'Stayin' Alive' on Broadway

1970s hit movie 'Saturday Night Fever' moves from screen to stage

The name alone may be enough for fans of a successful 1977 movie starring John Travolta to flock to the new Broadway megamusical "Saturday Night Fever."

And, if not the name, there's the hype. Mr. Travolta, who played Tony Manero in the coming-of-age disco classic, is expected to join dozens of other celebrities inside Broadway's Minskoff Theatre as the rubberneckers outside on the street are invited to dance to the booming Bee Gees beat of "Stayin' Alive" and "Night Fever."

To coincide with the event, Bloomingdale's is launching a line of clothes influenced by costumes in "Saturday Night Fever," such as the famous white suits and flared pants. Last week, "Today Show" co-anchor Katie Couric introduced a televised dance segment from the musical wearing vintage bell-bottoms.

Hoopla and hype aside, the question is whether this ambitious eight-year effort of turning the dated, but popular, movie into a musical will work for today's critics and audiences. Currently playing preview performances, the $9 million song-and-dance extravaganza officially opens Oct. 21.

The stage re-creation of the movie - the story of a blustery but kindhearted Brooklyn youth who dreams of disco dancing his way to fame and fortune - is already on its way to becoming a big hit. Manny Kladitis, the show's associate producer, says advance ticket sales are booming.

Favorable comparisons are already being made between "Saturday Night Fever" and the musical "Footloose," also based on a hit movie. "Footloose" is still playing to sold-out audiences one year after it opened.

"If people had a good time at 'Footloose,' they will have a good time at 'Saturday Night Fever,' " Mr. Kladitis says.

But New York entertainment historian D.C. MacLeod says he's skeptical about whether the musical "Saturday Night Fever" will live up to the movie.

"After all," Mr. MacLeod says, " 'Saturday Night Fever' is not just a film - it's an institution, a social commentary of what New York was like in the 1970s.... I don't believe that [the musical] could ever surpass what this piece of Americana [the film] generated at the time."

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, just as he was in the earlier London production, Kladitis says.

For director Arlene Phillips, "it has been hard work" transferring the movie to a musical.

"The film affected people in two ways," Ms. Phillips says. "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 quite-shocking story. And it seems that nobody really ever remembers the combination of the two....

"There's a lot that one can hardly bear to watch or look at. And somehow in musical theater, the question arises ... 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 hard to get the balance right."

Having done the show in London first doesn't make it easier to do on Broadway, Phillips says: "You're doing something about this city, New York. So it actually makes it harder. People here know Brooklyn. In England, people don't know Brooklyn. They know Brooklyn from the film."

Kladitis disagrees with Phillips about doing the show here vis--vis London.

"It's easier to do it here on Broadway because it's an American story, and it's being done now by Americans," he says.

And what of James Carpinello, who will inevitably be compared to the young John Travolta as he makes his Broadway debut in the lead role of Tony Manero?

"It's not about a star," Kladitis says. "It's about the dreams of the people in the show, their goals and objectives....

"This is 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 ... in small towns and villages everywhere in the world."

And now on The Great White Way.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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