When Footloose premiered on Broadway in 1998, most people were already familiar with the story and knew a lot of the score, as it was based on the popular 1984 Kevin Bacon movie of the same name and included most of the hits that propelled the soundtrack to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
It’s one of the reasons that Walter Bobbie, director and co-writer of the stage version’s book (along with Dean Pitchford), was first drawn to the project.
“I also loved the show because I love any show that is a ‘young’ show, because it makes new theatregoers,” he says. “I grew up in that kind of show because I was in the original cast of Grease. It’s like Hamilton now. There are young people discovering the theatre because there is a show about them.”
Rebellious teen Ren McCormick moves from Chicago to a small Texas town called Bomont, where rock music and dancing is outlawed. He falls for Ariel Moore, the restless daughter of the town’s Reverend Shaw, and the man responsible for creating these outrageous laws. Ren and his friends set out to persuade the town to allow them to remove the dance restrictions and hold a senior prom.
Footloose ran for 709 performances on Broadway, ending in 2000, but the show’s heart beats on.
“After a while, Dean and I realized we could make some improvements to it, and after a successful national tour, we made some changes,” Bobbie says. “We did a shorter version for Vegas, we have a cruise ship version that’s only 90 minutes, and the show has had a strong life internationally.”
Over the last 20 years, the show has been performed in Poland, by an all-female Japanese troupe at the Takarasienne Revue, and just this past week it was approved for a Swedish translation. Now, a semi-staged concert version of the show will be part of The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series Oct. 9-14.
Aside from changes on the page, Bobbie was excited to put this version on its feet for the first time. “I’m directing a script that I have never directed before because this is the script that Dean and I have evolved over the last 20 years,” he says.
J. Quinton Johnson, most recently of Choir Boy and Hamilton plays Ren, while The Prom’s Isabelle McCalla takes on Ariel. Michael Park, fresh off Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and Season 3 of Stranger Things, plays the stern Reverend Shaw.
“This will be the revised version, with all the changes being tweaks to tighten and improve the emotional content of the story,” Bobbie says. “For instance, at the end of the show, we removed the minister’s big soliloquy and instead underscored the scene and made it more a dramatic scene between him and Ren.”
Park thinks the relationship between his character and Ren is made stronger by the change.
“The story has a misrepresentation that it’s a law of not dancing, or not partying, but the story is really about a father who has lost a son and a son who has lost a father,” Park says. “When he makes this law, he’s looking to shelter and guide the young people of the town so others don’t have to go through the loss of a child like those four families had to go through. Together, they realize it’s ok to look back and learn from the past and to make those moments in the present a celebration as opposed to a constant warning for what could go wrong in your life.”
Johnson agrees, and understands this story is bigger than dancing.
“These are two people who feel like they have such different ideals and different ideas on how life should be lived, but they can see each other and say, ‘You and I are not very different and don’t need to stand on opposite poles,’” Johnson says. “That takes on an interesting political color in an interesting way. At the bulk of the story, here are two people who don’t understand each other’s life but after seeing each other’s loss, they actually realize they are more similar then they could have ever imagined.”
Other changes included adding Ariel to “Learning to Be Silent,” so it’s a trio instead of a duet between Vi (Rebecca Luker) and Ethel (Judy Kuhn); the song “Still Rockin’” was added to open Act 2; and the rap song “Dancing is not a Crime” was taken out of the second act and now only a small snippet introduces Ren’s big speech earlier in the show.
“We found these things strengthened the narrative of the story and gave it more of an emotional resonance,” Bobbie says. “Plus, with Q. in this role now—we had a mixed-race cast originally, but this is more dynamically so. I think having a young, extraordinary African American man playing the Kevin Bacon part and coming to this small town makes it resonate in ways I hadn’t predicted and am very pleased about.”
For Johnson’s part, Ren wasn’t a role he ever saw himself playing.
“There are so many different elements to this show that have existed since the original in 1998. Even when those aren’t changed, the narrative becomes different with me being black and at the center of this,” he says.
“For me, personally, there are these elements of being an outsider in this small, narrow-minded town, and it is how I felt growing up at times,” he continues. “I just hope they are aware of how different the story is with an African American in the central role.”