She was once known as the “teenage mambo queen” in her working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. That Eleanor Bergstein, a doctor’s daughter with a penchant for the heady Latin rhythms that infiltrated American pop music in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, grew up to become the creator, writer and producer of the now iconic 1987 film Dirty Dancing, starring a very fine dancer-cum-actor Patrick Swayze in his breakout role as the underdog, blue-collar dance instructor Johnny Castle.
Bergstein mined her teenage years, which she spent dancing in darkened and cramped Brooklyn basements with boys who weren’t on the Ivy League track or even Jewish, into one of the most beloved dance movies of all time.
Now Dirty Dancing is back, this time as a live stage show featuring the memorable early 1960s sound track and hot, sexy dances that made filmgoers swoon. Revised for the London West End stage in 2004, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage makes its North American touring debut on Tuesday through Sept. 14 at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., then embarks on a 30-plus city national tour.
Dancing tells the story of a young woman’s coming of age while she learns to mambo and more. The backdrop – at that idyllic Catskills resort – was the last year of post-World War II innocence: before President Kennedy’s assassination, before the Civil Rights movement heated up, before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique and the Beatles invaded the American pop charts.
“The world that I wanted to bring back was the world of my parents in the ‘60s,” said Bergstein. “I set the film in 1963 and called it the last summer of liberalism. It really was a time when you did feel if you were pure of heart, you could reach out your hand and make the world better. My father was a doctor who got up in the morning and made sick people better. That was a world where blacks and whites swam in the same pool, and the first place where that happened was in the Catskills.
“People thought it was just a movie about a little girl who falls in love with a hunky guy, but there are morals involved. For me the political subtext of it was the reason why I made it, and that was the dirty little secret of the film.”
And that subtext includes subplots that paint a picture of an America of haves and have-nots. There’s Johnny and his staff, employed for the summer serving the wealthy and well-heeled patrons of a Catskills resort where the food is endless, the accommodations more than amenable and the biggest worries, especially for the wives and children who might stay all summer, are whether to choose between sessions of tetherball, basket weaving or mambo lessons. A second subplot, the unplanned pregnancy and botched abortion of one of the resort’s female dance instructors, presages the ongoing fight for women’s reproductive rights.
Getting Dirty Dancing, the movie, made was a huge and risky challenge, Bergstein said. “I was told at the time that the film would stay in theaters three or four days then go into video,” she recalled. “When it was first done, they called in a big-time producer for a screening. Afterwards, he said: ‘Burn the negative and take the insurance.’ We said, ‘we’ll go into editing and change whatever you want.’ ‘It’s hopeless,’ he said. ‘Just burn the negative.’ ”
Once widely released in movie theaters, the film quickly found an audience. “There was no one who had faith in this movie except the audiences who saw it and my colleagues and me,” Bergstein said, “but it wasn’t that we had faith that anyone else would see it. We just had faith that we had done our best.”
She had no plan to create a stage play. “I waited 20 years, and I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “I didn’t want to take advantage of my wonderful audience who could see it at home anytime. But then I finally started to think that people who saw it over and over again were seeing it because something happened to them while they were watching it. What they really wanted was to be there while it was happening. Live theater was its natural form.”
While Bergstein views the movie as quintessentially American, the Jewish subtext is undeniable and frames its various plotlines. Just as the dance vocabulary comes from her memories – she and choreographer Kenny Ortega would use their middle-aged bodies to demonstrate the highly sensual moves to the lithe and limber young cast – so do the Jewish values. “I really was called ‘Baby’ until I was 21. Like any writer you just take everything from your life,” she said.
“I was very interested in what politically and socially was happening in those years, that last summer of liberalism, which was largely funded and fueled by Jewish people who felt they had been blessed and saved by America. So it turned about to be about Jews, but I didn’t intend it to be a Jewish story.”
Dirty Dancing is onstage Aug. 26-Sept. 14 at the National Theatre in the District. Tickets, from $48 are available at 800-514-3849, at www.thenationaldc.org or at the theater box office.