Is it fair to say that Saturday Night Fever is not quite the film people remember it to be?
I suspect most people are familiar with the PG version of film. It was on TV a lot when I was growing up. The original version was R-Rated (UK 18). The film producers re-released it as a PG after the box-office busting success of Grease. Travolta was all the rage and I guess Fever’s moneymen wanted a piece of the action. So they released a family friendly edition. The swearing was dubbed over and the racier scenes edited out.
When did you first see it?
I saw the PG release when I was a kid. Eleven or twelve. I don’t remember being impressed. I guess I was expecting Grease 2. Its not Grease 2… Before I accepted the job I downloaded the R-Rated version and finally got to see the full movie in all its undubbed glory.
What made you want to stage it today?
The story; it’s phenomenal. When I read the script I couldn’t believe how raw and dark it was. Its this brutally honest warts and all character study, a definitive portrait of a young working class individual wrestling with his identity. It’s gritty, complex, and uncompromising; a director’s dream.
The film was released in the UK in March 1978 when disco was still in its prime. More than 35 years later, did you want to do something more than that look back nostalgically at that time?
Absolutely. People have very specific memories of Saturday Night Fever. It conjures up images of white suits, mirror balls, dance floors, Travolta’s hips, chest hair and flares. Its remembered mainly for its dance scenes and rocking sound track. Its a movie that managed to capture the disco zeitgeist on celluloid and, of course, it has a nostalgic connection for many people.
But I’m not interested in directing an evening of nostalgia. When you take off those rose-tinted glasses and look at what was really happening in the seventies you see that the American Dream was falling apart. This was the decade of defeat in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, the worst economic depression in 40 years, the gas crisis, the Iran hostage crisis. Tony and his peers are stuck with unemployed fathers, an economy in the dump, and a vacuum in the national leadership, they’re the post-Nixon, blue-collar generation with no heroes except in TV-showbiz land.
It doesn’t take a great intellect to see the parallels between then and now. Even though we’re pulling ourselves out of the economic recession here in the UK the unemployment rates for young people are still at a record high. They’re calling these kids who can’t get jobs the lost generation and this is exactly what Tony Manero was facing back in 79: an uncertain and directionless future. Its now wonder he’d rather lose him self in the wild abandonment of the disco. At one point Tony says, ‘Fuck the future!’ to which his boss replies, ‘No, Tony, the future fucks you.’
When I work on a piece set in a specific era I see it as my job to work out what makes the story relevant, asking myself how does a 21st century audience connect with this stoty. So I look for the universal themes, like in Fever’s case, imprisonment and escape, identity, sexual yearning and social aspiration and it becomes clear that the piece is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.
How smoothly does it transfer from screen to stage?
The original stage-show was a sanitised version of the movie. More like the PG version. Robert Stigwood who’s producing the show with Theatre Royal Bath, very kindly let me return to the movie script so that we could capture some of the urban grittiness that made the film so unique when it premiered in 1977.
It is definitely trickier staging a film script than a theatre script. The film scenes are by nature much shorter than the scenes you would find in a play. One minute we’re at the Manero dining table, the next we’re in a dance studio and then a page later we’re in a paint store. Personally I love this kind of a challenge. You have to think filmically. Is that a word? You have to keep the action fluid. No huge set pieces clogging up the stage. Underscoring becomes crucial too as a means of linking scenes and keeping the plot on the boil.
What did you learn from arranging and directing Saturday Night Fever for the English Theatre in Frankfurt?
I suppose the main thing we learnt was how to use the songs of the Bee Gees to tell the story. There’s no getting away from the fact these world famous Bee Gee’s hits are first and foremost pop songs. They’re not driven by narrative or character as they would be in a more conventional musical.
So Paul Herbert, one of the loveliest musical directors in the business, and I spent a great deal of time analysing how best to use the songs in the show. We’d focus on lyrics which pushed the story forward and helped us define character. For instance, the lyric ‘Life going nowhere, somebody help me’ becomes a recurring leitmotif throughout the story. It sums up Tony’s sense of oppression and frustration with his lack of life prospects. From the same song “Feel the city breakin' and everybody shaking’ became a lament for the blue-collar workers of Brooklyn queuing for gas at 6:30am.
I think it worked. We had a lot of audience members tell us they’d never really listened to the lyrics before and for the first time had understood them. High praise indeed from a German audience!
In the film, everything rests on the dancing abilities of John Travolta and Karen Lynn Gorney. Is it even more important to get the choreography right on the stage?
Curiously, if you watch the film agin you’ll notice Ms. Gorney isn’t the greatest dancer. She’s quite wafty. Is that a word? In films you can cut away to a close up of the feet or a spinning mirror ball to hide a lot of mistakes. Obviously you can’t do this on stage. There’s no hiding. The choreography has to be stunning. Fortunately we have Andrew Wright working on the show. Andrew’s brings a dynamism and vitality to the disco sequences, his choreography is exhilarating to watch.
What were you looking for in your cast?
In our version of the show the performers do everything. They act, sing, dance and play the instruments. Its a big ask because obviously the choreographer wants the best dancers, the musical director wants the best singers / musicians, the director wants the best actors and no one is willing to compromise. Fortunately, this meant we have ended up with some of the most highly skilled, versatile performers in show business. We’ve assembled an incredibly talented cast of hot new talent who between them play trumpets, saxophones, bass, guitars, trombones, piano, drums, clarinets, flutes and cajons!
Casting Tony Manero was almost impossible. We had to find someone with the all of the disciplines above but we also needed charisma, someone who can embody the Italian American machismo Tony Manero exudes. It took us months of auditions but finally we found Danny Bayne. He has some of Travolta’s qualities but he has made the role his own. We’ve no desire to mimic what’s gone before. There’s a vulnerability to Danny’s performance that balances Tony’s cock-sure arrogance.
Is the music of the Bee Gees as good to choreograph to as it to listen to?
Having such fantastic tunes definitely helps the choreography yes. The sound track to the show was written to be danced to! When the Bee Gees’ music played dance floors filled up.
Do you think audiences enjoy the combination of serious themes with feel good music and dance?
At the end of the day audiences want to be entertained. That’s what I got to the theatre for. But that’s not to say entertainment can’t be challenging as well as fun. If people are coming because they want a nostalgic cheese-fest, then my advice is stay in and watch Strictly.
However, if you’re after a guaranteed good night out, a musical with a knock-out story that packs a punch set to the ultimate soundtrack of the Seventies then Saturday Night Fever is the show for you!
How would you sum up the story of Saturday Night Fever?
In many ways its a simple coming of age story. Tony is 19, a high-powered fusion of sexuality, street jive, and the frustrated hopes of a boy-man who can't articulate his sense of oppression. He has no prospects, he has a dead end job and struggles to provide for his dysfunctional family; an overtly religious mother and a resentful, unemployed father. His escape is the disco. When Tony dances, he is the king of Brooklyn. When he’s not, he’s just another Italian American schlep working at a paint store and living with his parents. Gradually, through his relationship with Stephanie, a socially aspirational Manhattan office girl, Tony realises that the disco is a mirage; an illusion. To truly set himself free from the shackles of his situation Tony begins to understand he will have to turn his back on everyone and everything he knows.
Tell us a little bit about the character of Tony Manero.
Tony Manero, is initially an anti-hero; a molotov cocktail of racism, sexism, homophobia and jingoism. A hyper masculine chauvinist who suffers from the Madonna-whore complex, or simply put, he can only see women as untouchable virgins if he desires them, or tainted whores after he gets them. He’s a product of his up bringing and environment; we are simultaneously fascinated and reviled by him. The whole point of the story is observing him as he slowly casts off his prejudices and takes small steps towards personal enlightenment.