Popular film and stage show reveals hidden depths

A scene from the hugely popular stage  version of Dirty Dancing which comes to Leeds Grand next week.
A scene from the hugely popular stage version of Dirty Dancing which comes to Leeds Grand next week.
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It is so very easy to dismiss popular culture purely because it is, as the label describes, popular.

Rarely has a decade’s culture been so summarily dismissed because of its crass popularity as that of the eighties. Hair was big, suits were shiny and “leisure wear” was multi-coloured. And called “leisure-wear”.

Perhaps, though, one ought to take a second look at some of the cultural offerings of the decade. On the face of it, for example, Dirty Dancing was a popular behemoth – and little beyond that. It turned Patrick Swayze into the heart-throb he had long promised to become and gave birth to some of the hit songs of the decade. It also spawned a multitude of still-repeated catchphrases: anyone above a certain age finds it impossible to carry a watermelon unknowingly. The same demographic knows exactly where Baby is never put.

The truth is, for all its seeming froth, Dirty Dancing has something of substance to say. Released in 1987, although set in the summer of 1963, the film looks to explore class politics, the American way and even the practice of illegal abortion. The tensions between different racial minorities also gets a look-in. Yes, Dirty Dancing might have a lot more to say about subjects other than where Baby should sit.

It is perhaps one of the reasons it became such an enormous success – and why it continues to be so today.

Although a low-budget movie, made with corresponding hopes and expectations, the film performed ridiculously above what was expected, becoming one of the first majorly popular home-owned videos and grossing many, many times over its original budget.

The writer and co-producer of the movie, Eleanor Bergstein, would clearly be a fool to risk sullying the memory of her enormous hit with anything as cynical as a stage show. Perhaps not.

Bergstein, had she wanted to cash in on the film two decades after it became such a mega hit, would probably have just sold the rights on.

Instead, she returned to the script and made it work for the stage. When it debuted on the London stage almost exactly 20 years after the movie was released, the show played for five triumphant years at the Aldwych Theatre, breaking all box office records with advance ticket sales of over £15 million, which made it the fastest ever selling West End show.

When it went out on its first tour of the UK in September 2011, it was seen by over one million people and took over £40m in ticket sales.

It is helped of course, by a soundtrack that can be genuinely described as iconic, featuring songs like Do You Love Me?, Hungry Eyes and the Academy Award-winning (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life.

Next week the show arrives in Leeds on its latest tour for an almost month-long run – unusual for the theatre for a single show. It’s also entirely justified. Producer Karl Sydow says: “We are so pleased to be returning to Leeds where the record-breaking first ever national tour wowed audiences in 2012. The unique combination of Eleanor Bergstein’s iconic story and the breathtaking dancing for which the show is renowned has proven so popular around the country that we are really looking forward to allowing audiences to relive this iconic story live on stage.”

• Dirty Dancing, Leeds Grand Theatre, November 11 to December 6. Tickets at www.leedsgrandtheatre.com or on 0844 848 2700.