Ortega said he had always been drawn to the MGM-style, break-into-song musicals such as "An American in Paris" and "On the Town." But by the time he had obtained the training to direct such films, no one was making them, he said.
In 1980, he met his idol, Gene Kelly, working on the film "Xanadu." The film was a turning point for Ortega when Kelly showed him how to design choreography for a camera instead of a theater audience, fitting the dancing into a drastically shortened production time.
Kelly also told him a story that would become relevant later. "He got a call from one of the studios saying, 'We've got this guy named Sinatra. We want to put him in the movies, but he says he has two left feet.' The first thing Gene said was, 'Ask him if he can play any sports. Because there's a connection. They belong in the same body.' "
On a baseball diamond in Beverly Hills, "Gene goes out with a couple of gloves and a bat and a baseball and shows Frank Sinatra the connection," Ortega said.
That theme gets reprised in a highlight of "HSM2" -- a number called "I Don't Dance," an unusual mix of swing and hip-hop in which athletes and dancers are pitted against each other on a baseball diamond, each side showing off its dual talents to drive home the point that they aren't mutually exclusive.
For his part, Ortega credits the success of the franchise to his young cast's "spirit and soulfulness and generosity."
Almost everyone involved in the original, including himself, did it to gain experience, he said. "I don't think any of us expected it would shine this light on us. And look what's happened to Zac alone." After "High School Musical," Efron, 19, starred in "Hairspray," released last month, and he appears on the cover of the Aug. 10 Rolling Stone magazine. Paramount recently announced he will star in a film version of the musical "Footloose," scheduled for release in 2009. Ortega was chosen to direct. Now, he says, his goal is to help bring back the musical form to film.
"The biggest success for me is that it's turned on a whole new generation of kids to musicals, and for me that's the one I'm proudest of," Ortega said. "It has this greater massive impact and this delicate, poignant simple one-on-one impact. And that's the miracle of this little project."