'Footloose' jumps to the stage

A musical based on the 1984 movie reaches back to the great songs and solid themes of the Reagan era.

February 21, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

Footloose," the sleeper hit movie of 1984, is still an oft-referenced cult classic. Its spirit and amiability were and are enough to get even the most anti-A.M.-radio Gen-Xer to voluntarily listen to and even savor Kenny Loggins.

The soundtrack, mainly the work of lyricist Dean Pitchford and composer Tom Snow, includes such Reagan-era gems as "Let's Hear It for the Boy," "Holding Out for a Hero" and, of course, Loggins' title track. It's like a time machine with a beat, transporting fans back to the days of breakdancing and pastels.

And the scenes -- from the Midwestern machismo of the tractor race, to protagonist Ren's furious dancing and dashing through the warehouse -- are dear to audiences who like their early '80s morality tales with a pinch of kitsch.

It had everything: teen angst, liberal vs. conservative conflict, dance, romance, and, of course, a young, scrappy Kevin Bacon.

And even if the pug-nosed icon is absent when "Footloose," the musical, comes to town, the solid American themes remain.

Bacon, after all, was just a small bit of what made the original movie work, according to Pitchford, who wrote the story and screenplay for the movie, and adapted it to the stage.

"It's not just the Kevin Bacon thing. It's not just because Kevin Bacon had a good haircut," says Pitchford, an Academy Award winner for the lyrics to the title song of the movie "Fame" and nominated for Grammys and Academy Awards for his "Footloose" songs as well. "At the heart of it is a story of redemption that continues to work."

Unfamiliar with this particular story of redemption?

In the film, skinny-tie-wearing, spiky-haired Chicago boy Ren MacCormack (Bacon) whose father has run out on him and his mother, is transplanted into a Bible-Belt Midwestern town where dancing and rock and roll are illegal.

This fuddy-duddy lifestyle is championed by Ren's conflicted nemesis, the Rev. Shaw Moore (John Lithgow), who lost his son in an accident blamed on those vices.

Ren's big-city liberalism is despised and feared by the town's puritanical denizens, and some insecure hillbillies try to make his life miserable by planting drugs on him and trying to mow him down with a tractor.

But the plucky anti-hero with a heart of gold and a head full of mousse still manages to open up the town's repressed youth to the joys of partying; romance the preacher's wild daughter, Ariel (Lori Singer); and crusade against the town's stodgy rules.

The hokey plot worked magic, and Pitchford was content with the results. "When the movie was finished and done, we all thought, 'That's all for now, thank you very much,' " he says.

But about eight years ago, Pitchford's friend Carole Schwartz, wife of "Prince of Egypt" composer Stephen Schwartz, began prodding Pitchford to transform "Footloose" into a musical.

"She kept at me month after month." he says. "She wore me down."

When Pitchford and Grammy- and Academy-Award-nominated composer Snow began the project, they were determined to create a small stage piece for high schools or community theaters.

But when Broadway came calling in 1995, Pitchford and Snow decided to take a shot, and wrote six new songs. "Footloose" opened on Broadway in October 1998 to lukewarm reviews and enthusiastic audiences, and is still pulling them in.

The road show Baltimore is receiving started touring in Cleveland in December and has been to Pittsburgh and Hartford, Conn.

Snow and Pitchford are depending on the cross-generational appeal and the audience that embraced the film, even though the musical is quite a departure from it, according to Pitchford.

"I didn't want to do the movie again," he says. "I'd done the movie. The challenge became one of re- examining the material."

In that re-examination, some fans of the movie may find their favorite scenes made over or cut completely. And they may find it difficult adjusting to a new troupe of multitalented Midwesterners, minus Bacon, the skeletal Singer, lovably Neanderthal Chris Penn, Lithgow and the others.

"We forgot about the characters as defined in the movie," Snow says.

Adds Pitchford: "They [the audience] come in having seen the movie, but the moment the lights go down, and the opening number begins, you forget and become totally absorbed."

Peripheral characters have also been fleshed out to populate the stage and allow audiences to become acquainted with the small town in two hours, Pitchford says.

All the songs from the movie, except for "Dancing in the Sheets," are still there, in expanded and reworked form, played by a full orchestra.

"But you'll still recognize them," Snow says.

Besides the new songs developed especially for the show, incidental tunes from the movie have been given new importance.

For instance, "Somebody's Eyes," which in the film plays briefly from the boombox of Ariel's violent boyfriend, Chuck, has become a major theme, representing the suffocating insularity of Ren's new home.

"The inner workings of the characters are brought more clearly to life," Pitchford says. "The songs deepen their psychological complexity."

Complexity is not a word commonly associated with "Footloose." Its simplicity was the charm. Well, that and Kevin Bacon.

Harness your nostalgia. Forget about him. It's not happening.

Pitchford is adamant about it.

"His haircut ain't up there."

High-stepping

What: "Footloose," the musical.

When: Feb. 23-28; Tuesday-Saturday evening at 8 o'clock; Wednesday and Saturday matinee, 2 p.m.; Sunday matinee, 3 p.m

Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

Tickets: $36-$64. Call Ticketmaster, 410-752-1200.

Pub Date: 02/21/99

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