THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE
“Dirty” is in the title, but it isn’t the only appropriate adjective to append to the noun “Dancing” when discussing writer Eleanor Bergstein’s tale about a teenage girl who is introduced to the mambo, love and sex (in that order) during a fateful vacation to the Catskills in the summer of 1963.
“Lucrative” works too. “Inspirational.” “Surprising.” And, perhaps, “Never-ending.”
Produced for less than $6 million and lacking big-name actors, the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing” with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey was supposed to disappear as quickly as a piece of a nitrate film stock in a flash fire, Bergstein said in a recent phone interview.
“All the time we were making it, everyone told us what a piece of junk it was,” said Bergstein, who was a producer of the film as well as its writer. “Patrick was too old. Jennifer was too ugly. A hot producer screened it and said, ‘Burn the negative and take the insurance.’ So we had no expectations about it at all.”
Fortunately for all involved, audiences had no expectations about it, either. “Dirty Dancing” was “pitched as a movie for preteens,” according to Bergstein, but it immediately was embraced by all ages and especially by women, who returned to see it over and over, charmed by its tale of “Baby,” a plucky heroine from an affluent family who doesn’t let class differences prevent her from finding terpsichorean and romantic satisfaction with “Johnny,” a resort dance instructor with bad grammar but active hips and big biceps. The modest movie earned positive reviews, an Academy Award for Original Song, and $214 million at the box office.
“That’s why I feel so beholden to the audience,” said the Brooklyn-born Bergstein, 77. “They discovered it. The first weekend we got adult audiences as well as the teenagers in the mall. People walked right out and walked right back in to see it.”
What’s more, “Dirty Dancing” continues to make tracks, thanks to its reincarnation over the past decade-plus as a stage musical that has been performed in 16 different countries. The latest version arrives Tuesday at the Orpheum in what represents the opening-night performance for this particular production, showcasing a new cast and company that Bergstein calls
“the best” in the show’s history.
“I’m very proud of this show that’s coming to Memphis,” said Bergstein, who retains cast approval on productions of “Dirty Dancing” around the globe (“If it’s across the world, they send me videotapes”) and has been in New York watching rehearsals of the new production. “It has been said that I cast for soul, and in this case they are such beautiful, sweet performers. Our Johnny is probably the best Johnny we’ve had since Patrick.”
For this production, Johnny is played by Christopher Tierney, while Baby is Bronwyn Reed (a regular on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” who next will be seen with Charlize Theron in “The Last Face,” directed by Sean Penn). The director is James Powell, with choreography by Michelle Lynch. The eight-piece live band will accompany the performers on a jukebox-worthy collection of Golden Oldies (The Contours’ “Do You Love Me?,” Otis Redding’s “Love Man”), plus the hit 1980s tunes originally written for the movie (“Hungry Eyes,” the Oscar-winning “Time of My Life”).
The Memphis booking will be followed by dates in 45-plus other cities all over the U.S., from Charlotte to Salt Lake City, from Miami to New Jersey.
Bergstein won’t be in Memphis for the premiere (“I don’t go to the opening because that’s largely me standing on the stage, waving”), but at least one person associated with the birth of “Dirty Dancing” will be at the Orpheum. Now based near Miami, 90-year-old Michael Terrace, a “mambo Palladium dancer” and longtime Catskills instructor and performer, will be in Memphis to see “Dirty Dancing” with his Memphis friends, Arnold and Joan Weiss, who have dance connections of their own: Joan is a former professional who was Terrace’s dance partner for a while.
Bergstein said Terrace was among her sources when she began researching “Dirty Dancing,” to see if the facts confirmed her teenage memories of the social life and entertainment in the resorts of the Catskill Mountains resorts in upstate New York in the early 1960s.
“In fact, it was even seamier than I imagined,” she said. “I got such extraordinary, rich stories from all of these dancers. I was like a kid with my nose pressed against the window of a dance studio, looking at a world that
vanished long ago. That’s why I set the story in the summer of 1963, before JFK was killed, before the Beatles came. ... That summer was the last summer where you really felt that if your heart was pure and you reached out your hand, you could really change the world.”
The movie “Dirty Dancing” establishes that Baby hopes to join the Peace Corps, and alludes to “police dogs” in Birmingham and to “monks burning themselves in protest,” but the stage play is more
explicit in its social messaging. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which occurred on Aug. 28, 1963, becomes part of the play, and a medley of “This Land Is Your Land/ We Shall Overcome” adds folk music to the original pop playlist.
In the play, “Everything leads up to that speech, so the reason this not-verywealthy left-wing family is in the Catskills at that time in the first place is that Baby wants to go to Washington for the speech, but the media keep saying it’s
going to be violent there. So the father takes the family on vacation, the notion being that even when you want to make the world better, you don’t want your child to get hurt.”
Bergstein said she was surprised when she learned she had the stage rights to “Dirty Dancing,” thanks to her original contract. In other words, “I had the right to say ‘No,’ which as any type of creative person will tell you is a rare right.”
For many years she resisted overtures to approve a stage musical. “I thought it wasn’t necessary, and I didn’t want to take advantage of the audience by making them pay for something they had seen before.” But in 2001 she began to “workshop” a musical, and became intrigued by the possibilities. Rehearsals began in New York on Sept. 10, 2001. Bergstein said the tragedy of the next day only galvanized the troupe, once its members were able to return to work.
She said the performers who win the “Johnny” role are a certain type of active, expressive artist. “It’s the same thing with all these dancers: They’re kind of wild boys who have a crack in them, as Johnny does, and they’re very athletic, and they see ‘Dirty Dancing’ when they’re like 12, 13, 14, and they’re very impressed with Patrick. So they go to one dance class for the hell of it, and they see all these girls threequarters undressed, and they stick with it.”
Fans, too, stick with “Dirty Dancing.”
“I like to watch the audiences in the lobby before they go in,” Bergstein said. “It’s as if they’re holding hope in their arms. They have so much hope that this will give them something they want to have, and I can’t stand the idea that we would ever let them down.”
Christopher Tierney plays Johnny, the dance instructor portrayed by Patrick Swayze in the 1987 film, and Rachel Boone is Baby, the teenager portrayed by Jennifer Grey in the “Dirty Dancing” movie.
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were the odd-couple romantic stars of the movie “Dirty Dancing” in 1987.
The stage musical of “Dirty Dancing” has been performed in 16 countries. The show that will open Tuesday at the Orpheum will be the opening night production for a new cast and company.
Christopher Tierney (front left) plays Johnny, and Jerome Harmann-hardeman plays Tito in the stage production of “Dirty Dancing,” which will open Tuesday at the Orpheum.