May 20, 2009
‘Dirty Dancing’ Comes Alive on Stage
Remember the classic line from the 1987 hit movie, “Dirty Dancing,” when the lower-class Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) walks up to the cosseted Jewish girl, Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey), and in front of her parents says, “My Baby belongs to me. Is this clear?”
Oh, wait. That’s how it was translated for the blockbuster German film and stage versions.
Maybe instead you recall that bit of dialogue as, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” The change horrified Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote and co-produced the original screenplay about a young Jewish girl who spends a summer in the Catskills with her family and comes of age as she falls in love with the resident dance instructor, a working-class kid with lots of talent who might as well have been from another planet.
“They changed lines when they dubbed the film into German,” Bergstein said, speaking by phone from New York. “I would never write that line. I’d be thrown out of feminist heaven.”
Los Angeles audiences need not worry. The original iconic line remains intact and makes for an electric moment in “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage,” which just had its West Coast premiere at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood and continues through June 28. When Johnny (Josef Brown) charges down the aisle, jumps onstage and delivers the line to Baby (Amanda Leigh Cobb), the audience goes wild.
The show, choreographed for the stage by Kate Champion and directed by James Powell, is not a musical in the traditional sense.
“Nobody interrupts the story and sings to each other,” Bergstein said. “We use music the way you do in real life — in a summer where there’s music all around, and your heart is in pieces or you’re feeling happier than you could ever imagine.”
Bergstein said she waited until 2004 to do a stage adaptation because “it seemed the film stood by itself, and I never wanted the audience to feel I was taking advantage of them just to make money.”
But Broadway has had a slew of popular film adaptations with dancing themes (think “Hairspray,” to name just one), and despite being two decades old, the movie’s continuing popularity suggested to Bergstein that “people might want to step through the flat screen and have it happen around them, and that meant live theater.”
Given the huge success of the TV reality competition, “Dancing With the Stars,” the moment seemed ripe for a show about sexy dancing. Yet Bergstein, born in 1938, knew little about the television hit. “I don’t think that’s really my style,” she said. Although dancing plays a prominent role in both her film and stage versions, for Bergstein the story is equally important.
“Dirty Dancing” is set during the pivotal summer of 1963, an era of civil rights activism but before the Kennedy assassination. “It was a time when a whole generation of Jewish families were about to be tested by their children in terms of political commitment,” Bergstein said.
It was also an intense period when Jewish kids were increasingly being exposed to people of other classes and backgrounds. So in the stage version, Bergstein deepened the relationship between Baby and Johnny.
“The political-social element is more present,” she said. “Johnny, after all, is a working- class kid. Affirmative action didn’t help him. And Baby’s never argued with anybody who didn’t already agree with her.”
The stage adaptation faithfully duplicates everything in the film — even, miraculously, the lake scene, where Johnny teaches Baby dance lifts.
“There’s 40 percent more new material,” Bergstein said, including new scenes that deepen the audience’s understanding of Baby’s parents. Moreover, Bergstein said the play offers 16 additional hit songs from the ’60s, bringing the total to 35, including the rousing (and Oscar-winning) finale, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”
The stage version runs about two and a half hours, with one intermission — almost an hour longer than the 97-minute film. Bergstein uses the extra time to further explore the era.
“These Jewish families came out of WW II and thought the world was safe for Jews,” she explained. “They wanted to help others. It was a time of freedom marches and King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. The original Jewish-Negro alliance was huge.”
Bergstein, who modeled her Catskills resort on Grossinger’s, recalled her own childhood experiences, including swimming with black children there as a 10-year-old. “There was a young boy who had just come from Mississippi, and he was afraid to go in the pool. There were not a lot of black guests, but they were there and swimming in the pool,” she said.
Just as vital as the show’s setting are songs by the likes of Otis Redding and the Shirelles. “Eventually, I hope I’ll have a black play the part of Johnny,” Bergstein said, “because it’s really an interracial love story. Here’s a girl who finds her rhythm in black music in the body of a white boy.”
Bergstein’s “Dirty Dancing” is semiautobiographical. She was named after Eleanor Roosevelt but called “Baby” until she was 22.
“I didn’t know anybody who wasn’t Jewish,” she said. “I lived in a world where the dietary laws were on the table, and I was careful in the film that you couldn’t have milk and meat together at the same time.”
But unlike her fictional Baby, Bergstein learned to dance early on. As teenage Mambo Queen at Grossinger’s, she began winning dirty-dancing contests when she was 12.
The stage version originated in Australia in 2004, opening to mixed reviews but with record-breaking ticket sales. Productions have also been staged to huge successes in Germany and London. It’s been seen in Toronto, Chicago and Boston before landing in Los Angeles. Bergstein said she was “very moved” to have “Dirty Dancing” back in the states.
“Everybody has a secret dancer inside them,” she said. “Dirty dancing is close partner dancing. It’s wild; there are leaps, but it all comes out of emotion and a shared sensuality. It’s dancing that makes you feel, ‘That could be me.’”
“Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage” runs Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tickets are $25-$98. For information, call 1-800-982-ARTS (2787) or go to www.BroadwayLA.org or www.DirtyDancingAmerica.com