It’s “a world made of steel, made of stone” – as the lyrics go – populated by athletic, dancing, singing young people.
“Flashdance: The Musical” struts into Broadway Sacramento on Tuesday, in all of its blue-collar, leg-warmer, water-drenched glory. But don’t dismiss this steelworking-girl-with-dancing-dreams story as just another stage remake of a popular movie.
While the 1983 film version of “Flashdance” – starring Jennifer Beals as danger-zone-dancing Alex Owens – was a runaway hit and spawned one of the best-selling soundtracks of the decade, screenwriter Thomas Hedley Jr. said he always envisioned making it as a musical.
“It has a lot of theatricality,” he said. “My approach was very musical theater.”
Hedley, a former Esquire magazine editor, said he came up with the idea for “Flashdance” by observing working-class women in small neighborhood bars in Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., during the early 1980s.
“They were 19 years old, and five years on, they’d marry the plumber down the street,” Hedley said in a recent phone interview. “But for that short period of time, they wanted to make something interesting and dramatic out of their lives.”
That meant reading Vogue, putting together costumes on thrift-store budgets and performing dances in neighborhood clubs.
“They’d put these outfits together that were very striking and do their own, very artistic, choreography,” Hedley said. “They had a concept. It was all about trying to make something dramatic.”
When fleshing out the story, Hedley said he found other real-life drama to draw upon.
“This was the Reagan era,” he said. The steel industry was failing under the first wave of industrial outsourcing and the communities that depended on industry were starting a three-decades-long march to devastation. Hedley did research for “Flashdance” in Johnstown, Pa., where “it felt like mile after mile of abandoned steelyards.”
And, at the time, if a young woman wanted to be a star, there weren’t tryouts for “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“For a girl like that, who had no training but was a natural, there was no contest you could enter and be on TV and win the day,” Hedley said. “It was such a long shot, because there was no support, even on the arts side.”
Hedley took the story of a young woman who works as a pipe-fitter by day, dances in clubs at night and dreams of training as a professional dancer at a prestigious academy, to Paramount. The studio ended up buying it. (Hedley shares a writing credit on the “Flashdance” screenplay with Joe Eszterhas, who would later write “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls.”)
The story seemed so naturally a musical that Hedley said he originally reached out to the legendary Bob Fosse as a possible director. The problem? Musical films were out of fashion in the MTV ’80s and considered box-office poison.
Nevertheless, Hedley met with Fosse, who didn’t see “Flashdance” film potential. “If you wanted to do it as a stage play, I would do it,” Hedley recalled Fosse saying. “As a movie, it won’t have a shot in hell of working.”
Since Hedley had a deal with Paramount, “another director (Adrian Lyne) was chosen and we made the movie, so it was irrelevant at that point,” he said.
Jump forward a quarter-century and, after prodding from friends in the business, Hedley decided to finally adapt “Flashdance” as a stage musical. That meant, among other things, expanding the dance beyond the scope of a single camera.
“In film, you can tell so much in a close-up, and you can do a lot of cinematic tricks,” he said. “For the stage it has to be real ... and it has to be in-your-face.”
For the film version, the dance sequences could be filmed in shorter takes and edited together, and, he pointed out, there were dancers to double as Beals. “You can’t do that on stage,” Hedley said. “You have to make it all work right in front of the audience.”
Much of responsibility falls to Jillian Mueller, who plays Alex in the musical (and yes, the famous water-drenching sequence remains). Hedley said he was determined to retain all the energy and athleticism of the dancing from the film and from the original women he’d seen in clubs.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo, who also directs, has done mainstream Broadway hits and edgier fare, such as the off-Broadway favorite “bare.” His other credits include “Jersey Boys,” for which he won a Drama Desk Award, “Memphis” and “The Addams Family.”
“He’s just really talented,” Hedley said of Trujillo, “and for me, it’s always been a dance show. It’s all about the power of the dance, and it’s very hard to do it, because it’s so athletic.”
For the score, Hedley and his team retained some of the most popular songs, including “Flashdance … What a Feeling,” “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” “Maniac,” “Gloria” and “Manhunt.” They brought in Robbie Roth for the original music, and he worked with Hedley’s co-author for the book, Robert Cary, on lyrics.
Although the show is still set in the ’80s, “I chose a composer who was barely born then,” Hedley said, adding that he asked that Roth not get stuck in the reality of the decade, but instead use that sound as a place to start.
“(Roth’s) compositions have a contemporary feel to them, even though it’s all rooted in the ’80s,” he said.
Premiering in England back in 2008, “Flashdance: The Musical’s” tour runs through May, Hedley said, with rehearsals for the planned Broadway opening this year starting this summer.
But do fans really need another musical adapted from a movie, even if it is a movie about dancing with plenty of music?
“There are certain reviewers that just don’t like movies being made into stage shows,” Hedley said. “There’s a prejudice against them, and you’re never going to win with those people.”
The point is to make an entertaining show, Hedley said, and in the case of “Flashdance,” it’s more than an exercise in nostalgia. Despite the preponderance of televised talent shows, it’s still incredibly difficult for young people, even young people with talent, to achieve their dreams, and the blue-collar jobs that could once be counted on as a “backup plan” no longer exist.
“The political realities are very relevant to what’s happening now,” Hedley said.