Saturday Night Fever, one of the most loved dance stories of all time, opens at Wycombe Swan on January 20 as part of its UK tour.
This new production from Theatre Royal, Bath is packed with legendary hits from the Bee Gees including the classics Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever, Jive Talking, You Should Be Dancing and How Deep is Your Love?
And it features a large and hugely talented cast of actor-musicians who will play instruments, dance and sing in this spectacular new musical production.
Stage Review spoke to director Ryan McBryde about his take on this now iconic show.
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 the 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.
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.
It’s 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, mirrorballs, dance floors, Travolta’s hips, chest hair and flares. It’s remembered mainly for its dance scenes and rocking soundtrack.
It’s 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 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 story?
So I look for the universal themes, like, in Saturday Night 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?
In 2012 Robert Stigwood went back to the original film script by Norman Wexler and, with the assistance of Bill Oakes, they rewrote the book being the basis of the new script.
I was very fortunate that Robert allowed me to collaborate with him on this new adaptation 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’s 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 in ‘filmic’ terms. 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 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. It’s 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. It took us months of auditions, but finally we found Danny Bayne. He has some of Travolta’s qualities but 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 cocksure 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 soundtrack to the show was written to be danced to! When the Bee Gees’ music played, dance floors filled up.
How would you sum up the story of Saturday Night Fever?
In many ways, it’s 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 schlepper 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.
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 again, you’ll notice Ms Gorney isn’t the greatest dancer.
The choreography has to be stunning. Fortunately, we have Andrew Wright working on the show. Andrew brings a dynamism and vitality to the disco sequences; his choreography is exhilarating to watch.
Saturday Night Fever runs at the Wycombe Swan from January 20-24.
For a list of 2015 UK tour dates (and a preview of the show) go to bit.ly/14ptcYf