The new Broadway mega-musical Saturday Night Fever, based on the popular 1977 film of the same name, is a one-of-a-kind miracle in song, dance and simplicity.
To borrow the title from just one of the many blockbuster Bee Gees songs from both the movie and stage show, "You Should Be Dancing!"
To be sure, Saturday Night Fever, which opened at Broadway's Minskoff Theater on October 21, won't become the cultural phenomenon the movie was. For some, the classic film came to define the decade of the 1970s. Yet, the stage version's own unique blend of poignancy and perpetual optimism-coupled with the brilliance of the Bee Gees score and breathtaking choreography-should provide dazzlingly delightful nights for years to come.
Saturday Night Fever, however, is not without its flaws, most of which could have been fixed with some judicial pruning. For example, there's a rumble scene between rival gangs that's as unnecessary as it is uninviting-let alone something that looks more like a cartoon of a scene out of West Side Story. Moreover, by this time, what we care most about is the old-fashioned story of unrequited love between Tony Manero, the disco dancing Don Juan, and his partner Stephanie Mangano.
Nevertheless, director Arlene Phillips, who also choreographed the show (which like the movie is set in 1976), together with writers Nan Knighton and Paul Nicholas, have avoided some of the pitfalls that have plagued other recent attempts to bring hit movies to Broadway. There's no attempt to pump life into the new stage musical by re-interpreting or "deconstructing" the old movie. Yet, little if any of the movie's original universal pathos and humor have been lost in the stage musical's eight-year trip to the Great White Way.
The musical also gets a big lift from James Carpinello, who's making his Broadway debut, as Tony, the blustery but kind-hearted kid who dreams of dancing his way out of a dead-end job in Brooklyn, and Paige Price, as Stephanie, Tony's dance partner and illusive love interest.
And despite some harsh reviews from a number of local critics, Saturday Night Fever seems to be well on the way to being a big hit.
"We have a great advance ticket sale," beamed Manny Kladitis, the show's associate producer, in an interview. Such sales are a barometer of a Broadway's show's potential economic health. Yet with a cast of 43, second-largest only to Ragtime (which is scheduled to close in January without recouping its investment), other Broadway insiders predict it may take at least two years for the mega-musical to recoup its $9 million cost.
Robert Stigwood, who produced the 1977 film and won a Golden Globe for best film in 1997 for Evita, has been very much involved with the Broadway production and is expected to play a major role in the show's continuing promotion and marketing campaigns.
For Arlene Phillips, the director, "it has been hard work, really hard work" and transferring the musical from the movie "makes it harder still. That film is held up to be an icon," she said in an interview. "The film affected people in two ways," Phillips said. "They either remember John Travolta in his white suit, and the music and the discos, and they forget about the story. Or, they remember the story. And it seems that nobody really ever remembers the combination of the two..."
"I always knew it would be hard because of the question of how do you take this film and turn it into musical theater?" Phillips continued. "Of course, in the film, the music was used to enhance the story. It was never sung. So you could either do it as it was in the film, as a play, using music in the same way as the film. When we first tried to mount the show in a workshop production, the company came out and just danced but didn't sing, and it didn't seem to work the way it did in the film."
"Because when you take the film and turn it into a musical, you have a whole new set of problems; turning it into musical theater you've got this very, very powerful, very strong story," said Phillips. "So how do you do this? In many ways, the film, as exciting as it was, left you feeling uncomfortable. [One of Tony Manero's friends dies in an accident.] There's a lot that one can hardly bear to watch or look at. And somehow in musical theater, the question arises with this music, this wonderful disco music, how far do you go into the depths of the story with all of the ugliness and still enjoy this disco music? It was very, very hard to get the balance right."
Having done it in London first doesn't make it that much easier to do on Broadway, Phillips also said. "You're doing something about this city, New York. So it actually makes it harder," she said. "People here know Brooklyn. In England, people don't know Brooklyn. They know Brooklyn from the film."
For his part, Kladitis thinks it was a bit easier to do on Broadway.
"It's easier to do it On Broadway because it's an American story and it's being done now by Americans," he said. "And we all understand the fabric of the piece more so than the British, more so than the Germans. In the 1970s, I don't know where you were but it really was a goal to get into Manhattan's Studio 54. So, as silly as we might think about it now in the very different 1990s it was a true goal back then. We all have dream, we all have goals, objectives. This was their objective in the 1970s. They were real. They were not a joke. We look at them now and laugh a little and say, 'How could people be thinking about that at the time.' But people were thinking about that at the time ..."
Some critics have carped about Capinello's dancing ability.
Not me. I can't say his dancing is as good as John Travolta's but I can't say it isn't. All I know is that for a guy whose only Off-Broadway experience was in Stupid Kids, Carpinello, who literally almost never leaves the stage, is little short of terrific.
And believable. For at the very heart of this lavish new musical lies a very simple story about basic human longings-about a guy wanting to go out with the girl of his dreams and somehow live up to his own simple dreams for himself.
"The focus is on him. It is his story and everyone is into it as parts of his life," says Phillips, who has choreographed 14 films. "There are a lot of other important characters in the show. But it is Tony Manero's story, and the people involved in his life. But it's also a particularly timeless story. People want to get out and do something more with their lives. It's a story that goes on year after year after year in small towns and villages everywhere in the world."
Orfeh as Annette, the girl who vies for Tony's affections, Paul Castree as Bobby C., Bryan Batt as Monty, Richard Blake as Gus, Andy Blankenbuehler as Double J, and Sean Palmer as Joey, are but a few of the members of the outstanding supporting cast. Robin Wagner's set design, which includes a model of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, captures the fever and promise of life in Brooklyn, New York on Saturday nights in the 1970s. Come out and take a peek, yourself.