Still Fame-ous

Ever wonder what happened to all those ambitious kids from New York's High School of the Performing Arts who sang, danced and sweated their way into people's hearts and minds in the movie Fame? How about Irene Cara, who sang the title song and played Coco Hernandez? Or Gene Anthony Ray, the actor who played the resident street kid Leroy Johnson? And who could ever forget the boy with the red Afro?

Well, New York-born David De Silva, creator of the Fame franchise, doesn't know where any of the original cast members are (except for the boy with the red Afro -- you can see him every Thursday night as the bald-headed doctor on ER), so don't ask him. He'd much rather talk about his latest stage incarnation of the story, Fame - The Musical, which will be stopping in Houston for six days during its North American tour.

The numerous offspring of the original film, drawn from De Silva's own experiences teaching youngsters in a magnet school, have earned him the title of "Father Fame." After helping to develop the Oscar-nominated, Alan Parker-directed film in 1980, De Silva continued on as consulting producer when the movie metamorphosed into Fame, the TV show. To his considerable credit, De Silva can't take any blame for the last manifestation of the saga, the 1997 TV show Fame L.A., which ran for a year in syndication before receiving a much-deserved burial.

During the 1980s De Silva began looking to the stage as a place where he could resurrect his world of arts-loving teenagers. "Having worked in film and theater, the creative process is over, when you do a film, when the camera stops," De Silva explains. "You're stuck in time. You're celluloid, and the creative process is over. But creating it for the stage, you have a blueprint for it to be a living, breathing experience that's never the same twice."

De Silva started working on the stage version in 1984 with help from composer Steve Margoshes, lyricist Jacques Levy and the late playwright Jose Fernandez. Instead of developing a stage adaptation of the film, which was set in the 1970s, De Silva set the musical in the early 1980s and created new characters who know about the original school and its brush with celebrity. "These characters in the musical are aware of the film," De Silva says of the production's amusing bit of self-referential irony.

Still, many of the film's central ideals remain intact. "I held on to some themes that I think are very important," De Silva says. "We deal with literacy, which is very important, the importance of staying in school and the importance of staying off drugs." After box-office-smashing runs in Miami and Philadelphia in the late '80s, the show has enjoyed more than 4,000 performances worldwide, including 300 in Japan, Poland and Australia. But Fame - The Musical still hasn't made it to the Great White Way, because of De Silva's distaste for Broadway's outrageous ticket prices. Kind of funny its local performances are being sponsored by the Houston Broadway Series, isn't it?

Regardless, it's more important to De Silva that high school drama departments are now devising their own productions. He couldn't be happier to see his work reach the intended audience.

"I want people to know that the arts, studying the arts, is very important for anyone's education," De Silva says. The producer has noted that whenever schools across the country hit a budget crisis, they immediately and regrettably opt to ax the arts curriculum. But to De Silva, education without exposure to the arts is no education at all. As De Silva warns, "[students] don't get this exposure on the Internet." Perhaps that message is part of the reason De Silva's creation continues to prove that it will, well, live forever.

Fame - The Musical opens Tuesday, March 21 and runs through Sunday, March 26, at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Prairie. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday and Saturday evenings, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees, and 7 p.m. Sunday evening. For tickets, $43 and $52.50, call (713)639-3700; or for groups of 20 or more, call (713)693-2692.You can also meet the cast of Fame Wednesday, March 22, from noon to 2 p.m., at Foley's downtown location.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey