Screenwriter was reluctant to bring ‘Dirty Dancing’ to the stage

Bronwyn Reed (left) and Christopher Tierney co-star in the North American tour of “Dirty Dancing — the Classic Story On Stage.” (Contributed)

Bronwyn Reed (left) and Christopher Tierney co-star in the North American tour of “Dirty Dancing — the Classic Story On Stage.” (Contributed)

Nobody puts Eleanor Bergstein in a corner.

The screenwriter and co-producer of the 1987 blockbuster “Dirty Dancing” spent the better part of 20 years resisting the idea of transforming the film into a stage musical.

After figuring out a way to approach the adaptation, Bergstein penned the book for the nontraditional musical. “Dirty Dancing — the Classic Story On Stage” began as an eight-week staged workshop in Manhattan in 2001, eventually debuting in Australia three years later. In 2006, it opened in London’s West End to £11 million in advance ticket sales. Since then, it’s been shimmying around the globe and returns to Atlanta Thanksgiving weekend.

Like the coming-of-age movie, it takes place at a Catskills resort circa 1963, where 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman falls for dance instructor Johnny Castle. Yeah, the buff bodies and pelvic dance moves remain. The same goes for the backdrop of social and political turmoil, something Bergstein said stays in step with the contemporary climate.

Just don’t expect Johnny to burst into song. The music comes to life within the context of the story. We hear songs from the multi-platinum film soundtrack and more coming from an onstage radio or record player, or courtesy of the live eight-piece band.

Over the phone from her New York City home, Bergstein recently talked about revisiting the project, adding more music, and the film’s Southern fandom.

Q: Back in the late 1980s, when you were writing the screenplay, did you ever think it might make a good musical one day?

A: I didn't. … To make it fully what I wanted it to be, people have to feel like they're there while it's happening. That, of course, is live theater. … I said no for 20 years and clutched onto the fact that the rights were mine, because I was so beholden to my audience, which is so lovely, openhearted and dear. I didn't want to seem to be taking advantage of them. I didn't want them to come to the show and say, "Why did I spend this money when I have the movie at home?" or "This isn't really good, and I no longer love what I used to love." So, I was very frightened of that. … There's a (tour) going around England at the moment, and one of the reviews described the reviewer walking in behind a mother and a little boy. And the little boy said to his mother, "I hope it's all that you want it to be." I read that and it (touched my) heart. And my husband said, "You're that little boy." I just want it to be what people hope it will be when they come see the show.

Q: Doing it as a theatrical production gave you a chance to add songs.

A: There were a lot of songs that I wanted in the movie that I couldn't afford, because it was a low-budget movie, and nobody particularly wanted to give us their songs. … I remember I wanted to get "Save the Last Dance for Me." I thought I couldn't do (the movie) without it. I tried and tried, and they said it was up to Mort Shuman, the writer. I sent him the script, and I sent him pleading letters. And the answer came back, "No." Years later, when I was in London, I met him and I said, "It's hard even for me to meet you, because I tried so hard to get a few of your songs in (the movie.)" And he said, "It was hard for me to meet you, because, when I saw the movie, I thought, 'Why didn't she use any of those songs?'" And, of course, the record company hadn't told him. Now, to my great delight, I have those songs in (the musical). Never be satisfied with a middle man who says "no."

Q: Have you ever been to the Dirty Dancing Festival in Lake Lure, N.C.?

A: I haven't. And it's really a hoot. We shot the movie in two states. In North Carolina, they were so uneasy about us that we said the name of our movie was "Dancing" instead of "Dirty Dancing." We were afraid they would think it was a porno film. On the last night of shooting, the (production) company gave us black sweatshirts with "Dirty Dancing" printed in red. And it was the only piece of clean clothing any of us had. So, the next day, we all went into town and went shopping, wearing those sweatshirts. They saw the "Dirty Dancing" logo, and it was as if the devil had just come to Lake Lure. People were (gasping), and then we realized what had happened. They hadn't even known that was the title of the movie. Now, they're celebrating it and having a festival. Wait long enough and anything can happen.


"Dirty Dancing — the Classic Story On Stage." 8 p.m. Nov. 25; 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 26; 1 p.m. Nov. 27. $38-$78 plus fees. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000,