If you grew up watching High School Musical and Descendants, then you’d already have heard of Kenny Ortega. A year since his most recent project, he comes to Netflix with the new musical series — Julie and the Phantoms. Since its launch last week, the show has already received so much love, thanks to its heartfelt story and talented ensemble of young actors!
A quick background if you haven’t seen it yet: the 9-episode series centers on a young girl named Julie who’s lost her passion in music after her mother died. That is until she meets the ghostly boys of Sunset Curve who help her find her voice again and pursue her dreams.
We got to virtually join Kenny Ortega in a roundtable interview with other members of the PH press! Here, we ask him about finding the perfect cast and what it’s like to release a series during a pandemic.
Check out the highlights below:
What were the unique traits that you were able to recognize in each actor at the auditions?
KENNY ORTEGA: What I look for and what I try to hone in on is the promise, a peek at somebody’s promise, spirit, and ambition. If you have those things, then you have the tools to work with. I don’t make stars. I spot the promise in very special people and then do my best to create an environment for them to sort of arrive. That’s how I see my role, and how I look for young actors.
Julie and the Phantoms is drawing comparisons to High School Musical. Being Latina, Julie’s character has been compared to Gabriella, and Charlie bears a striking resemblance to Zac Efron. Did you expect this kind of reaction?
KENNY ORTEGA: First of all, I just want to say that Vanessa is just a wonder, and she was such a discovery, as was Zac. Finding them was huge, and what they brought to that franchise is enormous. They have grown as artists tremendously, and I have such respect for both of them.
I wasn’t looking for Zac or Vanessa [and] I don’t think any of the actors is the next Zac or the next Vanessa. I think they’re their own people and that they are going to make great names for themselves. Charlie is just the kindest soul, a lot like Booboo. He just has the kindest soul and he’s just a generous person, an easy person to be around. He just makes it easy for everything that he’s working with. Madison is just such a discovery. She’s feisty, independent, and strong. I think there are similar things that those actors may have in common, but they’re all very unique from one another.
The show features a lot of amazing songs and performances. Which of those is your favorite to direct or maybe even choreograph?
KENNY ORTEGA: They all have a special place in my heart because we very carefully selected where they appeared throughout the season in our series. We want good songs, but they also have a reason for being there. They move the story forward, move the characters forward, and they elevate the stakes. They land you somewhere you weren’t before the music started. So I appreciate all 15 original tracks. I think that the coming together of the band, watching this band form, these souls connect, the love of music [being] shared between the four kids, and to watch that growth over the period of our series was just so fascinating. [It was] so entertaining and so uplifting. Everyone saw it. The chemistry was so incredible.
Willie did not have a musical number or singing part in Season 1. Do you hope to address this in Season 2?
KENNY ORTEGA: What excites me is that there’s so much talent that lives within this ensemble that hasn’t even been touched. There’s so much excitement already, and we haven’t even tapped into the well. The well is just so cool. The talent is enormous. So if we’re fortunate enough to be given a second season, there’s so much opportunity for us to grow musically with these stories.
[Booboo] is so gifted and there’s nothing he can’t do. He did some dancing, and we wanted to get you rooting for him. We know our audience and I’m sure there are going to be some really fun surprises when he comes back. I have no doubt!
Was the Brazilian counterpart of Alex also openly gay in the original? Was it something you wanted to change to address these times?
KENNY ORTEGA: I don’t feel the need to change anything. I just felt that we were given permission to explore and journey into a new place and take Julie and the Phantoms into a new era and for a world audience. The writers and I, with Netflix, is 100% support that we wanted to have a gay story. We wanted a gay character who’s comfortable being gay, and wanted to sort of normalize the idea of what it is to be a gay man.
Alex has issues, but his issues are not about being gay. Nor are Willie’s. I thought that was just a really fresh take, and it belonged in this story. A drummer and a skateboarder… two guys that happen to be [gay], but the fascination with these characters is bigger than their sexuality.
We already saw the potential when Madison and Charlie wrote “Perfect Harmony”. So for season two, can we expect that the other members of the cast will be writing their own songs?
KENNY ORTEGA: We already had a band camp, which was just what we wanted to give the band. We’ve been stuck in COVID, and people can’t get together, jam, and spend time with one another. Netflix offered us an opportunity to give the band a camp, and we put them with mentors that are top songwriters and producers. They had an incredible experience writing and composing potential songs for our second season if we have one. We wanted to create an experience for them and give them the opportunity to exercise and interact with one another as musicians. We didn’t want time to go back, isolating them from one another, so it was a great summer opportunity for them.
At a time when the world is dealing with a pandemic and there’s so much uncertainty, why do you think Julie and the Phantoms resonate with a lot of people?
KENNY ORTEGA: We’ve been sort of pushed back into the dark and I think [Julie and the Phantoms] delivers us into the light. Julie and the Phantoms is a beautiful story about a young girl whose grief has disconnected her from her love of music and songwriting. And that through some sort of miracle of a happening, she comes into a relationship with three characters that inspire her love back to music and move through her grief. She takes these characters, and, in their afterlife, gives them a second opportunity to accomplish unrealized dreams.
I think that we’ve been isolated from the world in this pandemic, and I think that Julie and the Phantoms is about connecting. It’s so much about connecting and inspiring and standing tall during the face of darkness, and finding a way to weave your way back to the path to find a happy life. It’s filled with wonderful themes and positive messages and I think it’s timely. We didn’t know we were going to be in the COVID [pandemic] when we started, but it just so happens to be good medicine for this particular time we’re living in.