His `Fame' Has Been Anything But Fleeting David De Silva's Movie, Later A Tv Series, Lives On In A Stage Version.

Posted: December 27, 1998

NEW YORK — If a pornographer had not raised an objection, David De Silva might not now have the nickname ``Mr. Hot Lunch.'' But neither would he be called ``Father Fame.''

In 1979, De Silva was working on a movie he had conceived about students at the New York High School of Performing Arts. He wanted to call it Hot Lunch, after a scene that takes place in the school cafeteria, but, he recalled, ``I got a memorandum from MGM saying that there was a pornographic movie by that name, and the producer would sue if we tried to use it.''

The first idea for a new title was Neon Dreams, but then, De Silva said, ``someone got the idea of naming the movie after a song that had just been written for it.''

The song was ``Fame.'' Two decades later, the entertainment it names is still going strong, and De Silva, as his sobriquet ``Father Fame'' indicates, is still very much involved with it. Over the years Fame has morphed from a popular film to a long-running television series to a theatrical musical that has played all over the world but is just now getting to this country in a big way.

Fame - The Musical, making an extensive North American tour, will open tomorrow at the Merriam Theater for its first U.S. engagement - although it is the second time the musical has played Philadelphia. (More about that later.)

The musical stage might be the end point of Fame's metamorphosis, but it is not an afterthought. De Silva said he intended his idea to be a musical from the very beginning. ``I thought I would have more control of it as a screenplay, but when I sold it, I retained the stage rights because I always knew it would be a theater piece,'' De Silva explained during an interview at Joe Allen restaurant, a theatrical hangout in midtown Manhattan that he frequents so much he calls it ``my office.''

A native New Yorker, De Silva became enamored of the musical theater when he was taken to Broadway shows as a child. Even though the theater always attracted him, he got a degree in history and planned to teach high school before deciding to try to make it as an actor. He did not establish a performing career, but he remained in show business, working at various jobs and ending up as a successful talent agent.

De Silva, 59, was in his late 30s when he came up with the idea for what was to become Fame and engaged a writer, composer and lyricist to develop his concept into the film. Television was quick to make it into a series, which aired from 1981 to 1987. That phase of Fame's development, however, did not really interest De Silva, for whom television does not hold much allure. Although he had the title of consulting producer, he said he did not involve himself deeply in the series.

When the series ended, De Silva set about developing Fame as a theatrical musical. First staged in Florida in 1989, the show then moved to the Walnut Street Theatre here as the last stop on the way to what De Silva and the musical's backers hoped would be a Broadway debut. At first, everything looked rosy. The musical got a rave notice from The Inquirer's theater critic; it was so popular that a couple of shows were added to the Walnut's six-week run and a New York producer was seriously interested in presenting it.

The producer said `` `it's 80 percent there. Who are we going to get to give us the other 20 percent?' '' De Silva recalled. ``We said, `We know what to do. We'll do it.' '' The producer, however, wanted an outside party involved in the revisions. ``We never could agree on who would do it,'' De Silva said, so the show never did go to New York.

Without Broadway exposure - and often, indeed, with it - musicals typically pass into oblivion. Fame did not, and De Silva is so pleased with the course the musical has followed that he says ``not taking the show into the Broadway arena was a blessing for us.''

In 1990, the script for the musical was published, and something unexpected happened. The show about students in a New York high school that could not get produced in New York found an audience abroad. It was produced in Sweden in 1992, where it ran for two years (and where De Silva picked up his nickname). A production then toured England for a year and has returned to play in London's West End every holiday season since. There have been productions in Hungary, Poland, Mexico, Japan and Argentina. An English-language version has toured Europe, and a Danish production will open in February.

Like the foreign productions, the North American tour, cast with young performers, is a show without stars. ``For many it's their first job. These kids don't even have agents,'' De Silva said of the performers in the show, which emphasizes ensemble dance numbers.

The tour is getting off to a fast start. In Toronto, its first stop, the six-week run was virtually sold out, De Silva said, with even obstructed-view seats finding buyers. The weeklong Philadelphia engagement, according to a local spokesman, has a strong advance sale, and De Silva said the tour was already solidly booked through the summer of 2000.

Although the musical draws audiences of all ages, De Silva said it especially attracted young theatergoers. ``There's a big teenage market out there, and there's nothing for the age group,'' he said.

Not quite nothing. Rent, also a show about young people that is performed by talented but unknown performers, has for the last few years been attracting large numbers of young people, both in New York and on the stops of its continuing national tour. It is probably no coincidence that the producers of Fame - the Musical's national tour chose to mount it while Rent, too, is on the road.

The musical version of Fame follows seven members of the final class of the former High School of Performing Arts on Manhattan's 46th Street from 1980 to 1984, when the building was closed and the school combined with the High School of Music and Art and moved to another facility. It is in the nature of a sequel to the film and TV series in that the school is already famous because of the exposure it has received in those media. With that premise Fame conceivably could be updated to the present, but De Silva said he has no intention of doing that.

``We're an '80s show,'' he said. ``Let Grease be the '50s, let Rent be the '90s. I'm happy being the '80s.''

In the musical, the incoming students, chosen for their talent, are well aware of their school's reputation, and the teachers are determined that the reputation will not go to the students' heads. Making reference to a well-known lyric in the title song and a prominent scene in the movie, a teacher tells the new students, as De Silva puts it: ``If you kids think you're coming to this school to live forever and to dance on cars down 46th Street, you're dancing to the wrong tune.''

If the school's purpose is not to turn out professionals who will become famous (and, as the song says, ``live forever''), neither is the musical, in De Silva's view, intended to inspire young people to go into show business. ``It's not about getting kids to be professional performers,'' he said. ``It's really about getting them to appreciate the arts, that it will change their lives forever by making them aware of music, theater and dance.''

It is a mission De Silva takes very seriously, one he feels somehow chosen to undertake. ``I feel like it's a calling, that I'm a channel, that a higher energy comes through me with the show that gives meaning to what I'm doing. . . . It's bigger than I can imagine, like divine intervention,'' he said.

When asked why he has not developed other ideas for musicals or movies, he replied, ``What else could I do that's so connected to arts and education?''

To further what he regards as the show's ideals, De Silva has established the Father Fame Foundation. Through it he has set up a $10,000 acting scholarship at LaGuardia High School, where New York City's performing arts program is now located. And acting through the foundation he hopes, finally, to bring Fame to New York - but not as a Broadway musical. De Silva would like to present the show annually during the theater's summer lull, using students from the performing arts program and from other high schools as well.

``I believe that it has to come to New York in a special way. I don't want to compete with other musicals,'' De Silva said. ``I want Fame to be the musical that gets people into going to see musicals, that introduces them to the beauty of theater at an early age.''

IF YOU GO * Fame - The Musical will preview tonight at 7, open tomorrow at 8 p.m., and run through Jan. 3 at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets are $25-$55. Information: 215-732-5446.

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