The director and choreographer of Disney’s “High School Musical” says he always saw one of the original trilogy’s characters as part of the LGBTQ community, though it was never addressed onscreen.
In a Variety interview published Tuesday, Kenny Ortega revealed that the character of Ryan Evans (played by Lucas Grabeel) was conceived as a gay teen. Along with the rest of the Disney Channel film’s creative team, he ultimately “decided he’s probably going to come out in college.”
Though Ortega praised Disney as “the most progressive group of people I’ve ever worked with,” he said he didn’t think the company would’ve supported the idea of portraying Ryan as openly gay in 2006, when the original “High School Musical” was produced.
“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,” said Ortega, who is gay. “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.”
As for how Ryan was portrayed in the film and its two sequels, he added, “It was less about coming out and just more about letting his true colours come forward.”
When it comes to LGBTQ characters, television has made progressive strides in the 14 years since the debut of “High School Musical.” The show’s most immediate successor was Fox’s “Glee,” which made anti-LGBTQ bullying and coming out central to its narrative when it premiered in 2009.
And last year, Disney Plus unveiled “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” a 10-episode series reboot of the franchise that featured an openly gay character.
Played by Frankie A. Rodriguez, Carlos is a student choreographer at the Salt Lake City high school where the original “High School Musical” was filmed. One of the debut season’s later episodes even hints at a romantic relationship between Carlos and another character, Seb (Joe Serafini).
Ortega, who also choreographed “Dirty Dancing” and “Hocus Pocus” as well as concerts and videos for Michael Jackson and Madonna, told Variety Tuesday that a queer aesthetic is present in all of his work, whether obvious or not.
“I put a lot of who I am into my work,” he said. “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.”