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‘Dirty Dancing’ Begins Its Second Act—Onstage

And the creative force behind it is still having the time of her life

Lonnie Firestone
September 09, 2014
Samuel Pergande (Johnny), Jillian Mueller (Baby), and Jenny Winton (Penny) in the North American tour of 'Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage.' (Matthew Murphy)
Samuel Pergande (Johnny), Jillian Mueller (Baby), and Jenny Winton (Penny) in the North American tour of 'Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage.' (Matthew Murphy)

Eleanor Bergstein is the creative force behind the hit 1987 film Dirty Dancing, and the memorabilia-covered walls of her Manhattan living room won’t let you forget it—a poster in English here, one in German there. With the U.S. premiere of a Dirty Dancing stage adaptation in Washington, D.C., last week, there are sure to be more posters to come.

When I paid her visit not long ago, she smiled and said, “I hope you’re not going to ask if Dirty Dancing is the story of my life.”

The answer is both yes and no. Bergstein, a former dancer and mambo competitor who spent numerous summers at Grossinger’s in the Catskills, drew from personal experience in writing the screenplay to Dirty Dancing, which she set at a fictional resort named Kellerman’s. Bergstein strayed from her own story to create the film’s romantic leads: Johnny Castle, a gifted dancer with working-class roots, and Baby Houseman, a young idealist from a liberal Jewish family. These unlikely partners evolve romantically and rhythmically from their first pelvic rotation to “Love Man” to their kinetic chemistry of “I’ve Had the Time of My Life.” If you first saw Dirty Dancing as a child or teenager in the late 1980s, it’s likely the film still holds a place in your heart—from the embarrassment of carrying a watermelon to the exhilaration of the lift.

For the past decade, a live musical adaptation, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story Onstage, has benefited from the film’s sustained popularity. The show had its world premiere in Australia in 2004. It then toured through Europe. The show is now embarking on its first American tour, which is announced through the summer of 2015 and booking into future seasons

While any live staging of Dirty Dancing would likely see a good number of tickets, Bergstein insists that she wouldn’t have bothered to make it it’d been a carbon copy of the film, or worse, a schlocky musical revue. Instead, what seemed worthwhile to her was giving audiences a deeper way to access the story. What she wanted to provide, Bergstein said, was the sense of “being there while it’s happening.”

Equally important to Bergstein was creating a richer narrative, particularly with regard to the social and political character of the time. Bergstein deliberately set the story in August 1963, the summer Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and just months before the assassination of President Kennedy. The reason Baby goes to Kellerman’s is that she had wanted to go to Washington, D.C., and her father, worried about the potential for violence, coerces her to join them on a family vacation. Several politically charged scenes that didn’t make it into the film now appear in the show, Bergstein said, including “a scene that I’d always wanted to do where Baby and her father argue about freedom riding.”

One of the story’s key plot points, as anyone familiar with the film knows, involves an illegal abortion. Bergstein felt certain that Penny’s story and Dr. Houseman’s treatment of her should also gain complexity and nuance in the show. “Baby’s father is a great hero,” Bergstein said. “He could’ve lost his medical license by not reporting Penny. We didn’t have time to make that clear in the movie. It’s clearer in the show.”

There are inevitably audiences who aren’t interested in subplots or political context at all. What they want is a live version of the dance scenes and a 3-D version of Johnny saying, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” To be sure, all of those moments are in the show. “There’s no right way to like something,” Bergstein said. “I’m grateful to anyone who likes anything I’ve done, but the reason I made it was to show the class, moral, and emotional difficulties of the time.”

Another focal point for Bergstein was to authentically depict the Jewish backdrop of the Catskills. “Because I was the only person [on the creative team] who had been there, I knocked myself out to make sure that all the details were right and that it was specific to the Catskills in those years.” During the filming of the movie, Bergstein made sure that the dining room scenes did not feature any meat and milk together. That attention to detail has continued through the adaptation of the film for stage.

With the American tour now under way, Bergstein has shifted some of her attention to other creative projects—a novel, a new play, and a film are all in the works. But Dirty Dancing continues to beckon, and her work on it continues to enrich and shape her life. “So many of the things that were indigenous to 1963 are true again,” she said. “There’s unemployment. Roe v. Wade is under attack. That doesn’t make me say, ‘Great, we’ve got a timely piece!’ It makes me say, “I thought some of those battles had been won, and they haven’t.’ ”

Lonnie Firestone writes about theater, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.