A Baltimore accent in Brooklyn

'Saturday Night Fever' writer, actor and producer have local connections.

Theater

December 23, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Saturday Night Fever might seem like Brooklyn through and through. But the musical based on the 1977 movie has a subtle Baltimore flavor.

Three Baltimore natives figure prominently in the production that opens at the Lyric Opera House on Wednesday: Nan Knighton, who adapted the book; actor Andy Karl; and Jon B. Platt, who is co-producing the tour. Last week all three shared insights about the show, their lives and Baltimore.

Nan Knighton

If it hadn't been for a 1905 novel about the French Revolution, Nan Knighton might never have found herself writing about 1970s Brooklyn.

The novel was The Scarlet Pimpernel, which Knighton adapted into a Broadway musical, for which she also wrote the lyrics. Her Broadway debut, Pimpernel earned her a Tony nomination. It also earned her praise from Robert Stigwood, who produced the movie Saturday Night Fever and asked Knighton to adapt the screenplay for the musical stage.

Working with an existing score -- mostly by the Bee Gees, who added two new songs to their hit disco soundtrack -- was one of many challenges Knighton faced on Saturday Night Fever. She also had to deal with the movie's rapid cross-cutting from location to location.

"It's just all over place," she says. "So I had to do a lot of consolidation of scenes. I had to do transitions in and out that would smooth going from one place to another, and I had to do some additional dialogue and make it seamless enough so it meshed."

Knighton continued to tweak the script after its successful 1998 London debut. But she faced another task after a critically panned run on Broadway in 1999.

For the tour, co-producer Jon B. Platt wanted her to remove as much profanity as possible to attract family audiences. "That was probably one of my biggest challenges -- to find good substitutes for words," she says. "In some of the cases it was not too hard. 'Jesus' could be changed to 'jeez,' but other things were a real challenge. ... It was very important for me to keep the raw street feeling."

A 1965 graduate of Bryn Mawr School, Knighton, 54, is the daughter of a physician, Dr. Donald Proctor, and his wife, Janice, an artist. She sees almost no parallels between the private-school world she grew up in and the harsh, urban world of Saturday Night Fever, a coming-of-age story about young working-class men in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn in the 1970s.

"It was just like this sequestered little ivory tower ... a lot more innocent," she says of her Baltimore upbringing. An even greater difference, she continues, was that "there were a lot more opportunities" than the slim options available to the musical's characters.

For Knighton, those opportunities led to an undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a master's degree in creative writing from Boston University. And though she was a middle-aged mother of two by the time she made her Broadway debut, she had written for TV, film, cabaret and Radio City Music Hall before getting her big break on Pimpernel.

The Scarlet Pimpernel continues to open doors for Knighton. Currently, she's collaborating with Pimpernel composer Frank Wildhorn on a new musical based on the life of French sculptress Camille Claudel, mistress of Auguste Rodin.

Andy Karl

Andy Karl plays the loud-mouthed character of Joey in Saturday Night Fever, but once a week he gets to strut his stuff in the lead role of Tony Manero. And in real life he's one Tony who has rewritten the script.

In the show, a girl named Annette has a hopeless crush on Tony, who doesn't want anything to do with her. Last January, however, Karl, 29, married the actress who originated the role of Annette on Broadway, Orfeh (who uses only her first name). It's a happily-ever-after story that he describes as "a beautiful, wonderful life."

Karl had joined the Broadway cast of Saturday Night Fever midway through its 13-month run. Though he was cast as Tony's friend Joey, he also understudied the lead, duties he is repeating on the road.

"Joey is the joy boy. He's the guy who's the loudest and laughs and always cracks a joke. I'm always snapping my fingers and cracking some wisecrack," says Karl, who feels his own personality is closer to that of the more sensitive Tony.

Though he's guaranteed a turn as Tony one performance a week on tour (he'll play the role Sunday night at the Lyric), he had to wait three months for a chance to play Tony on Broadway. He'd just come from an audition when he found out the Fever star had hurt his shoulder.

"It was invigorating because I'm going to play this lead on Broadway, walking down center stage, strutting my stuff as Tony Manero -- John Travolta's role," he remembers thinking. "The spotlight's on you. There's a moment where you take off your shirt and the audience applauded, and I thought once I got through that, everything was going to be O.K."

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