Saturday, February 21, 2009
On the Dirt on Dirty Dancing--The Classic Story on the Stage
Loved the colorful, swirling skirts with crinolines. Admired the hunky physique of the man who played Johnny Castle (understudy Easton Smith). Was dazzled by the ever-changing scenery that cleverly used video, especially in the water scene where Johnny finally teaches Baby the dance lifts. Mouthed the familiar lines and tunes to myself. “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story on the Stage” is entertaining, but it doesn’t quite work. I am a HUGE fan of the film, which I saw when it first came out and have probably seen a couple of dozen times. If this had been my first time seeing “Dirty Dancing,” I might have liked the show even less.
The stage versions of both “Dirty Dancing” and “Legally Blonde,” another film on my “favorites” list, were largely faithful to their respective “books.” But “Legally Blonde” morphed into an exuberant musical that took me along for the ride. Of course, it used the traditional formula of having its characters burst into song and dance at appropriate times in contrast to “Dirty Dancing,” where the music served more as a sound track, even at those times when the songs were sung live (but not by the main characters). So why does the film of “Dirty Dancing” succeed where the stage play falls flat, even as the actors spout the same lines and mimic many of the same actions, the scenery tries hard to please, and many of the songs are replicated?
A big reason, I believe, is that the show kept us at a distance. One of the great successes of the film is its sense of intimacy and place, established during the opening credits with the sexy, slow motion dance moves of the young staff of Kellerman’s to the tune of “Be My Baby.” We can almost smell the sultry summer air, feel the hormonal surges. Whatever their lives are away from the resort, whatever is happening in the world at that moment doesn’t matter. (The stage show tries to make the story seem relevant by adding references to the civil rights movements. Injecting the larger issues of that era into this most personal of stories was one of the play’s missteps.) As Johnny and Baby rehearse for their upcoming dance number at another resort, the heat increases. Although their class differences are part of the dramatic backbone of the story, within the confines of this sequestered place, they connect in a believable way.
Marshall McLuhan, media and popular culture guru of the 60s, once pronounced, that “the medium is the message.” Although we might assume that a live play should be more intimate than a film because of the flesh and blood presence of the actors, that is not always so. Because of the camera’s ability to focus in, the medium of film can make us feel that not only are we in the room but that we are almost inhabiting the characters’ bodies. A stage play can do that same thing, but without the shifting lens, it must rely on other means. Sometimes plays do not make the transition well to film because they try to do too much, to be in too many locations, so we lose the focus we need to establish the relationship with the characters. In this case, the reverse happened. Maybe if I’d been in one of the $135 dollar seats, I would have felt more bonded with Johnny and Baby, but even the binoculars didn’t help. During their intimate moments, I felt like I was spying on them. At others, I had to chase them around the stage to keep up.
As a fiction writer, I need to understand what my medium conveys and how I can get the most from it. How do I establish that sense of intimacy with my characters? What kinds of details will provide an appropriate sensory experience since you will have only the words on the page and your imagination to pull you in? At what point will I lose you if I provide too much detail? Fiction writers have the added luxury of being able to take you inside our characters’ heads to show how they are reacting to a line of speech, a situation, another character. Again, we must decide how much internal dialogue is enough, and how much we should convey through showing you and not telling you.
Maybe with its fast cut scenery, as clever as it was, its mile long playlist, and its dozens of dance numbers, the stage show of “Dirty Dancing” put me on overload, so I no longer knew where to focus my attention. It never slowed down enough to let me in. The familiar dialogue seemed strained at times, out of its element. In short, “Dirty Dancing—The Classic Story on the Stage” still thought it was a movie; it forgot the strengths of its medium and as a result it failed to win the heart of this audience member and give me the time of my life.