When Karl Sydow announced he was transferring Dirty Dancing to the stage, he was met with scorn. Now he’s the one laughing, he tells Laura Davis
IN THE late-1980s, it seemed you couldn’t move for teenage girls randomly announcing they’d been carrying watermelons and insisting baby wasn’t to be put in the corner.
Turned out they weren’t relating encounters in the fruit and veg aisle of Kwik Save or offering child-sitting health and safety tips, but quoting from Dirty Dancing, the 1987 box office smash.
Although it had been made on a low budget, with no big name stars, the coming of age story set on an American holiday resort became of one the decade’s big successes – the first film to sell more than one million copies on home video and grossing more than $200m worldwide three decades after its release.
Yet, when theatre producer Karl Sydow announced plans to transform it into a stage musical, he was met with derision.
Short skirts, long legs, songs everyone already knows the words to, a topless Patrick Swayze lookalike in spray-on trousers, a girl meets boy from the wrong side of the tracks love story and a double helping of nostalgia – both for the 1960s when the film was set and the ’80s when it was made – what could possibly go wrong?
“I would have been extremely surprised if it didn’t work but I was met with enormous cynicism and certainly Eleanor (Bergstein – who wrote the film script based on her own memories) had a difficult time finding a producer to back her and put it on stage,” reveals Sydow, whose production is touring to the Liverpool Empire next month.
“It took a long time. The film came out in ’87 and we did the first stage version in 2004.”
Bergstein had wanted to see a theatre production of Dirty Dancing almost as long as a film version.
Born in Brooklyn in 1938, the daughter of a Jewish doctor, she had fond memories of family holidays spent at luxury resorts in the Catskill Mountains, in New York state, where she had won Mambo dancing competitions.
The showbiz story goes that an erotic dance scene was cut from her script for the 1980 film It’s My Turn, starring Michael Douglas and Jill Clayburgh, which gave Bergstein the idea of writing a movie about the “dirty dancing” competitions of her teenage holidays.
Then unknowns Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayzer were cast as innocent holidayer Frances “Baby” Houseman and Johnny Castle, the dance instructor of her dreams, played by Jill Winternitz and Paul-Michael Jones in the current UK tour.
Sydow was in Sydney launching Dance of Death, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Frances de la Tour, when he was approached about co-producing Dirty Dancing by Bergstein and rock ’n’ roll promoter Philip Jacobsen, who he’d invited to the launch party.
“I thought ‘oh god, why did I invite him to the party? He’s picking my pockets now’.”
Keen to ask his daughter, a fan of the film who was at school in London, what she thought of the idea, he delayed his meeting with Jacobsen for several days.
“On the Friday I made the decision I couldn’t get out of,” he laughs.
But there were still challenges ahead. Despite Sydow’s track record in theatre production, he struggled to secure a West End run.
“They said, ‘why in the world should we give you a theatre? Who’s starring in it? How do you have someone playing Patrick Swayze when people can just watch it at home on television?’,” he says.
“I found it an extraordinary reaction because theatre is an experience no other medium can replicate. If people like the film and we do it justice on stage, they will want to be there.
“I had to put a lot of my own money into this. It’s obviously been very rewarding.”
All of the film’s 120 scenes are recreated on stage, as well as a few extras that were left on the cutting room floor. The show has been touring across the world in multiple languages since 2004 and the UK tour – its first – has been selling well.
Sydow is pleased he ignored the cynics: “I’m too stupid to listen when people tell me ‘no’,” he reveals. “I just do it anyway.”
DIRTY Dancing is at the Liverpool Empire from October 9-27.