TORONTO – There’s a great significance to the forthcoming Toronto debut of “Flashdance — The Musical.”
After all, the city is where renowned director and choreographer Sergio Trujillo grew up and first saw the 1983 film, which inspired him to pursue a dance career.
It’s also the hometown of Robbie Roth, who composed the show’s new music and co-wrote the lyrics.
And it’s where Tom Hedley, who co-wrote the musical and the original screenplay, got the inspiration for the story of a female welder who does exotic performances at a night club and longs to dance professionally in Pittsburgh.
“She’s a lot like some of the girls that I based it on. They were really individuals from here, Toronto,” the British magazine editor and screenwriter said in a recent interview.
“I wrote it here and it was conceived in Toronto.”
Hedley said it all began when his artist friend, painter Robert Markle, introduced him to a Toronto night club where women put on “modern burlesque” performances to music in the early 1980s.
The venue, Gimlets, sat across the street from the Ed Mirvish Theatre, where “Flashdance — The Musical” will run May 27 through June 8.
“Some of these dancers had real followings, and (they were) kind of hip followings, because the painters went there,” he said. “There was nothing exploitive about it.”
Hedley wanted to do a working-class, blue-collar musical film with women at the centre of it, and when he went to Gimlets, “it all came together.”
“I became interested in the world of the burlesque-meeting-MTV thing. It was in the air and I thought, ‘That would be a good arena to create the story.'”
Hedley said he also got inspiration for headstrong protagonist Alex Owens, played by Jennifer Beals in the film, from an actress/dancer he knew who wore hard hats on her day job as a fire alarm installer.
He coined the word “flashdance” as a way to represent “that moment in a flash where fashion, music and dance come together to create an image.”
And the steeltown setting? It was based on his time in Hamilton as a child.
“All these ghosts in it, they were all Toronto ghosts,” said Hedley. “It was very much the right place to create this story.”
The romantic drama became a box office hit, as did its Grammy-winning soundtrack, which includes “Gloria,” Oscar-nominated “Maniac” and the Oscar-and- Golden Globe-winning “Flashdance… What a Feeling.”
The song “Manhunt” was about women claiming control of their lives and relationships.
“(It) was about, ‘Look, it’s over for you guys — we decide, the woman decides the romance, not the man,'” said Hedley. “And it just hit a chord with women recognizing that it was their body, their imagination, their taste that won the day, not the men’s.
“So it was a kind of sisterhood thing that you felt in the zeitgeist back then.”
The stage adaptation debuted in London in 2008 with a book co-written by Hedley and Robert Cary, who also co-wrote the lyrics with Roth for 16 new songs that were added to the mix alongside the original tunes.
“The mandate was to create a score that didn’t feel as though you heard the songs from the film and then you were hearing a very sort of disparate theatre score,” said Roth.
“My job was to make it all feel like it was coming from the same source.”
Trujillo — acclaimed choreographer of musicals including “Jersey Boys,” “Next to Normal” and “The Addams Family” — came onboard as director and choreographer after seeing it in London.
“It mirrors Sergio’s story a little bit,” said Roth. “Because Sergio … went to chiropractic college … in Toronto and was sort of on that path but knew inside him that there was something else.”
“He saw the movie and he said ‘I want to be a dancer,'” added Hedley. “So it was a real sort of bold step.”
Roth said Trujillo has “wrung the dance out of every possible moment” in the show so it moves from beginning to end.
Meanwhile, the creative team has tweaked the production to create a deeper love story with a male character who now has a strong arc.
“Tom has created … such a woman in charge and such an iconic, strong woman, and part of the challenge was to figure out how a woman like that can allow herself to fall in love,” said Roth.
“Because she is so strong and independent … and that’s part of the struggle that we deal with in the show, is how can she let this man in and still retain that fire?”
Speaking of fire, the set includes a steel mill complete with sparks and smoke.
And yes, the show has the iconic watery dance scene from the film.
Toronto is the last stop for the current tour of “Flashdance — The Musical.” Hedley said it’s next due to open in Paris and on Broadway, and will embark on another tour next year.
Seeing his original story unfold onstage decades later has an eerily similar feel, he said.
“When I wrote the thing in the first place, it was 1983, it was the savings and loans scandal … Iran was the major enemy, double-digit unemployment and it was big recession. It felt exactly like it does now, except it’s much worse now.
“So it was born in troubled economic times and it exists in troubled economic times, 30 years later.”
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