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By Emily Macel
This month a new cast of young dancers wants audiences to remember their names in Fame, a remake of the classic film about the lives of students at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City.
The award-winning original revealed the raw ambition and vulnerability of teenagers trying to make it as performers. With young fresh talent, a new set of characters, and modern-day drama, Fame’s next generation adds new twists and even more dancing.
The past several years have brought a surge of dance films and TV shows—all of them indebted to the Fame of 1980. So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and the onslaught of similar reality TV competitions that followed has thrust dance into the mainstream. And the successes of the High School Musical franchise brought audiences back to the lunchroom where a dance sequence could break loose at any minute.
The original Fame movie introduced real-world characters from a performing arts school: the dancer from the streets who hadn’t even planned to audition, a boy struggling with his homosexuality, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx trying to overcome stereotypes, a stellar singer who will do just about anything for fame, and a plain Jane who finds herself when she learns to let go. The lyrics to “Fame,” “Out Here On My Own,” and “I Sing the Body Electric” became anthems for young performers following their passions. The film was hugely successful; it won two Oscars and a Golden Globe, and inspired a TV show spin-off. In 1995 it was made into a musical in London’s West End, and it eventually landed off-Broadway. Now, Fame is coming back to the big screen.
What can audiences expect from this revamped look at a high school for the performing arts? “It’s really very modern,” says Kherington Payne, who plays the role of Alice, the upper-crust girl who is driven to dance. “It’s not just legwarmers and leotards. These kids’ lives are stories that could be completely true. I think we portray that well. It’s not cookie cutter; it’s not sugar-coated. It’s grimy and gritty. It’s what we really go through in life.”
The movie was filmed in both Los Angeles and New York to give it the realistic vibe of the city. And what’s a Fame remake without a wild dance party scene in the street?
Thanks to choreographer/director Kevin Tancharoen, dance is even more central to the plot than the first time around. From Payne’s leggy, sultry jazz solo to the high-energy all-genre celebration for the graduation finale, the entire cast dances. The movie spans ballet, jazz, tap, freestyle, African, and hip hop. More than 600 dancers auditioned for parts in the film; nearly 100 dancers were cast; 16 of those dancers are featured.
Tancharoen himself could be said to have a dosage of raw ambition. He began dancing with pop sensation Wade Robson at the age of 12; as a teen he worked with *NSync and choreographed for Britney Spears and Madonna. By 20, he was producing the MTV show “Dancelife” with Jennifer Lopez. Now 25, he has just directed a major Hollywood film.
For Fame, Tancharoen stayed behind the camera and hired his former teacher, Marguerite Derricks, to choreograph. Derricks was trained at the National Ballet School of Canada before heading to Hollywood, where she racked up choreography awards. She choreographed the Austin Powers films, 10 Things I Hate About You, Little Miss Sunshine, Charlie’s Angels, popular TV shows, and Cirque du Soleil. But of all the work Derricks has done, Fame hits closest to home. “This brings me back to my first job of being a Fame dancer with Debbie Allen,” she says.
Allen, who was a mentor to Derricks, appeared in the original movie of Fame as a teacher and reprised her role in the TV series. Now, nearly three decades later, she returns to Fame as Principal Simms. She’s joined by a star-studded cast including TV and Broadway star Megan Mullally and the dancer/singer/actress—and 2007 Dance Magazine awardee—Bebe Neuwirth.
Neuwirth plays Lynn, the ex-ballet dancer turned teacher. Neuwirth had studied dance at the Princeton Ballet and went to Juilliard for a year. “But I’m not a Juilliard-trained dancer,” she says. She took classes all around New York and eventually focused on jazz, going on to shine in Fosse classics like Sweet Charity and Chicago.
On the film set, the dancer embraced her old habits. “It was interesting to show up in a leotard and tights and throw my hair up. I felt very much at home,” Neuwirth says. “I found myself vetting everything, like, ‘Where’s the rosin box? Is that the right kind of rosin?’ This was all stuff that was happening inside my head as I was looking around.”
Neuwirth used her ballet background to make her character believable. “Since Lynn’s an ex-ballet dancer, I was trying to walk with as much turnout as possible. I don’t have any turnout at all—I’m even a little pigeon-toed, especially since I’ve had two hip replacements. I’d be walking down the hall thinking I was doing this great SAB walk and I’d look like a normal person,” she laughs.
Payne can relate to her character, Alice—at least partly. “She’s the Park Avenue rich girl who’s at this school for one thing and that’s dance. She meets this guy from Spanish Harlem, and she has to choose between her loves.” She says that she and Alice are similar in their drive. “She’s really focused on dance, and I’ve been focused on it my whole life.”
Though Payne is relatively unknown, she’s no stranger to the spotlight. She’s the blond, vibrant top 10 dancer from last season’s So You Think You Can Dance. (Half of the duo “Twitchington,” she was in Mia Michaels’ bed routine.)
Unlike the stars who play the teachers, the dancers are intentionally un-famous to allow the audience to follow them as young students without any preconceived notions of their talent. “We aren’t well known faces yet so it’s gonna feel more real,” Payne says. “I think watching us live our dream, showing our passion through what we’re doing, will inspire audiences.”
Paul McGill, another cast member, is more accustomed to being in a performing arts school. While on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles, McGill attended the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS) in New York City. McGill’s character Kevin is from the Midwest. “He’s kind of an outcast in the Midwest and he went to ballet school and wants to be a ballet dancer.” McGill, who is from Pittsburgh, relates to Kevin. “I left home at a very young age. I was going to PPAS and I know that sense of community.”
Having performed on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles and A Chorus Line, he’s learned the difference between Broadway and film work. “The thing I love about live theater is that as a character you get to feel the arc. You go into the theater an hour or so before the curtain, warm up, and perform,” he says. “For the film you get there at 5 a.m., you’re in hair and makeup, you’re doing 15-hour days. At any moment they say ‘Go.’ You have to be warm all day long.”
Neuwirth, who has starred in countless TV shows and films as well as musicals, knows the difference well. “In theater, the dancer dances,” she says. “In film, the cameras dance. You choreograph the dancer but you have to choreograph the cameras. Kevin Tancharoen is brilliant with choreographing the cameras, and Marguerite is brilliant for choreographing the dancers.”
Derricks says the dancers were inspirational for her choreography. “These kids are training the way I did when I was a Fame dancer,” she says. “For a while because of music videos, dancers stopped training—they specialized in one style.” But the dancers for this film had to be versatile. Though she says her choreography is not usually a collaborative process, this project was different. “When we got to the Hot Lunch and Halloween scenes, it was fun to see them be under my strict guidance one day, then another day be let out of the cage and turned loose,” Derricks says. “I wanted those kids to feel a creativity beyond just being a dance machine.”
Fame hits theaters nationwide September 25. For a preview, see www.generationfame.com.
Emily Macel, a former DM associate editor, is now based in Washington, DC.
Photo by Matthew Karas