They were gonna live forever

But the kids from `Fame' didn't make it. One man kept the faith, however: David De Silva, the show's creator.
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The Independent Culture
The question most people ask of David De Silva is, where are they now? De Silva is the man who created Fame, the musical fairy-tale which is about to gain its third incarnation as a stage production in London next week. De Silva has been living with Fame for 20 years; he calls himself "Father Fame". In that time Fame has entered the language, as short-hand for schools of performing arts; the recently opened Liverpool institution sponsored by, among others, Paul McCartney, is now known universally as the Fame School. And the word has not just been added to English dictionaries. De Silva is rather proud of the fact that the Japanese did not have a verbalisation of the concept of being widely known or recognised until the film of Fame came along, and, in order to communicate it, borrowed direct from the English. "Now that's the Japanese word for fame," he says. "Fame."

De Silva first thought of the idea of a film about the New York School of Performing Arts back in 1975, when he was teaching history in the city. Not at the school itself, but round the block.

"I'm a New Yorker, so I'm kinda biased, but it could only have been set in my city," he says. "The school is what we call a magnet school: it takes kids out of a neighbourhood and develops a special talent. Because it's a magnet school in New York it brings together a real mixture, a real rainbow of ethnic groups. And because they come from different neighbourhoods there is more opportunity for dramatic tension. Fame is a metaphor for the American dream - if you have the determination you can succeed - but it is also a reflection of the city. It would not be as effective if it was set in a stage school in North Carolina."

De Silva was inspired to write a screenplay (originally it was called Hot Lunch), then sold it to MGM (who, wisely, changed the title) and watched Alan Parker turn it into an Oscar-winning film. Then he sold the rights to television, and watched, slightly warily, as it became The Kids from Fame, a relentlessly upbeat sing-and-dance-com full of egos the size of inflated pigs' bladders. And now he has developed the concept as a stage show, soon to open in the Cambridge Theatre in the West End, entirely cast with Brits and presently generating the kind of sums in advance bookings unusual for shows without the name Andrew Lloyd Webber appended.

In short, in the 20 years he has been supervising Fame, De Silva has been responsible for whole generations of wannabes across the globe believing that merely by dint of putting on a pair of leg-warmers and dancing on the roof of a yellow cab, they will be catapulted stellarwards.

"Fame, I'm gonna live for ever, I'm gonna learn how to fly..." That was the film's theme song, and also its perceived message: international prominence through musical theatre. It may seem unfair, given all his achievements, but 16 years on from the film that promised immortality for its protagonists, the question we all want to know of David De Silva is how many of the original cast are now stars? Did real life mirror art? Did Fame deliver what it promised?

"It's kinda sad," says De Silva, who is in London to supervise the development of the worldwide empire that is Fame. "Gene Anthony Ray, who played Leroy, died of Aids a couple of years ago. Irene Cara's had a kinda rough time lately, but she's over here soon to do a single on the back of this project. I've lost track of most of the rest. Some are working actors, earning a living in TV and theatre, which I take as success. But in answer to the question, did they become stars from it, no they didn't. It gave their careers a boost at the time but nobody guarantees these things. Besides they had their 15 minutes of, well, fame." The disappointing reality at the heart of Fame did not stop over 4,000 young British hopefuls from trying to become the new kids in De Silva's project. Four thousand youngsters, each doing their party pieces, were whittled down into what De Silva calls "25 exceptionally talented performers". Wouldn't it have been a lot easier simply to ring a few agents? Or was the giant audition merely a publicity stunt?

"Of course it generated publicity, and no show can succeed without that," says De Silva. "But we were not casting Phantom of the Opera, here. We don't fake it, we really find the talent. These kids don't have agents. The whole point about Fame is the discovery and nurturing of talent. The audition process is part of the ethos of the show."

Also, as the stage show is not a simple re-working of the film, the new cast could bring along talents which could be incorporated into the production.

"The premise of the stage show is to take the film on a bit," says De Silva. "In 1984, the School moved to a new location, which was something of a watershed. So the stage show is about what happened to the final year at the old building. Because it is later on, we can use a lot of street dance in the show, acrobatic street ability which the young performers could bring to it."

Besides, De Silva says, even those who failed the auditions will have benefited from their brush with Fame. "I feel it's a calling, a mission for me," he says. "I still cry at the end of the show. It celebrates individuality, that's one of the themes. At the end of the show, we see them in cap and gown graduating and they sing a song called "Bring On Tomorrow", which is an incredible affirmation, of course, of the future. Also I feel strongly about arts in education. One of the first things I'm doing is organising for kids to be bussed in to see the show. It is one thing to show them Shakespeare, but it's also important to show them something contemporary they can relate to."

"I don't like to play up the social consciousness in the show, but we are about hard work, staying in school, staying off drugs, about the fact that there is no such thing as instant fame. This is not Grease, this is not a cartoon. Remember the girl who says she's going to live forever doesn't."

It is not only the girl who doesn't live for ever. The final irony at the heart of Fame is that it is opening in London, not on Broadway, the place that the characters in the show have set their hearts on.

"We have a cast of 25," says De Silva. "And none of them, by definition, is famous. So we are completely anti-Broadway. Broadway has now become entirely event-driven. Because prices have been relentlessly driven up, the first thing someone who is going to pay $80 for a ticket asks is `Who's in it?' "

And who's in it now are stars from other worlds, like film or pop, not the sing-and-dance types from schools of performing arts. Which finally explains why none of the original "Famers" are household names: Fame celebrates a production line for a product driven into extinction by an unholy alliance of rising costs and Andrew Lloyd Webber; a product that doesn't exist any more. "You know," says De Silva, "I think this was why there was such a turnout at our auditions. Over the years there has been such a backlog of talent and no outlets."

With the honourable exception, of course, of Fame.

n `Fame' opens on 27 June at the Cambridge Theatre ,London, WC1 (0171- 494 5040)

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