MTV and Flashdance were born one after the other — MTV in August 1981, Flashdance in April 1983. And if Flashdance seemed a hybrid of movie and music video, that’s exactly the daring way screenwriter Tom Hedley and director Adrian Lyne decided to tell the story of a Pittsburgh girl who worked in a steel mill by day and danced in a bar by night.
Flash forward three decades. A new iteration of that fairy tale, Flashdance the Musical, began a Broadway-bound national tour in (where else?) Pittsburgh in January. Beginning Tuesday, the show’s heroine will be dancing up a storm (and taking a nightly onstage shower) for two weeks at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
Flashdance was inspired by the youthful adventures of Hedley and Canadian painter Robert Markle in Toronto and the gritty nearby steel town of Hamilton.
“Robert was frustrated at painting nudes in a studio. He wanted to see the bodies in motion,” says Hedley, a former Esquire editor and book publisher. “He found these neighborhood bars that had their own burlesques, with lighting and costumes, before porn and mob-owned bars came into the neighborhoods and changed them. He said, ‘This is my Sistine Chapel.’ We were regulars. We got to know all the girls.”
After Hedley dreamed up the story of a blue-collar woman driven by the desire to dance, he wangled a meeting with legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse, who thought Flashdance could work well on Broadway. But Hedley had already sold his story to Paramount, and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer made it their first collaboration.
Flashdance made a star of Jennifer Beals, who played welder-dancer Alexandra “Alex” Owens. It also, as Fosse had predicted, made a lot of money — raking in more than $150 million, becoming the third highest grossing movie of 1983 in the United States and selling more than 6 million copies of its Grammy Award-winning soundtrack.
After that success, and with Broadway’s growing appetite for turning hit movies into musicals, Hedley was approached more than once about creating a dance-driven stage production. Collaborating with composer Robbie Roth, writer-lyricist Robert Cary and director-choreographer Sergio Trujillo, he now has the musical he pitched to Fosse all those years ago.
The movie’s famous songs — Flashdance … What a Feeling, Maniac, Gloria, Manhunt, I Love Rock ’n’ Roll — are all part of the show, along with 16 new songs by Roth and Cary. The love story between Alex and Nick, her boss at the steel mill, has been beefed up, and the cast of triple-threat actor-singer-dancers includes Emily Padgett in the intense leading role of Alex.
“Alex has these big dreams. She wants to succeed, but fear holds her back,” says Padgett, who relates to that feeling. “I fell in love with the show, but I wanted to run away from it too. … Sergio is tough on me, but he believes in me more than I believe in myself. He knows what he wants. He’s like my coach, always three steps ahead of me.”
The busy Trujillo, choreographer for Jersey Boys, Memphis and the new musical Hands on a Hardbody, was hired to helm Flashdance the Musical because, says Hedley, “it was apparent to me that dance was the principal character in the show.”
For his part, Trujillo was looking for a project that would allow him to tell a story through scenes and dance. This one, he says, “made absolute sense. No one but a choreographer or ex-dancer could understand what it takes to be a dancer.”
His staging references some of the movie’s iconic moments — Alex doing a chair dance and getting drenched by shower water, for instance — but the Colombia-born, Canada-raised Trujillo has crafted his own version of the fairy tale.
The three-decade delay in getting Flashdance from the screen to the stage also worked to the musical’s advantage visually. Set designer Klara Zieglerova collaborated with projection designer Peter Nigrini to create a world of ’80s steel-town grit and flashy glamor, one that moves as fast as the dancers.
“It’s very cinematic. It moves fast. The first scene has 13 different looks,” Zieglerova says, adding that the show’s look was inspired in part by an Andrew Moore photo of a steel-mill interior. “We made these three-dimensional towers that were in the photo. They could open so you could have dance space, then close to create intimacy.”
Nigrini, a master of the relatively new art of projection design, collaborated with Zieglerova to create what he calls “an aesthetic conversation between an object and the content projected onto it” so that the boundary between the two dissolves.
“It’s increasingly possible to make theater that moves cinematically,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, every image should move, but directors find that terrifying. Life isn’t static.”
Nigrini notes that Flashdance the Musical contains nearly 2,000 separate pieces of video that the stage manager can cue at will.
“There’s an incredible amount of technology and scenery in this show, but all those things need to be subservient to living, breathing actors,” he says. “Otherwise, you should just go to the movies.”