Main > Fame the Musical > Articles > Fame the Musical, From Screen to Stage

I’m gonna live FOREVER . . .baby, remember my name.
By Margaret Willis

The hit movie and TV Show has made the big jump to an international hit musical, bound for Broadway.

How could we forget that theatrical icon of the all-American dream, Fame, which started life in 1980 as an MGM motion picture and whose title song won an Academy Award? Then, after it became one of the most popular TV series, it ran for more than six years, was seen in sixty-eight countries, and won various Emmy awards.

Now it’s back, this time onstage as Fame - The Musical, which has settled happily into one of London’s West End theaters and, according to box-office booking and audience reaction, looks like it will be around for some time to come - despite the sharp derision its premiere received from some of London’s tough, seasoned critics.

The magic of its message has obviously lost none of its appeal to the spotlight-seeking young of today. Last November 5,000 dance and drama students from around Britain turned out at auditions in Glasgow, Manchester, and London to vie for one of the coveted roles in this latest reincarnation. The long lines of hopefuls that wound around a dance studio in central London’s Leicester Square caused traffic jams and made the nightly news. From this aspiring throng were chosen but a handful - eighteen unknowns to play the versatile students of the now world-famous New York High School for Performing Arts (NYHSPA): three actors, three musicians, four dancers, and eight ensemble members. Pre-premiere publicity was prolific. Lord Snowdon took the cast photo for Vogue, and national and local press speculated as to whether “stars were about to be born.”

The show opened at the Cambridge Theatre, Covent Garden, on June 27 to standing ovations from a celebrity-filled audience and a happy production team - the show had taken more than one million pounds ($1,600,000) in box-office advance-booking receipts even before the first-night curtain was raised. Producers from Germany, South Africa, the Netherlands and Australia were so sure of it’s international appeal (and, presumably, equal financial success) that they soon snapped up the production for their Broadway with an all-American cast. So be warned! Expect traffic jams in the Big Apple in November when auditions are to start!

The secret of this production’s success is its explosive and versatile dancing. Today London’s West End may be alive to the sound of musicals - especially the Andrew Lloyd Webber variety - but they all rely heavily on either nostalgia or traditional forms of theater dance, according to David de Silva, other wise known as “Father Fame.” Sitting in the red plush orchestra seats of the Cambridge Theatre while cleaners polished and dusted for the evening’s Royal Gala, he observed, “there’s been nothing since Chorus Line with contemporary choreography, and that’s where Fame is filling the void. Fame is the first musical that really combines ballet and jazz with street dancing and hip-hop.

De Silva, a one-time high school history teacher from New York, conceived the idea for Fame, which follows the sweat and tears of star-struck students at the NYHSPA. “It seemed such an obvious idea for a story,’ he said. “It’s a wonder no one thought of it before.” The silver-haired de Silva codirected the film and was adviser to the television series. “But I made sure that I retained the rights, as I knew that, one day, its greatest success would be in the theater. And I’m not wrong!”

The idea for a musical was first developed in regional theater in the United States - in Miami and Philadelphia, with dances created by Jennifer Muller. “We didn’t attempt Broadway at the time because Broadway likes star names to sell tickets. Now, with this new production, it’s going to be different. The show’s all about discovering raw new talent, and we have a major breakthrough here of unknowns from varied backgrounds - and that’s what makes it exciting and in keeping with the scenario.”

Indeed, the London cast demonstrates the multifaceted abilities that are being exhibited in Britain today. Three of the cast have university degrees along with their artistic training, while most of the cast has been through British equivalents of NYHSPA. Britain’s educational system today offers not only renowned academic bastions that teach speech, drama, music or dancing as segregated subjects but also arts schools that teach a comprehensive stage education, encouraging students to develop a variety of skills for today’s theater life. “It’s this all-around talent that we looked for,” said de Silva. “Nothing is faked onstage in Fame. The music students really play - and it’s not that easy to find accomplished musicians who can act and dance as well.”

Fame as a musical - this new face on the old story - has lost none of its impetus and vitality over the years. The real-world NYHSPA closed its doors at the old building on West Forty-sixth Street in 1984 to move to Lincoln Center, but poetic license allows for the musical to be staged in the evocative, tawdry setting of the run-down high school while updating its style of singing and dancing to the ‘90s. A gossamer-thin story line, touching on such perennial problems as working hard, staying in school but off drugs, sex, racism, and being gay, barely bind the action together. But for the most part it’s not the narrative but the action that audiences come to see. The music is pulsating and loud and the dancing is fast and explosive, causing audiences to whoop with delight at the young dancers’ audacity and verve.

“The show’s like jumping on a springboard or taking a ride on the Big Dipper,” remarked Josefina Gabrielle, who plays Iris, the rich-girl ballerina. “Once it takes off, there’s no way you can stop until it grinds to a halt at the end. It’s not really exhausting - just nonstop!

Once a soloist with the National Ballet of Portugal before returning to England to dance in musicals, Gabrielle is the school’s calm, aristocratic beauty - a sharp contrast to her partner, the streetwise Tyrone (originally named Leroy), played by Scott Sherrin. From him the show demands a full palette of dancing skills, “which pays in sweat,” he says with the winning smile that matches his winning style. He has to partner Iris in a balletic pas de deux (even if done somewhat tongue in cheek) and in a fluid contemporary number, as well as demonstrate his proficiency in rap, jazz, street, and hip-hop with stunning acrobatics and a daring jump from a high balcony thrown in. In string vest, baggy shorts, woolly cap, and enough gold jewelry to rival Mr. T, Sherrin wows his audience with his seemingly effortless natural body rhythm.

The man responsible for this choreography is Swedish dancer Lars Bethke; others on the international creative team are Americans composer Steve Margoshes and lyricist Jacques Levy, and Norwegian director Runar Borge. “It was a hard task selecting dances,” Bethke said. “Many of the young people who turned up were not prepared for this kind of audition and came complete with tap shoes and tights. They’d not had my kind of mixed styles before.” But after several weeks of rehearsals and the tension of the premiere, he exclaimed, “I was amazed at the British. No matter how much you demanded of them, they were always so polite!”

“And, yes,” he conceded, “they’re looking good.”

Bethke, thirty, had good dance credentials - and his silhouette doing a 135-degree high split forms the logo of the show. He comes from a dance family: his mother was prima ballerina with the Swedish Royal Ballet School. After graduating he danced classical and neoclassical roles before joining Le Grand Théâtre de Genève as a soloist, where, among other roles, he appeared as Romeo in Robert North’s version of the Shakespeare classic. He has organized choreography workshops in both Geneva and Sweden, choreographed sever works for various companies, and will choreograph a new piece for the Cullberg Ballet next February. In Sweden he recently starred in leading roles in Cats, West Side Story, and Grease before turning his hand to choreographing Fame.

So why is a Swedish dancer choreographing an American show in a London theater? Apparently, when the text of Fame was published by Music Theatre International, Runar Borge bought he script and decided to produce the show in Sweden, where it played to full houses from January 1993 to May 1994, “no mean feat, given the population of Sweden,” noted de Silva wryly. “When I went to see it,” he continued, “I was bowled over by their production, by the music and energy, but especially by the dance.” This version also had a very brief season in Los Angeles in 1993. Impresario Michael White, who has presented more than two hundred productions in London and New York City, saw the Swedish version and decided to bring it to London - where it will probably stay for some time.

Fame may be a new show with new action, new dance and new songs. But you couldn’t have Fame without that all-too-familiar signature song. Permission for the rights was obtained, and it is now brought to life again with all it’s original fervor by Carmen (originally Coco), played by Loraine Velez, who possesses the only authentic American accent among the students. Velez, a Puerto Rican from New York City, began her training at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, studied the Meisner technique, and appeared on Broadway before embarking on an international career that led her to London.

At the finale of the show, she appears atop a yellow cab in her scarlet microdress belting out the theme while the cast members take turns leaping off the taxi and into the spotlight for a bow. With eight shows a week, all these current unknowns no doubt hope that they’re “gonna fly high” and that someone will remember their names.

Copyright November 1995, Dance Magazine.

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