SUN SENTINEL- South Florida
October 21, 1988, STAGE VERSION OF 'FAME' PUTS A HARDER EDGE ON STORY
By Jack Zink
"This is an original piece of theater; it's not warmed-over TV or Hollywood."
Producer David De Silva was talking about Fame, the musical that opens tonight at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. De Silva nursed the concept through two previous lives over the past decade and says he is now at the brink of the realization he always had intended.
A week ago, just as the show was about to begin its preview schedules, De Silva and Grove resident producer Arnold Mittelman hit the interview circuit to dispel the obvious misconceptions.
"This is not Beatlemania or Elvis," Mittleman said. "It's not that kind of exploitive thing that does a market survey" and builds a show to cater to the findings. De Silva, in particular, wore the feverish expression of a prophet. In the arts, it is an excitment particular to those last few hours before opening night, when ideas formed long ago surge back into focus at the end of the hard labor of the production cycle.
Fame is unusual because, although it is part of a strong trend in which motion-picture properties are being retooled for the stage, Fame itself has been transformed, rather than adapted. The music, for instance, bears no resemblance to either the film or the TV series, except for the trademark title song.
"I didn't even want to use the title song, but after awhile conceded because it became obvious that audiences expect it. But in this stage version, we downplay it and blend it in with another song," De Silva explains.
The stage musical is a big effort for South Florida regional theater. At $500,000-plus, the show's budget is more than twice that of a typical Grove production. That's in part because the premiere is being designed with serious attention toward an eventual New York appearance, although there will be revisions and interim productions. A follow-up engagement at the Walnut Theater in Philadelphia already is a certainty.
An entirely new book has been written by Jose Fernandez, with new music by Steven Margoshes and lyrics by Jacques Levy. Choreography is by Jennifer Muller, who comes not from musical theater ranks but from modern dance. The sets are by Alexander Okun, who designed for the Moscow Art Theatre before immigrating to the United States in 1981.
They cannot, and do not, tamper with the basic premise of Fame, which is about students at New York's High School of the Performing Arts.
"They are similar because you can't get away from the idea of rich kids, poor kids, black, white ... I have to trust that we have a terrific artistic team doing an original piece and that ultimately we will be validated for that originality," De Silva says.
The real beginnings of Fame go back to a show called Hot Lunch, conceived more than a decade ago. Faced with the choice of doing a movie or stage version, De Silva chose film and sold the rights to MGM studios, but did not give away theatrical license. He then offered the film's screenplay to a young Fort Lauderdale playwright he'd known since the late '60s, Christopher Gore.
The two met while Gore was assembling a musical about Mary, Queen of Scots at the Parker Playhouse. De Silva, then an agent, helped Gore sign John Cullum and Inga Swensen as the show's stars. Gore would later go on to bigger projects, but failed to gain acceptance on Broadway.
"After I gave him the screenplay, he went to the library to study screenwriting," De Silva recalls. The result was one of the more successful films of 1980, nominated for three Oscars and winner for Best Song.
The TV series, although produced for only two years, has since become a staple in syndication not only in the United States but 68 countries around the world. Its success in Japan has prompted a Japanese firm to offer to underwrite half the cost of an eventual Broadway production. That's a hefty promise; a Broadway production of Fame could easily cost as much as $5 million, more than the movie.
De Silva describes the musical as an emsemble piece similar to A Chorus Line in that there are no individual stars or dominating personalities. Some of the cast members are recent graduates of the High School of the Performing Arts.
The music is a mixture of pop, rock, classical and Broadway's traditional theater music -- a "tough, hard-edged mix," he says.
"My prediciton is that the music will emerge the most important. After that will come Jennifer Muller and a new sense of dance. She's as exciting to my mind as a young Jerome Robbins, and the fact she's able to mix styles so effectively is terrific," he adds.
The story itself takes a tough stance, dealing with real moral issues, educational philosophy and drugs, De Silva adds.
"We're really a musical drama more than a musical comedy. Grease was about a high school, but it was a camp musical. We're an emotional collage about all these different kids arriving in one place, interacting and graduating," De Silva says.
Mittleman says he was suspicious when first approached about the project. He emphatically did not want to be part of a "knockoff" of the movie version. And as a graduate of the school himself, he wanted a show that reflected what he knew about the institution.
"It's the intangible that Fame tapped into. I think it's a timeless message. When I got to the school, I saw Hispanics and blacks, rich kids and poor kids together for the first time. They had one thing in common: talent and tremendous desire," Mittleman says.
Adds De Silva: "The question comes up; 'Have we had enough of Fame?' No. I want to use the essense of what it is ... We're passionate, very realistic in the ways the film and especially the television series could not be."
--Fame opens tonight and plays through Nov. 27 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Highway, Miami. Show times are 8:15 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with matiness 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $17.50 to $31. Call 442-4000 or BASS, 741-3000 (Broward), 633-2277 (Dade), 734-2277 (Palm Beach).