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An Interview with 'Footloose' Writer Dean Pitchford
by Scott Holleran
October 12, 2004
If screenwriter and lyricist Dean Pitchford's mentor, Peter Allen, was The Boy from Oz (portrayed by Hugh Jackman on stage), Pitchford was the boy from Hawaii, making his way into Bob Fosse's Pippin, writing the Academy Award-winning lyrics for Fame and making music and movies for everyone from Barbra Streisand and HBO to Hilary Duff and Shrek 2.
Sitting in a cafe on Sunset Boulevard, Pitchford, who created Footloose, gets to talking easily about Hollywood. His route to success was circuitous according to today's standards, by way of Broadway, but it shows that life can be like a musical. As if to prove it, he breaks into song—right there in the cafe—from time to time, and he's never off key.
Box Office Mojo: What matters more in Hollywood: who you know or what you know?
Dean Pitchford: A combination of the two. It's not going to matter who you know if you don't have any goods to back it up, and you can have all the goods in the world and if you don't network—it always amazes that Meryl Streep and [Robert] DeNiro and the people who have the careers we admire not only have that talent but knew to get photos made, to make phone calls and they showed up. You've got to network like crazy. That's one advantage I had in the beginning [of my career]. I was sort of indefatigable. I made my lists every day and my calls, I sent my letters and I made my rounds.
BOM: You started on Broadway—
Pitchford:—I was a singer and actor. I had my first gig in Godspell when I was 19 and later I danced in Pippin. I did off Broadway, I did singing and dancing in television commercials.
BOM: When did you make the transition to Hollywood?
Pitchford: I have to say I really was dragged kicking and screaming. I was doing a show for Joseph Papp and writing for Peter Allen's first one-man show on Broadway. When I began writing music and songs with, among others, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menken and Rupert Holmes. Rupert was going to produce me for a record and then he went on to England to do three albums, and I was suddenly spinning my wheels and I thought who else do I know? I remembered Peter, who was living in California. I sent him a letter and a bunch of lyrics and asked if he had an interest in collaborating. He called and said he was coming to New York and said let's write material.
BOM: How do you account for the appeal of the dark Kander and Ebb musicals Cabaret and Chicago?
Pitchford: It is dark but it is always appropriate to the material. In both of those cases, they chose to do interesting material—Nazi Germany and a murder trial. So the spine running through those pieces was so strong. As they also take place, as a kind of stylistic overlay, in a performance, one in a cabaret and the other in a speakeasy in Chicago. It was not people dancing on desks in a Madison Avenue office building; the drama returns to the stage. That's what Bob Fosse did with the [Kander-Ebb] musical Cabaret. He went through and he stripped all the character pieces sung by characters outside of the cabaret, so that every musical number happens on stage. What [Chicago director] Rob Marshall did was one step further; he constantly blended the two so that you could be in Richard Gere's office and suddenly you'd find John C. Reilly singing "Mister Cellophane" while he's being ignored by Richard Gere. Both of those musicals lived on stage. There's an aura of forbiddenness, taboo, about both of them.
BOM: Is that your sense of music?
Pitchford: It is exactly what brought me to write Footloose. After Fame, I was being approached by all these folks [in Hollywood] because, by that time, I was also writing pop material for Melissa Manchester, Kenny Loggins, Steve
Perry. I was approached about writing a song about a girl who's going to be a pop artist or a girl who wants to go to Broadway or a guy who wants to go on the road and I thought, 'well, those are really kind of dull.' One way to make it more interesting is to forbid it, to outlaw it. That was in the back of my head and I had read this story in the news in 1979 about a small town in Oklahoma—Elmore City—that banned dancing. The law had been on the books for 90 some odd years and that year, the high school class, which numbered about 11 kids, wanted to have a dance and the town elders decided they had a problem with that. They got very dogmatic about it, though no one could remember why they had instituted that interdiction, and they dug their heels in. A fight ensued and families split. People took sides and neighbors weren't talking to neighbors and the minister there put his foot down [and dancing was banned]. I kept thinking, because my background was Broadway, where no one really calls themselves a songwriter unless you do a score in a show, I always felt like a bit of a pretender; I had a song on this television show, in that movie, on that album, so I wanted to put a bunch of songs in a movie. And the only way I could make that work is if I know what the movie is, so I had better sit down and write a movie.
|Dean Pitchford & Kenny Loggins|
BOM: What about Fame, which predated Footloose?
Pitchford: Peter Allen played three weeks at the Biltmore Theater and I had five songs in the show. In the opening night audience is Peter's old friend [singer] Lesley Gore ["It's My Party"] and her brother, Michael Gore, a phenomenal musician who had been hired just around that time to be the musical supervisor for a movie that was about to start shooting in New York called Hot Lunch, which eventually became Fame. [Director] Alan Parker was directing, and he had hired Michael. The day after Peter Allen opened, the phone rings and it's Michael Gore. We got together and discovered we had both been classmates at Yale. We started working like demons, writing 13 songs for Fame, three of which went in: "Fame," "Red Light" and "I Sing the Body Electric." He wrote "Out Here On My Own" with Lesley Gore. We would write a USO-type Andrews Sisters number, a ballad, a boogie, a waltz and it was almost like revue material, where you threw the material out there and it either worked or it didn't. Things happened very quickly after Fame. Because of the song, I was signed to Warner Bros., we won the Academy Award and people were coming to me about ideas for movies.