Whatever you think you know about the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing,” you don’t really know the half of it. You know it stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in a “bad boy, good girl” romantic drama with plenty of hot dancing sequences.
What you might not recall is the 1963-set movie is laced with social commentary concerning abortion, the Vietnam War, American class relationships and civil rights issues.
That subtle depth has given the film a lasting cache among those who look beneath its pop entertainment veneer.
Writer and associate producer Eleanor Bergstein, who has received renewed appreciation for her original screenplay, has revisited the work while writing the book for “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage.” The new national touring company stage production comes to Sacramento from Friday through Jan. 4.
Bergstein, witty, honest and forthcoming in conversation, said the story was based on her life experience, not her life story.
“You find every bit of me in everything everybody says, but it’s not the story of my 17th summer,” Bergstein said from her New York production company office. The movie’s story revolves around Frances “Baby” Houseman (Grey) who is on summer vacation in New York’s Catskill Mountains in 1963 with her older sister and parents. She falls into a relationship with Johnny Castle (Swayze), the resort’s hunky dance instructor, and one thing leads to another.
“I was called ‘Baby’ until I was 22, but I was a dirty dancer when I was 11. I had dirty dancing trophies that would turn your hands green,” Bergstein said.
She went to the Catskills with her parents as a girl and also hung out at dance studios watching all the personal relationships play out.
“I came from a very rough neighborhood, and I have more of Johnny in me than Baby. I was an Arthur Murray teacher like Johnny. I certainly wanted to save the world, but I wanted to do it in a matched sweater set,” Bergstein said.
Originally an under-the-radar, low-budget ($6 million) film by a new studio, Great American Films Limited Partnership, “Dirty Dancing” became an unlikely massive box office hit, earning more than $214 million worldwide. It was the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video. The “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack spawned two multi-platinum albums and several singles, including “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Heard during the film’s finale, the song went to No. 1 on the pop charts and won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for best original song, and a Grammy Award for best duet (sung by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes).
The film has been popular internationally, and the stage version has replicated that success with sellout performances in Australia and Europe. The musical has its sights set on an eventual Broadway production. That’s a long way to travel for a project that barely made it out of the gate and was expected to stumble through a perfunctory opening weekend run before teenage mall audiences before being exiled to video.
When asked how the movie overcame so many obstacles during production and after to become an overwhelming hit, Bergstein half-joked, “One would like to think that it was because our hearts were pure.” Then she acknowledged that were elements of chance, unplanned good fortune and fortuitous timing.
“Immensely good work can disappear, and terrible work can slip through the cracks and be around for a while,” Bergstein said. “In our particular case, it was very hard for me to get it made, and when finally we got it made, everybody hated it.”
She thinks the most important break they received was from a New York Times reporter wanting to interview her before the movie was released, and the resulting story. The writer was an expert on the music and politics of the early 1960s, and the producers were afraid he wanted to talk about “all the mistakes” in the movie.
Bergstein knew there were none. “I’m very meticulous,” she said.
The writer met Bergstein at the New York apartment she shared with her husband, Michael Goldman, a Princeton English professor.
“He sits down and the first thing he says to me is, ‘There are no mistakes in the movie.’ He started to talk to me and he said there’s a very serious social and political agenda underneath this, and there certainly is,” Bergstein said.
That agenda was not what got the film made, though, and Bergstein said she more than once “danced on tables for men with cigars” to show investors what the dance sequences would look like. “My record is not pure,” she said.
Her sense was the writer didn’t care for the movie, but she was not really sure.
“I talked to him for a long time, and of course, you can’t make somebody like something that they don’t like. And he didn’t say if he liked it or not, but he wrote an article that was so wonderful and explained our intentions. It was on the front page of the arts section, and there was a great picture of me, which was very important to me,” Bergstein said.
The studio sent the article out to a thousand newspapers around the country, and the movie suddenly was taken seriously by adults. It didn’t hurt that young women flocked to it as well.
“Look, I’m happy if anybody likes anything I’ve done for any reason,” Bergstein said. “Lots of little girls saw it and thought you can fall in love and dance with a boy in front of your parents.
“I think everybody has a secret dancer inside of them in the sense that you can attach yourself to the world through dance and you become truer to your own possibilities.”
The movie has lately been celebrated on the website Jezebel, which focuses on women’s interests, and the London Guardian recently ran an article titled, “Surprisingly subversive movie after all these years.”
“That I didn’t expect to happen,” Bergstein said.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.
What: The Broadway touring production of “Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story Onstage.” Samuel Pergande and Jillian Mueller star as Johnny Castle and Frances “Baby” Houseman.
When: The show runs for 13 performances, from Friday through Jan. 4. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturdays, and Sundays; 7:30 p.m Sunday
Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
Information: (916) 557-1999 or www.californiamusicaltheatre.com