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‘Fame the Musical’ gets an added Latin accent

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Dreamers will be central to Luis Salgado’s new production of ”Fame the Musical” at GALA Hispanic Theatre. (Imanol Fuentes)
By Celia Wren

“Fame the Musical” has always been about dreamers. But when GALA Hispanic Theatre mounts a new bilingual version of this show about ambitious students at a performing arts high school, the subject will also be “dreamers.”

“I’m not changing anything in the script,” notes Luis Salgado, who is directing and choreographing the GALA production that begins May 9 . His staging, however, will suggest that the high school in the story enrolls many young Latinx immigrants coping with precarious legal status. As a result, he says, the show will reflect on the “concept of dreamers, of migration and immigrants and opportunities” and whether “people can or cannot achieve their dream in America.”

The approach will add topicality to this 1988 musical, which is based on the 1980 film “Fame,” known for its Oscar-winning title song. The movie was conceived, developed and produced by David De Silva, a theater enthusiast and sometime talent agent who realized that an arts-focused high school would be a promising setting for a tale about showbiz hopes, socioeconomic tensions and coming-of-age angst.

The premise was sturdy enough to spin off a television series from 1982 to 1987. De Silva also spearheaded the development of a stage musical with music by Steve Margoshes, lyrics by Jacques Levy, and book by Cuban-born writer José Fernández. Four years after the musical’s 1988 premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, in Miami, a hit production in Sweden revved up the show’s thriving international life. The United States has seen tours and regional stagings, as well as a 2003-04 off-Broadway incarnation titled “Fame on 42nd Street,” but the musical has never made it to Broadway.

De Silva says Fernández was particularly critical in fleshing out the stage version of the tale, which differs from the movie, and which features characters including Carmen, a Latina dancer so impatient for success she makes a risky career choice.

“It was very important for me to have [Fernández] work on ‘Fame,’ because he was Latin, and Carmen is the center of the storytelling,” De Silva recalled, speaking by phone from New York. “I needed to have somebody that was Latin who would relate to the souls of these characters, and he was it.”

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Luis Salgado, director-choreographer of "Fame The Musical"
at GALA Hispanic Theatre. (Salgado Productions)

The Cuban heritage of Fernández, who died in 1994, aligned “Fame” with GALA’s focus on work by Hispanic/Latinx writers. To stage the piece, GALA producing artistic director Hugo Medrano turned to Salgado, who had directed and choreographed GALA’s 2017 “In the Heights” (the musical scored by a pre-“Hamilton” Lin-Manuel Miranda). That production nabbed nine Helen Hayes Awards — two of them for Salgado.

As it happens, Salgado had performed in “Fame on 42nd Street” following his arrival in New York City from his native Puerto Rico. The gig “opened the door to a lot of things,” Salgado observed, speaking via FaceTime from Hamburg, where he was working as the associate director/choreographer of Cirque de Soleil’s “Paramour” before “Fame” rehearsals.

Salgado sees “Fame” as a piece with perennial appeal not only because of its characters’ “I’m gonna live forever” yearning but because of their blunders. “We’ve all been young and stupid at some point,” Salgado says.

GALA shows are typically performed in Spanish, with English surtitles. But the successful “In the Heights” toggled between Spanish and English — a strategy that seemed a good match for a dreamers-focused “Fame,” too. Salgado says that earlier editions of “Fame,” such as those used in Spanish and Mexican productions, informed the new bilingual script, whose adaptation is credited to Salgado Productions. But he says he has tried to make the language reflective of the diversity of GALA’s audience, with the Spanish echoing the speaking patterns of multiple countries. (The show will feature surtitles in English and Spanish.)

Salgado brought on his previous collaborator Walter “Bobby” McCoy — also a Helen Hayes award winner for GALA’s “In the Heights” — to serve as musical director for “Fame,” with a mandate to add more Latin sounds to the orchestrations, and lead a nine-piece band.

McCoy, who is of Nicaraguan and Irish extraction, says that the standard score for “Fame the Musical” already contained some Latin colors — including in the title number — but that at times these passages have a “stereotyped” sound. He has aimed to substitute authenticity for cliches, he said by phone from New York, where “Fame” was rehearsing. “We’re definitely adding more percussion, and that in itself adds a lot,” he says, noting that timbales, congas and bongos will be heard in this production. “And I’m changing the horn arrangements a little bit to fit the specific styles that they’re dancing.”

De Silva — who at age 82 still keeps tabs on the “Fame” empire — says he has no reservations about the adjustments being made for the GALA production. For one thing, he says, “They’re really playing the characters pretty much as they’re written.” For another, he believes Salgado is a “magnet” for talent.

Besides, he observes, with pride: “The story is solid. And we trust the story to work.”
If you go
Fame the Musical

GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-234-7174 or galatheatre.org.

Dates: May 9-June 9.

Prices: $40-$80.

 

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