It is widely assumed that Eleanor Bergstein, the woman who created Dirty Dancing - both the hugely successful 1987 movie and the 2004 stage phenomenon - used her own biography as the model for Frances (Baby) Houseman, the ugly-duckling teen heroine who gets her man, Johnny Castle, in the end.
Well, yes and no. Yes, Bergstein was nicknamed Baby. Her own family did vacation in a Catskills resort in the 1950s, one very much like the fictional Kellerman's in the show. And no doubt she did her share of dirty dancing in Brooklyn basements on hot summer nights, if not with the hotel staff.
Unlike Baby, however, Bergstein, now 69, was also a dancer herself, a mambo champion in contests and, later, good enough to teach for a time at the Arthur Murray Dance Studios.
But was she good enough to teach a stumble-legged, cha-cha-challenged journalist a few hot moves? That's what I wanted to find out.
So a few weeks ago, with the tacit blessing of her husband, Shakespeare scholar Michael Goldman, Bergstein and I went dancing at a Toronto nightclub.
She did her best to coach me, moving with an effortless grace. I did my best to respond as directed, but my best fell somewhere short of Fred Astaire or John Travolta. Verdict: It's safe to say I won't be joining the Dirty Dancing ensemble any time soon. But we did have a lot of fun.
A week or so later, I met Bergstein again, to hear the story of her incredible journey with the show. Bruce Springsteen's legion of fans will be surprised, I expect, to learn this, but it turns out the Boss is the guy who inspired Bergstein to adapt the movie for the stage. Producers had wooed her for years for just such a project, but she had always declined.
But one year after the attacks of 9/11, she attended a Springsteen concert at Shea Stadium in New York. It was a cold rainy night and, Bergstein recalls, "we were all feeling pretty awful. He was very tiny - we were sitting far away from the stage - but his energy just filled the place with an ecstatic presentness. It was very moving and emotional. And at the end, when the musicians were packing up, he came back on stage to play more and many of us were just weeping, like a community. And I knew at the moment exactly what I wanted to do - to create a live theatre experience as intimate as a movie, to make it a community experience with all the lines of ecstasy and sorrow."
Bergstein has been in Toronto for the past month, overseeing the fourth installation of a show that has shattered box office records in all its previous incarnations: Sydney, Hamburg and London. The Toronto advance sale is now more than $17-million, about the sum generated two years ago by Lord of the Rings. Daily ticket sales have doubled since previews opened last month, which suggests that the local production, starring Jake Simons as Johnny and Monica West as Baby, is developing positive word of mouth. Another cast is scheduled to open in March in Amsterdam and a Chicago production is planned for next fall.
A few weeks ago, as it happened, Bruce Springsteen was playing Toronto's Air Canada Centre and Bergstein arranged tickets for about 12 members of the cast. "And I saw again everything that had made me want to do this."
All of this is the result of a low-budget ($5-million (U.S.)) independent film produced by a small video company with two then unknown actors (Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey), after having been turned down by every Hollywood studio. Its worldwide gross is now in excess of $300-million, while the album of its songs initially spent 18 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard and ultimately sold more than 44 million copies. Ironic, insofar as when Bergstein, a novelist and screenwriter ( It's My Turn), was demonstrating dirty dancing on studio desks trying to sell the film, everyone told her that "kids won't like this music."
Long before Bergstein had resolved to mount a theatrical adaptation, she had been surprised and delighted to discover that she did not have to purchase the stage rights; she already owned them. "I owned them only because it was part of the collective agreement. Otherwise, believe me, I would have given them away to have gotten the movie done."
Her hold on the rights didn't prevent various producers from trying to execute end runs. "I'd get these letters from people saying they were doing the stage musical and if I simply signed a form, my husband and I would get tickets for opening night. And of course, I'd write back saying, 'Thank you for your offer of tickets, but you can't do this.' "
So for 16 years, she locked those rights away in a drawer. After the Springsteen concert, she started looking for a producing partner and found Australia's Kevin Jacobsen and Col Joye.
Bergstein's vision was to recreate the movie version on the stage, as far as was possible. That meant not only a live video feed that might simulate the cinema. It also meant, more controversially, that Dirty Dancing in the theatres would not be a conventional musical, where the songs are integrated into the narrative.
Virtually everyone tried to persuade her to add more singing and let the lead actors sing. "A song, half a song, a few bars, anything, they begged me to add. The pressure was relentless. And I think they thought at some point I'd give in." But she refused - and the phenomenal ticket sales suggest that her instincts were right.
Bergstein insists that as popular as the show has been among young women, many of whom seem to know every line in the script, the most passionate audience is men.
"I think the movie gave permission for a whole generation of male dancers to become dancers," to see that you could be a man and still dance.
"I think that many men identify with Johnny in the sense that he goes out to face a world each day that doesn't really know what's inside him. He has to show what the world expects him to show. I've always thought that it's hard to be a man because what you show the world is always at a price."
Dirty Dancing opens tomorrow night at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre and runs until June 1.