When this high-voltage stage adaptation of the 1977 John Travolta movie opened on Broadway two years ago, incensed critics condemned it as the poster child for everything that's wrong with today's nigh-on-comatose American musical theater. Saturday Night Fever, the critics charged, was yet another paste-up musical, all sound and fever, mindlessly dependent on Hollywood for its source material. Then they damned it as a prime example of how so many great old movies are being cannibalized for the stage.
Clearly this new Fever is not to be discussed in the same breath with ambitious musicals such as Sweeney Todd or Show Boat. But why such outrage? Although it's true that Broadway is weathering a protracted cycle of musicals based on movies, this concept is hardly new. Back in the 1950s and '60s, former St. Louisan David Merrick grew rich producing stage adaptations of classic movies such as Fanny, Destry Rides Again and The Apartment.
As for the cannibalization charge, you just want to holler: Get a life. Saturday Night Fever was an extraordinarily popular movie -- it grossed more than $100 million on a $7 million outlay, made a superstar of Travolta and triggered the worldwide disco craze -- but Citizen Kane it's not. When the picture opened in St. Louis 25 years ago, Post-Dispatch critic Joe Pollack mirrored the opinions of scores of film critics when he summed it up as "lots of loud music and coarse language, and an extremely phony ending." This stage version sanitizes the coarse language, exploits the loud music (primarily through dazzling dance numbers that leave the audience breathless) and is still stuck with the phony ending. That's not cannibalization; that's savvy adaptation.
But Saturday Night Fever was one of those movies for which the reviews were irrelevant. Audiences didn't care that the film was burdened by too many plot threads, too lightly skimmed over. They were swept away by the pulsating drive of those now-classic Bee Gees songs. It's those anthems to a lost age -- "How Deep Is Your Love," "Stayin' Alive," "Night Fever" -- that provide this new entertainment with its spine.
I wish I could report on the performance of the actor who plays the pivotal Travolta role. Alas, at the performance I saw last week in Memphis, the understudy was playing Tony Manero. He was terrific. Yet, from the third balcony in Memphis' restored Orpheum Theatre, it might have been Travolta himself down there on that distant stage. After all, the lighting duplicates the high-tech look of the movie; the costumes are the same. As audiences at the Fox will discover this week, a restored movie palace is an ideal -- almost surreal -- venue in which to see a new musical based on an old movie. And by the way, here's one show for which you don't need to purchase the cachet seats. Saturday Night Fever plays great from the balcony.
As a critic, I could note that the movie's structure isn't ideally suited to the stage and that the first act ends arbitrarily with no sense of climax. But as a viewer, I simply didn't care. So let me tear down the roadblocks and suggest that anyone who attends Saturday Night Fever, as I did, with undemanding expectations and a keen sense of nostalgia is likely to have a rousing good time.
We'll worry about Broadway's woes another week.