“Dirty Dancing” creator Eleanor Bergstein recently chatted with What’s Up! in advance of the live theatrical version of her classic story opening at the Walton Arts Center on March 8. The charismatic author and producer of both versions had too many great anecdotes not to share, so here are some of Bergstein’s thoughts on 30 years with Johnny and Baby.
On when she realized how huge "Dirty Dancing" was going to be:
The Classic Story on Stage’
WHEN — 7 p.m. March 8; 1:30 & 7 p.m. March 9; 8 p.m. March 10; 2 & 8 p.m. March 11; 2 p.m. March 12
WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville
COST — $48-$97
INFO — 443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org
EB: We thought it was going to be in theaters less than a week and then go to video, so we didn’t have very high expectations and everyone told us how terrible it was! So I remember sitting in the movie theater with my husband maybe the second day it was open and there was a row of girls in front of us and they were singing the Kellerman’s [Resort] anthem — which he wrote.
He started poking me saying, “Listen to that!” and I thought, “Oh god, what a jerk. Yeah honey, it’s a really nice song.” He said, “Did you hear that? If they knew the words by heart already, they’ve already seen the movie at least twice, maybe three times.” And of course, that was the secret: People saw it, came right back in and saw it again. But we thought that was a fluke. We didn’t know then that the big “Entertainment Tonight” had a Friday night roundup going around to theaters and nine out of 10 people said they enjoyed the movie, but the significant thing, which we were too dumb to know, was that nine out of 10 said they would pay to see it again. And that is the extraordinary number.
Everybody thought it must be a mistake, so it slowly crept up on us. It was so slow that we realized we really did have an audience, we thought any minute, it might disappear. When those of us who made the film together all met and, to this day, we would sit and tell terrible stories about how everybody was mean to us — how everybody said we were a pile of junk — and we couldn’t get over telling those stories to each other. We were so thrilled that we weren’t totally disgraced and ridiculed, which is what we expected, that that was what we concentrated on rather than, “Oh my god, this is a movie that endures.”
On what it felt like to reenter that world with the stage adaptation:
EB:It was 20 years before I decided to do the stage musical, and when I did and we first started casting, that was another huge jolt for me because as all these beautiful young actors came in, I found out that they knew it by heart. And they were either trying to imitate Patrick [Swayze] or be the opposite of Patrick, but it was a huge influence on them and the last time I cast it, of course “Dirty Dancing” didn’t exist. So that was a big shock to me to realize all these people knew it and lived with it and had grown up on it.
On her fears of disappointing her audience:
EB: I’ll tell you the best story: [The show] was just in England and one of the reviews described walking in behind a little boy and his mother and the little boy said to his mother, “Mum, I hope it’s everything you hope it will be.” And I just gasped when I read it, and I read it to my husband and he said, “Well, you’re that little boy.” Because that’s the way I feel about that audience — I so want it to be what they hope it will be. And when it’s right, it is, and that is joyful for me.
On finding the perfect Johnnys for the stage:
EB:How I find them is very interesting. When I was in Australia starting the show, I’d gone there because they have a reputation for very masculine, athletic dancing. I just couldn’t find a Johnny and finally I said, “Who’s the best dancer in Australia?” And they said, “It’s Josef Brown; he’s the lead dancer in the Sydney Dance Company,” which is a great dance company. I said, “Well let’s call him in,” and they said, “No, we don’t poach dance companies.” So the choreographer Kate and I went into the bathroom, and she called him up and [asked him to breakfast] because they were old friends.
He came on his motorcycle with his boots on, and I said, “I want to talk to you about something that would mean you would have to take a year’s leave of absence from the Sydney Dance Company.” And I saw that hood go down over his eyes as if [to say], “Whoever you are, lady, this is not going to happen.” I said, “Have you by chance ever seen the movie ‘Dirty Dancing’?” and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s why I became a dancer.” And I thought, “Got him!”
And that’s how I’ve gotten all my Johnnys. Which is really interesting because what happened is they were very athletic kids — real “guys” — they saw “Dirty Dancing” at about 14 or 15 and they saw Patrick who was über-masculine, a great dancer, and they thought, “Hm.” And they went to take one dance class, and they saw all these half-dressed women and all these gay guys and they thought, “This is nice.” So they took a few other classes and they became these great dancers and at the peaks of their careers, which is where I got them all over the world — The Royal Ballet of Sweden, The Royal [Danish] Ballet — at the moment I get them, they won’t leave their companies for anything. But they’ll leave for “Dirty Dancing” because that’s the reason they became a dancer. That’s how I find my Johnnys.
NAN What's Up on 03/04/2017
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