You have to go back to 1977’s “The Turning Point” to find a major Hollywood release devoted to ballet. Despite the fact that little girls around the world dream of starring in The Nutcracker, ballet is perceived as not being saleable enough to the all-important young audiences.
Columbia’s “Center Stage,” opening May 12, could test that theory once and for all: It has a major promotional push behind it, stars dozens of beautiful young men and women, and features close to 60 minutes of pure dance. Once the producers realized that theatrical dance would play a major role in the story and not just serve as window dressing, they set out to find a director who was equally comfortable in film and theater. They quickly found Nicholas Hytner.
Hytner, best known for his productions of Miss Saigon and the acclaimed Carousel revival, has seen his star rise in Hollywood steadily over the last six years. After proving himself on the highbrow route with adaptations of “The Madness of King George” and “The Crucible” (the two films earned a total of six Oscar nominations), he scored a minor commercial success with “The Object of My Affection,” a gay-straight romance written by Wendy Wasserstein. In the meantime, he has directed theater both in New York (Twelfth Night) and London (Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van).
Once he was approached with the script -- which has gone through numerous title changes and was actually called “The Dance Movie” at one point -- he quickly brought Wasserstein, a longtime dance enthusiast, on board for uncredited rewrites. (Carol Heikkinen, who contributed the original script, is credited as screenwriter.) The story takes place at New York’s fictitious American Ballet Academy and follows a group of young dancers as they try to balance their burgeoning careers with the usual pitfalls of adolescence, including romances and family tensions.
Hytner stresses that “Center Stage” is not a musical -- “that’s a problem for someone else to crack on film” -- but rather a drama with a lot of dance mixed in. Dance numbers are interspersed throughout the whole film, while the last half-hour is devoted almost entirely to the ballet school’s end-of-year performance. Hytner called upon two choreographers to stage the climactic dance numbers. Christopher Wheeldon, a 27-year-old New York City Ballet dancer/choreographer, and the seemingly unstoppable Susan Stroman. Stroman’s presence is all over the film: In addition to her 12-minute finale, she choreographed intermediate scenes at a jazz class (manned by dozens of familiar Broadway faces) and a salsa club.
“The main reason for doing the movie was the final half-hour,” Hytner says. While Wheeldon’s piece uses Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, Stro’s dance is an unapologetic crowd-pleaser, “self-consciously modeled on the finale of a big MGM musical.”
With all of the dancing required, Hytner met with some friction in the very beginning. Columbia expressed interest in putting TV actors in the lead roles and using body doubles for the dance sequences. “One of the first major differences of opinion came while during casting,” he says. “Luckily, my counterparts at the studio were persuadable about casting it with dancers, or I wouldn’t have done the film.” The casting search ultimately tracked down a number of accomplished dancers who could also handle the acting, among them American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Ethan Stiefel and Sascha Radetsky, 1998 figure skating gold medalist Ilia Kulik and a 21-year-old apprentice at San Francisco Ballet named Amanda Schull. (The adults are a bit more familiar; among the teachers and administrators are Peter Gallagher, Donna Murphy, Debra Monk and Priscilla Lopez.)
“The standard of dancing in this movie is stratospherically high,” Hytner says. “There’s an exhilarating contrast between the kids I’ve met who want to be movie stars and the kids in this movie. These are young professionals; they look at what they do as vocations. This is a fun movie, but I hope some of that comes across.
“Its main intention, in my opinion, is to turn as many young people as possible on to the possibilities of dance.”
Hytner is currently back in London, preparing to direct “The Madness of King George” costar Helen Mirren in Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending at the Donmar Warehouse. (Might this be the first show to reap the benefits of Donmar’s new partnerships and come to New York?) After that, he’ll be back in New York later this summer to direct a workshop of the Marvin Hamlisch/Craig Carnelia/John Guare Sweet Smell of Success musical. John Lithgow and Brian d’Arcy James are scheduled to star.
Hytner may have started the trend, but plenty of theatre directors are taking a crack at movies -- and the most recent offering bears a striking resemblance to Hytner’s latest project. Sam Mendes and Julie Taymor are the most obvious examples, and several Brits are following suit. Scott Elliott (“A Map of the World”) and Matthew Warchus ("Simpatico") both made their debuts last year, while Deborah Warner unspooled “The Last September” last month. And the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight, generally believed to be the edgiest section of the festival, will feature Stephen Daldry’s “Dancer.” Daldry, who made a splashy U.S. debut with An Inspector Calls and recently staged David Hare’s Via Dolorosa, here tells the story of a small boy with dreams of becoming a ... ballet dancer.
Correction from the last column: Casting director and Vineyard Theatre artistic director Doug Aibel wrote in to clarify a piece of information on “The Big Kahuna.” Kevin Spacey did in fact arrange a reading of Hospitality Suite, the play on which the movie is based. However, the reading took place at the Vineyard, not Manhattan Theater Club, contrary to the press materials. Aibel had nothing but nice things to say about both the play and Spacey (Leo Burmester played the Danny DeVito role), but he wanted to get the facts straight.
As this column mentioned weeks ago, Nathan Lane and Mark Linn-Baker will reprise their roles in Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” for Showtime. Victor Garber and Peri Gilpin are among the new costars. And HBO, which already announced a September filming date for the Emma Thompson/Mike Nichols “Wit,” will film this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “Dinner With Friends,” This fall. Donald Margulies will adapt his own script; no other names have been announced yet. I had suggested this as a possibility for the new PBS “Stage on Screen” series, but some of the language may be a bit raw for public television. Whatever the case, two great dramas will be filmed, thanks to HBO.
Cutting-Room Floor: Elaine Stritch fans will be in heaven for the next two weeks. One week after starring in “Screwed” (May 12), Stritch appears with A Delicate Balance costar George Grizzard in Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Small Time Crooks.” Truth be told, “Screwed” looks pretty awful, judging from the ubiquitous previews; still, it’s an odd coincidence... A play by Alan Knee, whose Syncopation had a few regional productions last year and is supposedly coming to New York, has become a new Miramax project. Knee wrote the original script to “Neverland,” a chronicle of the events in J.M. Barrie’s life that led to his writing “Peter Pan.” Miramax has since converted it into a possible film project, complete with a new writer. ... The Ethan Hawke “Hamlet” opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 12. I’ll have information about the press junket in the next column. Other performances worth noting include John Cullum in the Jamie Foxx comedy “Held Up” (May 12) and Anthony Rapp in “Road Trip” (May 19). Disney’s “Dinosaur” (May 19), which some reports list as the most expensive movie ever made, features a slew of familiar voices. Original Lion King stars Max Casella (now in The Music Man) and Samuel E. Wright have major roles, as do Ossie Davis and Joan Plowright.
My Favorite Thought: Plenty of people had strong opinions about the movies (nearly everyone wanted two) of “Angels in America.” Good casting ideas included Sean Penn as Louis, Jude Law as Joe and Olympia Dukakis as Ethel Rosenberg. Here’s one of the more compelling responses, from Will:
“I would film `Angels’ as two feature-length films. Wouldn't “Magnolia” director Paul Thomas Anderson be perfect? Couldn't he condense the first act into a brilliant opening montage (as in “Magnolia”)? I would be happy with some of his usual cohorts, like Julianne Moore as Harper. Due to the nature of film, I would probably cast each role (and not do the brilliant doubling). Who but Anderson could pull off such a big, pretentious, truly American story? The best thing is that Kushner has actually written a play, so we wouldn't be treated to some deus ex machina frog-dropping.?
(Editor’s Note: I love the frog-dropping.)
Your Thoughts: Any thoughts on “Center Stage” or “Hamlet”? And how can movies join forces with theater to get youngsters interested in dance? A movie of Bring in `da Noise, Bring in `da Funk? More movies about ballet? A remake of “Fame”?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.