Fame - The Musical is set in New York City, in the old High School of Performing Arts Building on 46th Street East of Broadway, just off Times Square, during the years 1980-1984. It concerns the last group of students and teachers to inhabit this grand, historic (some might say ancient) edifice, following them on a four-year journey from freshman term through graduation.
The word "inhabit" is a key to the production style. Except for a brief introductory section, the piece never leaves the school; though reference is made to the character's home lives, we see only what takes place in and around the building - which, from beginning to end, is usually an ant-hill of activity. Whatever may be in highlighted focus at any given time, there should also often be present the ongoing action of the rest of the school, of students practicing, searching for something in their lockers, snacking, sneaking a smoke, getting to know one another, flirting, catching up on homework, changing clothes, moving from class to class, or just hanging out. The presence of a school in continual flux can also be indicated through the use of sound or sound effects, of students practicing on their instruments, for example; there is also the regular occurrence of period-ending bells: and at certain moments, in order to place the school in its larger context, there might be heard the noise from outside, of traffic, of taxicab horns honking, of the subway's rumble.
Having said this, however, let us add a cautionary note. It is easy to go overboard when using such sounds and activities. Employ them with care and taste, and make sure to allow for silence and stillness when they seem appropriate, even vital. It requires skill and craftsman's restraint to insure that the audience can focus on what at any moment is essential to the development of character or plot, yet also create the ambience of a special, percolating environment. The intent should be to make a collage, not a blur.
Another aspect of the piece's style has to do with the manner in which transitions are made from scene to scene. Though the traditional blackout or fade-out can be used here and there, in a show containing many short scenes, they can make for a choppy, linear experience, where as we are trying to give the impression that the events depicted may be taking place in the same time-frame. For the most part, then, we prefer scenes to segue one to the other in a fluid way. This is not meant to advise a frantic pace. Certain moments need breathing room. But, in general, do not wait for a scene to end before starting, or at least setting up, the next one. Our set had a second story running all the way around the stage, with a staircase leading to it, so that playing areas were established on different levels and the action could take place in a variety of places and on separate planes simultaneously. We also made effective use of smooth-rolling casters - on staircases, schoolroom desk-and-chairs, lockers, the dance barre, a piano, the drum kit - and could thereby cross-fade from scene to scene using a "cinematic" device resembling the lap-dissolve. However it is accomplished, the aim should be to present an ever-changing, kaleidoscopic view of the life of the school.
A final word, about some implications of the time-period. Because the actions begins in 1980, the characters know that their school has been subject of a hit movie and a TV series, is now the world-renowned "Fame School." Aware that "reality" is not the movies, in the very first scene the students sing:
THIS AIN'T NO MOVIE SHOW
And they are immediately confronted with a teacher's blunt warning: "If you're here believing you're 'gonna live forever,' or envision dancing on top of cars down 46th Street - you are humming the wrong tune!" Still the effect of the school's celebrity on both students and faculty remain, most clearly seen, in our view, in the friction between the demand to meet academic requirements and the yearning for performance stardom. When Carmen, the hottest young performer in the school, jumps up on a lunch-room table and proclaims she is bound and determined to be a star, the image of Irene Cara (the Movie's heroine) is not far from her mind. The fact that our young lady's path diverges drastically from her role model's only affirms that a hard fall may come when overly ambitious dreams crash into the wall of stark reality.
The divergence also servers to illustrate our overall approach to the subject. Our goal was to stimulate, as much as possible, the "real thing," not a musical-comedy version of it. For the most part, the actors were directed not to break the "fourth wall." And given that any work based on Fame will surely present a group of high school students going through the course of study at Performing Arts and playing out their individual and interactive dramas and comedies, nevertheless, we did not attempt to put either the movie or the TV series on stage. We did find it helpful to use some of the "Character types" and some of the plot devices of the earlier incarnations, but we tried to deal with the subject matter in as fresh and unencumbered way as we knew how. We invite you to do the same.
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