Eleanor Bergstein recalls arriving with her family at the famed Grossinger’s resort in the Catskills when she was a child in the early 1960s and heading straight to the one location that seemed to call her.
“I immediately made a beeline for the dance studio,” said Bergstein, who wrote the screenplay for the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” as well as the book for the stage production, which will open at Heinz Hall on May 23 and run through May 28.
The idea for the show, said Bergstein, came from “the memories of my little 10- and 11-year-old nose pressed against the window, watching what was going on and having this huge imagination about what it might be.”
That imagination led to a story that proved to inspire fans not only for its exciting dance numbers and romance, but for its social and political reflections of a time and place whose issues remain vitally relevant 30 years later.
“Dirty Dancing,” set in the summer of 1963, tells the story of 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman who is on vacation at Kellerman’s, a resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains, with her older sister and parents. The show follows Baby, who is fascinated by the racy dance moves and music in the resort’s staff quarters, as well as with Johnny Castle, the resort’s dance instructor.
But Bergstein’s script goes beyond the glamour of mid-20th century Catskill vacation life and into a chapter of American history on the cusp of radical change. Not only would the resorts, like Grossinger’s, soon begin their own decline, but the world in which that type of idyllic life could exist also would begin to be turned on its head.
“In a way ’63 was like the last summer that it was all wonderful,” said Bergstein. “So, [resort owner] Max’s speech at the end, saying it’s all changing, he’s right. Two months after that, John F. Kennedy is killed. Shortly after that, the Beatles come and rock music goes above ground, meaning that things weren’t hidden in the staff quarters anymore. Things were above ground. Nobody was taking cha-cha lessons anymore, and kids were involved in radical action. They didn’t want to go away with their parents. So, everything changed right after that.”
While many fans of the film, which starred Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, were taken in by the music and the dancing, Bergstein had inserted plot lines dealing head on with some of the most controversial issues of the time, including abortion, Viet Nam and race relations.
“I made the movie in ’87 about ’63, and people said, ‘Why are you putting illegal abortion in? Roe vs. Wade has been in for, what, 10 years?’ And they said, ‘Why do you have Viet Nam? Nobody is going over there anymore? And why do you have race relations? That’s all been fixed.’”
To Bergstein’s regret, all those issues remain painfully relevant.
“Now, not only is Roe vs. Wade hanging by a terrifying thread, but young men are being sent across the world to fight in a war in that they don’t want to fight in,” she said. “And race relations — there are Black Lives Matter demonstrations in almost every city we visit. So, to my sorrow, what I was assured was not necessary to put in in ’87 has become topical again, and nobody could be sorrier than I am about that. So, it’s all kind of come around.”
One point Bergstein makes in the two-hour stage show, which she didn’t have time to insert in the 90-minute film, “is that Grossinger’s and these places were the only places in the country where blacks and whites were in the same swimming pool together,” she said. “So, there was a real joining of the Jewish community and the early black Civil Rights movement. And I had wanted to make that clear in the movie, and I do it more in the show.”
The stage show has many other additions as well, Bergstein said, adding not only to the musical richness of the production, but to its thematic elements.
“There’s a lot more about the period, about politics, about the things going on with the parents,” she said. “It’s all in the movie if you look carefully.”
At its heart, of course, the work is also about the power of dance.
“One of the biggest pleasures for me, no matter where the show plays, is that you will see the audience dancing out the door at the end,” Bergstein said. “And not so much because they are wonderful dancers, but some of them are moving in ways you can intuit they have never moved before, and that is such a pleasure.”
The live show, which Bergstein is careful to emphasize is not a musical (“meaning people don’t sing to each other,” but the music provides an organic backup), features an eight-piece band on stage, about 20 new scenes, about 15 new songs, “and a lot more dancing.”
Politics continue to remain at the heart of Bergstein’s current work, as she is hoping to finalize a television adaptation of her first novel “Advancing Paul Newman,” which she said portrays what could have been the next chapter in Baby’s life.
“It’s about girls in the late 1960s who get very involved in political work, which is what would have happened to Baby,” she said.
“We need our young people out working in the political arena, and I think they have to understand it is the most vital, most important thing they can do. In Baby’s time, you thought if your heart was pure that you could reach out your hand and make the world better, and that has sort of disappeared a little now.”
“Dirty Dancing” at Heinz Hall is part of the 2016-2017 PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series, presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Pittsburgh Symphony and Broadway Across America.
Tickets are available for purchase by calling 412-392-4900, visiting the Heinz Hall Box Office or online at TrustArts.org.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.