we’re living in unprecedented times. You know, we had a little difficulty finding Zac, who’s in a remote, remote location. It was almost impossible to even connect with him, and then at the last minute, we did — it was sort of miraculous. And he sent in a pretty choppy video message. But God bless him, you know, he managed to get in.
And there were so many others that wanted to be a part of this, but because it came together in such a short period of time, we had a limit as to how many households we could go in and actually technically accomplish what our goals were [for the performance].
Who was the first to sign on?
The first people to sign on — because I had left messages for all of them — were Vanessa, Ashley, Corbin, Lucas and Monique. And then eventually, we connected with Zac. And then the entire High School Musical series group. For that we went through Tim Federle, who is the showrunner, and he reached back and said, ‘Absolutely.’ And then we reached out to my Descendants cast, and Dove and Booboo and Sofia Carson and Mitchell Hope and Sarah Jeffrey all confirmed.
And then we got our two stars from Zombies and Raven-Symoné, and Charli [D’Amelio], the TikTok queen, you know, everybody just kept calling in. All of this happened within five days. So with the technical support of ABC, it was like, “Move everything else to the sidelines, guys, we’re doing this” and letters went out and [HSM music supervisor] Steven Vincent sent in an arrangement of “We’re All in This Together” and my buddy Paul Becker and I wrote the script, which was just sort of a blueprint for the kids. And we went for it!
And suddenly it was Saturday and we had our cameras on our iPhones going and our computers open, and it was stunning that we were doing it. So it’s pretty thrilling, an amazing technical accomplishment on behalf of all the production people, and I’ve seen a rough cut that we’ve been working on and I think it will be a lot of fun tonight.
Was there anything that surprised you about putting the performance together?
Not so much surprises as just the glee, the enthusiasm, the love, you know? The affection that everybody has for one another. And what I felt coming back to me was extraordinary. I mean, really, it moved me to tears. I was so moved by the joy and enthusiasm and desire to participate, and [for] everyone to make themselves available, and do whatever they needed to do to technically figure out how to be able to accomplish what we were going after.
Everyone dropped everything. And I would just say that I know that, for myself, I’m not a social media wizard, and for weeks I’ve been hoping to find some way of being able to reach out and connect in some bigger way, to just kind of add my voice and my heart to our situation. So this was like a wish come true.
Everybody was just so glad that we had this venue, this way of letting others know we’re all in it — we’re all in this. Those of you that are fans of these shows and all of these artists that are going to be a part of this night, we’re at home. We’re with you. You’re not alone. And although we can’t connect in the capacity that we have in the past, we are all together, going through this. Don’t give up hope. Don’t lose your spirit. Stay home, keep safe, keep social distancing. It was an opportunity for us to get that [message] out there, which I think was really important for all of us individually.
How does it feel to honor the High School Musical legacy almost 15 years later?
I remember working with Steven Vincent, the head of music for Disney Channel, and the composers Matthew Gerrard and Robbie Nevil, who composed the song — and other songs for the High School Musical franchise — and I remember this moment. I remember the song coming together, I remember the first time that we shared it with the cast. I remember rehearsing it; it was the first song we rehearsed day one of High School Musical.
The first time that we all came together to start up High School Musical, this was the first thing that we approached in the mirror with my co-choreographers [Chucky Klapow and Bonnie Story], and I remember shooting it, and the splendor and the wonder of watching these kids putting their hearts out in fullness and surrendering everything to the number.
And yet, with all of that magic, never did I imagine that one day “We’re All in This Together” would even mean more than it did when we were doing it for the first time. That we’re hearing these words everywhere. It’s international, you know? Kids are putting together videos, and doctors and nurses and orderlies are singing the song in hallways of hospitals, you’re hearing it on CNN: ‘We’re all in this together!’ I mean, it’s unbelievable. It’s thrilling that this has become a kind of anthem for the day.
Last fall — I’m sure you saw — a “Justice for Sharpay” movement went viral on social media. What’s your take on Sharpay being the unsung hero of the High School Musical franchise?
I mean, first of all, we gotta say thanks to Ashley because she kind of instigated this all with her TikTok and Instagram home video. She kind of put this out there and it went wild. It was like wildfire.
You know, in quarantine with my sister and mom and I right now is one of the young stars who starred as Billy Elliot on Broadway, Alex Ko — he’s my nephew. And last night he was saying to me, “You know who my favorite character always was, and who I was fascinated with when I was growing up and watching High School Musical? Ashley Tisdale’s Sharpay.”
Sharpay was always an enormously important character in the franchise and much beloved. For all her madness and wrongdoings, there was something in her spirit — and in that character that Ashley brought — that you couldn’t help but fall in love with. I think there’s a little bit of Sharpay in all of us.
How did it feel for you as the director to reunite with Ashley and the rest of the cast?
I mean I had so much fun — what a delight every day for all those years…that was the beauty of High School Musical, it was more like an audition for a Broadway musical rather than a little television show. We took months — we saw kids from all over the country and Canada — and by the time we were into our final casting, there were like 35 actors in a room for three days.
I was looking for partners, not just cast members. And that’s how I felt about the original cast of High School Musical is that, for all those years, they were my partners. They were participating. They brought something to the party every day. They were responsible for so much of the creativity that was on that screen.
Are we going to be able to revisit the original choreography tonight?
Yes! When we did High School Musical, we took the show on the road, and we sold out arenas across the United States faster than any pop group of that summer. When we went to Latin America, we did two nights of 73,000 people in Buenos Aires; 88,000 people in Mexico City; 93,000 people in Sao Paulo, Brazil…we went to Chile and Colombia, and everywhere we went there were parades.
And the most exciting thing was from backstage, looking out into a stadium of kids that didn’t even speak the language of the movie doing the choreography with the cast. That they all had learned the choreography! So I invite our audience tonight to get up out of your chairs and to get up in front of your set and join us not only in song but dance with us. Party with us! Have fun with us!
What do you hope viewers at home take away from the performance of “We’re All in This Together” and the special overall?
We’ve got a long road ahead of us. It’s pretty evident that a lot of things need to come into place before we’re going to feel comfortable being out there in the world in anything that resembles the way it was. It’s going to take a while. And I’m just hoping that tonight eases the frustration and the pain of that truth. You know, take a deep breath, remain calm, be good to each other.
Protect yourself, be conservative and suspicious — we have to be, it’s unfortunate but we have to be so that we can all be back together again in the future. And so I hope that it’s just good medicine. Good medicine that can brighten up and get people out of their heads for a moment and having a good time. To have some fun and to party and to try to create an evening of good fun, which I’m sure there isn’t a whole lot of that going on right now.