Theatre

What a Feeling!

The high-minded writer behind Flashdance the Musical

Illustration by Sam Island

Illustration by Sam Island

Tom Hedley walks north on Broadway, across 14th Street, then heads into Union Square. He is looking for Andy Warhol’s Factory, where he once hung out in New York’s underground scene. Now, tracing the northern perimeter of the square, he marvels at the obscene level of sense-surround commerce. “The park was exactly the same, but the area was so rundown,” he says. “That’s why Andy moved here: it was cheap. A hundred bucks and no electricity, like that. There may have been a hippie shop or two, a health food place Andy liked. He was always worried about food.”

Hedley claims he isn’t nostalgic, yet for years the writer behind the 1983 hit film Flashdance has been working on a stage version, trying to get it right. He was back on home turf, editing Toronto Life magazine, when he frequented Gimlets bar at Lombard and Victoria Streets. Young working-class women in scanty costumes performed what he preferred to think of as tableaux vivants rather than strip routines. “They put together a dance and a look that was highly stylized,” he says. Meanwhile, he had become fascinated with a nascent medium, the music video, essentially a short film set to music. He wanted to combine elements of both for a fresh take on performance, a musical movie that used the new vocabulary to frame a classic narrative.

He sold his story about “Alex,” the stripper who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, and Hollywood had its way with it. Script doctors came and went, including Joe Eszterhas, who helped him ground the story in Pittsburgh and gained a co-credit for the screenplay. The overwrought celluloid version was filled with pop-operatic hit songs, high-energy dancing, and a falling bucket of water, and it pulled in something like $200 million. In other words, it’s a perfect commercial vehicle for Toronto’s nostalgia-prone Ed Mirvish Theatre, where Flashdance the Musical finishes a two-week run in June. The challenge for the adaptation, Hedley says, was “to make the thin love story of the movie into a love story with genuine heart.”

He can’t find the Factory: “It’s got to be right around here.” He is tall, slim, and boyish for his seventy-one years, with longish black hair parted on the left. He wears dark glasses and a black bomber jacket. We round out East 17th Street, then retreat. “Decker,” he orders me. “Look for the name.” We are searching for six letters engraved in stone above a doorway. We wonder if it’s on the east side of the square. No. Here it is, 33 Union Square West, the Decker Building. The 1892 structure is long and narrow. Warhol’s Factory, where art production and pop culture collided atoms in the late ’60s, was on the sixth floor.

Hedley met Warhol while working for the influential American magazine Esquire. Editor Harold Hayes had noticed a weekly Toronto Telegram supplement called Showcase, and brought its young editor, Hedley, to New York in 1967. Hedley felt a kinship with the so-called New Journalism being advanced by American writers such as Gay Talese. The idea was to present the right combination of disparate elements for a more authentic portrayal of the massive cultural changes of the time—hiring a fiction writer to cover a political campaign, say, or running a feature on white servants. Hayes kicked Hedley out of the office, telling him simply to find out what was new.

Inevitably, he found his way to Max’s Kansas City, a rock venue at the northeast edge of the square, frequented by the Velvet Underground and the downtown demimonde. He wanted to commission Warhol for some photography. Not knowing any better, he did not genuflect, which turned out to be the correct behaviour. “I spent a lot of time with Andy and in the scene generally,” he remembers. Whenever Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling, two of Warhol’s drag superstars, wanted him to spring for more champagne, they would break into “O Canada” in a faux plummy accent. This brush with theatricality, ironic or not, would come in handy later with Flashdance. And it has been very much on his mind again as he brings his take on performance to the actual stage.

We arrive at Max’s Park Avenue address and find a silver and glass door to nowhere. “Looks like the building has been reconfigured,” Hedley decides. “I can’t really recognize where the club would be, but this is it: across the park, the Factory to Max’s—that’s the way it went. Andy and the Velvet Underground, they held court in back. Now it’s all about consuming, but back then nobody had any money. It was all about the idea.”

This appeared in the July/August 2014 issue.

Bill Reynolds co-founded the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies.

Sam Island (samislandart.com) has drawn for the New York Times, Monocle, The Atlantic, and Time Magazine.

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