“It was important for me to take something which I saw as a multimillion-dollar, full-bodied, highly scenic costume production, and say, ‘What do you really need to tell the story?'” says Walter Bobbie. “You get down to the essence.”
The Tony Award-winning director is getting down to the essence of Footloose, this weekend’s opener in the third season of the Kennedy Center’s remarkable “Broadway Center Stage” series. Each year, three musicals are given semi-staged concert readings, and the Kennedy Center hasn’t turned up a bad penny yet. It’s presented a bit of everything, from the classic (The Music Man, How to Succeed in Business…) to the off-beat (Tommy, Chess). In addition to Footloose, this year’s lineup includes Next to Normal and Bye Bye Birdie.
Bobbie, whose 1996 production of Chicago is still playing on Broadway, second only to Phantom, comes to Footloose with personal ties to the show: He co-wrote the original book with the film’s screenwriter, Dean Pitchford, and helmed the 1998 Broadway production. He was thrilled to revisit the show, which has been refined and retooled in the ensuing years. “Dean and I did some substantial changes,” he says. “I think it has become even stronger than it was before.”
To prepare, Bobbie recently rewatched the 1984 classic starring Kevin Bacon (“The best haircut I’ve ever seen on film. His barber should have had billing above the title”), John Lithgow, and Dianne Wiest.
“I don’t think I’ve looked at it in 15 years,” he says. “The film is actually quite violent. I mean, there’s book burning. But the film is not a musical. So we had to liberate it from its iconic fame to make it actually sing and dance and behave like a musical.” Bobbie and Pitchford toned down the religious and political aspects that formed the movie’s backbone, focusing instead on the relationships between the central characters.
“The musical is not a fight between ‘The Heartland’ and the ‘City Kid,'” says Bobbie. “It’s about two people coming together, taking their misplaced grief, and starting to hear each other and forgive. I think that’s a very good theme to bring to Washington, D.C. these days.”
Footloose runs through Oct. 14 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $59 to $175. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.