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South China Morning Post
Friday, June 7,2002


IN THE 1979S, a New Yorker called David De Silva wanted to be an actor. You almost certainly won't remember his name. He was not, he recalls, particularly good. "There were better actors than me at the auditions,” he says. "I had to be more in control of my life. I had to be more visionary, rather than being the last person, stage left."

Fortunately, he had an idea. He knew about New York's High School for Performing Arts (which opened in 1946) and High School of Music and Art (which opened in 1936). He knew these were "magnet" schools - public schools, open to any student in the five boroughs of New York City who had talent. He thought an institution, open to all, nurturing actors, dancers and musicians from every possible background would make an ideal setting for a musical film. He even had the perfect title: Fame.

The film - conceived, developed and produced by De Silva - came out in 1980. It so happened that it exactly coincided with a generation of wannabes: teenagers who were watching that new-fangled concept, the music video, and dreaming of being a star while practising dance steps in their bedrooms. As a result, there was burgeoning Fame. It became a television series which ran for six years; De Silva was consulting producer. It's now a live-theatre musical, touring the globe: De Silva is billed as "originator".

Moreover, De Silva, unsuccessful actor, found himself a role he plays with near-Messianic commitment every day: Father Fame. "It's a script that's guided by a higher power," he says. "I believe I was destined to create Fame. It's bigger than me, I know that, and that brings responsibility."

This is why he's here. It's his paternal duty to be present at the birth of the Hong Kong run which premieres tonight at, naturally, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. He has never been to Asia before. The flight from New York is the longest he's ever been on a plane. Others might be tempted to groan at the physical price of fame, but not De Silva. This is his mission. "It's about making a difference in the world," he says.

If you haven't seen Fame, in any of its incarnations, you might find such a devotion incomprehensible. Certainly, as far as plot and characterisation go, it lacks the insight of Jacobean drama. The helpful thumbnail sketches of the United Nations dramatis personae on the Web site convey the racial simplicity of cartoons: "Mabel Washington: Funny, overweight, Black" or "Carmen Diaz: Fiery, over-confident, Hispanic." (A particular favourite: "Mr. Sheinkopf: Serious, in the European tradition.") Yet the world evidently loves it.

Father Fame's photo journal on the site has pictures of Gabriella from the Hungarian production, and Jennifer and Caren who've performed in Berlin, Paris, Zurich and Milan. There's a London production, a North American production and an Australian production (which is the one in Hong Kong). It's been performed in Korean, Polish and Japanese; indeed, it's about to be revived in Japan. "It celebrates individuality," explains De Silva. "this is a chance for the Japanese to do what they wouldn't ordinarily do. They're recognised for blending in, not standing out."

Although he believes in his mission as Father Fame, as David De Silva, he's an altogether more private individual. The only information it's possible to glean about his life before Fame is that he studied to become a history teacher, but didn't become one. Perhaps that accounts for the passion and near-didacticism with which he speaks about the show. "I never pushed celebrity. That's the culture we live in, but I don't promote that. We promote the passion."

What about the cult of the reality show and its worm-munching, at-all-costs quest for fame? "Being on a reality show is not the same as studying dance or theatre. Those are disciplines." It's a full-time job. He's created the Father Fame Foundation to promote the value of arts in education. He's working on a documentary about other "fame schools" - publicly funded schools for the arts in the United States - with particular emphasis on the teachers.

Meanwhile, there's a new television series in the works. Gabriella, Jennifer and Caren might sing, in several languages, that they're going to live forever, but if there's anything that seems to be immortal, it's Fame itself. It could turn out to be the Dracula of musical theatre. De Silva looks scandalised by the comparison - "No, no!" - then he gives a big laugh: "It's infusing blood - not taking it out."

Fame The Musical. Until June 23. Lyric Theatre, Academy For Performing Arts, Wun Chai. $250 to $586. Ticketek: 3128 8288


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