Recently, Kenny Ortega, the director and choreographer of the Disney Channel film series, revealed hidden gems about both the series and one its characters, Ryan Evans.
Best known for his energetic dance moves and his sense of style, Ryan always captured the audience’s attention. But over the years, many fans have had questions about Ryan’s persona.
In a recent interview with Variety, Kenny Ortega revealed that the “What I’ve Been Looking For” singer was, in fact, gay.
During the interview, interviewer Ramin Setoodeh asked Ortega about the “queer aesthetic” that exists in many of his films. Ortega didn’t shy away from the question, saying of the Ryan Evans character, “We decided he’s probably going to come out in college.”
(No, wildcats — I don’t think this means there will be a fourth film, though I’m sure we’d all love to see the cast break free on the dance floor one last time.)
“It was less about coming out and just more about letting his true colors come forward,” Ortega said.
During the early 2000s, when Disney Channel was in its prime, it was probably best for directors, writers and creators to stick to the status quo. Ortega revealed that he didn’t think it was possible to have openly gay characters while making the hit franchise.
But that didn’t seem to stop Ortega. Whether or not we ever heard Ryan verbally express his queer identity, Ortega was determined to bring the character to life. He felt it was important for the character to embody an identity that many could relate to.
“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,” Ortega continued. “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.”
But Ortega didn’t make this decision entirely on his own. The actor that played Ryan, Lucas Grabeel, opened up to TMZ about how he and Ortega worked together to make Ryan Evans come to life.
Grabeel reminisced about the first time he and Ortega talked about Ryan’s sexuality.
“I came up to Kenny one day and was like, ‘Hey, so can we talk about the character for a second? Ryan’s gay, right?'”
Ortega responded, “Well, I mean, it’s a touchy subject sometimes with children’s programming. I’m not sure if Disney is ready now for that kind of thing. I absolutely agree that he is, and I think we have an opportunity here to showcase a real person.”
Like Kenny Ortega, Lucas Grabeel feels strongly about queer representation. Ryan Evans is just one of many characters in film that had to be closeted for the sake of the era and audience.
But Grabeel believes it’s never too early to tell young people about the different identities.
“We need to start educating everyone at the youngest age possible,” he said, “and that’s why it will fall to people like Disney, who create so much great programming for the developing minds of our future country.”
If Ortega had defied the Disney norms of the time and given us the authentic Ryan Evans, would the series have been any different?
As far as the storyline goes, no one can say for sure, but the casting probably wouldn’t have been the same; Grabeel revealed that if the film were made today, he might steer clear in hopes that opportunities would be given to those who could resonate with the role. He wouldn’t be the face of the character we remember today. He wouldn’t be the actor that gave us all the enthusiasm and spirit while singing “I Don’t Dance” with co-star Corbin Bleu.
“There’s so many amazingly talented gay actors who could do it as well, and so if ‘High School Musical’ was made today, I don’t know if I would play Ryan. I would love to, but I just don’t know. The last thing that I want to do is take an opportunity away from other people, and as a straight, white man, I know that even without trying I’ve taken opportunities away from people.”
Although Ortega divulged this information nearly 15 years later, it’s still a relevant and beneficial piece of Ryan’s character that is worth knowing.
When asked whether it’s a little late for the revelation, Ashley Washington said that she doesn’t think so. She grew up during the height of the trilogy’s popularity and felt that information about Ryan’s queer identity is important for many longtime fans of the franchise to know.
“If this reveal came out ten years ago,” she said, “it probably could’ve helped many who had connected with Ryan’s character and not be afraid or closed off when asked who their favorite character was from HSM.”
She also says, “With Kenny speaking on it now, [it] is just as important today and it’s not too late; people now can probably respect the craft and open their minds to who Ryan’s character truly was meant to be.”
Dierra Barlow, another ‘90s baby that grew up in the prime Disney Channel era, feels that the representation is “extremely important for younger generations.” She says that “for many LGBTQIA+ individuals seeing ourselves represented in the media makes a huge difference in our lives. For many, Ryan may have been the only gay person a young LGBTQIA+ individual would have access to seeing or in a small way getting to know. This makes for an environment where that person doesn’t have to feel alone or siloed by their identity because it isn’t within the mainstream.”
The series showed children of all genders that it’s okay to love to bake or to be passionate about hip-hop. Even though Kenny Ortega was not completely able to highlight Ryan’s queer identity while making “High School Musical,” he helped the franchise stick to its values of being all in this together and proved that it’s more than okay to go against the status quo.