Eleanor Bergstein knew “Dirty Dancing” was popular; that the 1987 Patrick Swayze film was the kind of low-budget cult-classic watched until it could be quoted verbatim.
It wasn’t until she really started paying attention, though, that she understood the depth of that fandom.
“There are clubs of people who have seen it 1,000 times,” says Bergstein, who wrote the script for the film and helped create its stage adaptation, which stops for two performances at Saroyan Theatre as part of the Broadway in Fresno series. She’s attended screenings where the film just ran on a loop, starting at 6 a.m. People would start watching the film and just not leave.
“People just stopped and watched it over and over and over again,” she says.
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She created “Dirty Dancing – the Classic Story on Stage” for those fans as a way for them to be present and active as the story unfolds. It’s the stage production they were waiting for, Bergstein says, even if they didn’t know it.
The story is obviously familiar to fans, but Bergstein rewrote the script for the stage, adding 20 new scenes with additional songs and dancing. In all there are 36 musical numbers performed by an eight-piece band live onstage. That includes the sensational “Hungry Eyes,” “Hey Baby,” “Do You Love Me?” and of course, “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.”
The touring show began as a staged workshop in Manhattan in the fall of 2001 and debuted at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, Australia, in 2004. A European tour and series of successful theater runs – including on London’s West End – followed. It is currently on a run of North America cities that includes stops in Detroit, Philadelphia and St. Louis.
Bergstein knew this couldn’t be a traditional piece of musical theater: “If it was a traditional musical it would have been nuts.”
So, no, the characters don’t break out in song. Instead, “Dirty Dancing” uses music the way we use music in our real lives, she says. The show is a rock concert housed inside a serious theater play, inspired somewhat by a Bruce Springsteen concert Bergstein saw at Shea Stadium just after 9/11. It was a reminder to her that there could be some pleasure in the world, she says.
Bergstein doesn’t know exactly why “Dirty Dancing” has stayed popular and relevant for so long. Partly, it’s the plot, which has its share of serious political implications – racism, abortion, war. Though the action is set in 1960 America, the themes hit as hard today as they did when the movie was released, maybe harder. That fact gives Bergstein no pleasure.
But story and romance and music aside, there is also something in the act of dancing, the physicality of it, that connects with people. If you doubt it, just stand in the back of the theater and watch people as they are leaving the show.
“Everybody has a secret dancer inside of them,” she says.
- 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
- Saroyan Theatre, 730 M St.
- 800-7450-3000, www.ticketmaster.com