Musicals hitting the right note at theatre box office

Paul-Michael Jones (Johnny), Emily Holt (Baby) and Karl Sydow, Producer of Dirty Dancing.  Photo: Dave Betts
Paul-Michael Jones (Johnny), Emily Holt (Baby) and Karl Sydow, Producer of Dirty Dancing. Photo: Dave Betts
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With musicals doing big business, Dirty Dancing producer Karl Sydow talks to Sarah Freeman about giving audiences the time of their lives.

Strindberg’s play The Dance of Death and the shamelessly feelgood Dirty Dancing don’t appear to have much in common.

One is a complex play of a marriage gone horribly wrong and the other, well it’s really about Baby who refuses to be put in the corner.

However, for theatre producer Karl Sydow, the two will be forever linked. It was in the middle of a Sydney run of Strindberg’s drama when he was first approached about adapting Dirty Dancing for the stage.

A fellow producer had just secured the rights to the story, but lacked the finances to make it a reality and wondered whether Sydow might be able to help. While some theatre producers might have rifled their contacts book to scout opinions, Sydow rang his daughter.

“I’d seen bits of the movie hundreds of times,” he says. “My daughter, her friends, their mothers and aunties were all fans of the film. For a while in the 1980s it seemed like it was on a constant loop in our house. I could walk from one room to another and there it still was being played again and again.

“I asked her whether she thought a stage version was a good idea. Her response was ‘absolutely, yes’.”

That was back in 2003 and having secured the services of the film’s original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, the following year the show received its world premiere in Sydney and Sydow’s belief in the show faced its ultimate test.

“Audiences who go to musicals often arrive whistling the songs. The Dirty Dancing crowd come whistling the dialogue,” he says.

“When people love something that much they come with high expectations, but I’ve always believed there is nothing you can’t recreate on stage.

“The film has 118 separate scenes and while theatre can’t use those same techniques right from the start I was clear that we had to deliver everything the film had and a little more. Fortunately, I think we’ve achieved that.”

The show’s UK tour is currently in Leeds with Paul Michael Jones playing Johnny and Emily Holt as Baby.

Finding actors who can not only sing and dance but who could match Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s original chemistry has not been easy.

“The casting process was long and very involved,” says Sydow, who left Rockford, Illinois to attend university in the UK and never went back. “The funny thing is that Swayze’s performance in Dirty Dancing actually inspired a lot of young boys at the time to give dancing a go, so it’s easier to find someone to play the part than it ever would have been in the 1980s.

“However, Baby’s role is particularly difficult, because at the start of the story she can’t dance and you need to find someone who can pull that transition off.”

Sydow appears to have succeeded. The show has broken countless box office records and has just notched up £1.5m in ticket sales.

“Initially some people said, ‘Why would anyone go and watch a stage version of Dirty Dancing when they can buy the DVD?’ I’ve always found that an extraordinary attitude. People go to the theatre for an experience.”

It’s not just Dirty Dancing which is packing them in. The West End enjoyed record box office sales in 2011 for an eighth consecutive year, with takings topping £528.3m

“In straitened times people seek escape through theatre, and musicals are pretty good at that. In good times they still come, so either way we win. I’ve been in this business long enough to have read stories about the death of Broadway, the West End and regional theatre too many times to ever believe it. There’s just something special about the live theatre experience which will always keep people coming back for more.”

Staging a film version of Dirty Dancing may seem an easy way to put bums on seats at a time when theatres are under pressure to justify subsidies. Sydow disagrees.

“Anyone who claims they knew a show was going to be a commercial hit is lying,” he says. “They’ve got the same crystal ball I have and it doesn’t work. The only thing you can do when there are cutbacks is strive for artistic excellence.”

It’s the reason why his next production is a revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good. First staged at the Royal Court in 1988 it’s set 200 years earlier as a boat full of murderers, thieves and marine officers set out to build a new life in Australia.

“It’s a perfect play, but particularly perfect for now,” he says. “It raises questions about what makes a civilisation and what really makes life worth living. Those questions have never been more relevant.”

Dancing into the record books

Released in 1987, Dirty Dancing was a low-budget film from a new studio, which apart from Jerry Orbach as Baby’s father, boasted no major stars.

Twenty five years on it has become a classic and was the first film to sell more than a millions copies on video.

The film was written by Eleanor Bergstein and was based on her own life.

The soundtrack generated two multi-platinum albums with (I’ve had) The Time of My Life winning an Oscar for best original song.

Dirty Dancing, Grand Theatre Leeds, to June 23; Our Country’s Good, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Nov.