Richard Blake has some mighty big platform shoes to fill. Not since Marlon Brando's Stanley called out for Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire has an actor become so inextricably associated with a role as John Travolta has with Tony Manero, the overly macho disco machine in the 1977 megahit Saturday Night Fever. Only the king of rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley, who was mercifully expiring even as the truly tacky disco craze took hold, could ever claim ownership of a more famous white suit than the one in which Travolta strutted his now legendary stuff.
"My work is cut out for me having to put that white suit on every single night," says Blake of his performance as the jive-talkin' Manero in the live musical version of Saturday Night Fever, which opened on Broadway to mixed reviews a few years back. "That suit itself is iconic. There is a lot of pressure. But at the same time, it's a blast."
For Blake, who was never a fan of '70s dance music, the role is a bit of a dream come true. "I didn't really like disco," he says, "but I loved the film. For a young kid and a dancer, it's just a GREAT film. Here's this guy, Tony, who's a dancer, who is cool, yet the chicks like him, yet he can fight. What more could you ask for in a hero if you are a dancer? Now I GET to put on that white suit, and for two-and-a-half hours every night I'm the coolest kid on the block. As soon as you walk out in that suit, you can almost hear the crowd gasp."
A lot of people ask Blake if he studied the film before auditioning for the role. The answer is no. There was no need. He had grown up with it, and it was etched on his consciousness. He also knew instinctively that when people go to see Saturday Night Fever live they are expecting to see Travolta -- or at least someone very much like Travolta -- in the leading role.
"I feel that there is a bit of Travolta in my performance," he says. "That's expected. I mean, he made the role famous, and that role shot him to stardom. But I don't think you can actually do an imitation. There is definitely a Travolta flair. You have to do that, especially at the beginning of the show. That's what people expect, because that's what they know. But you have to make it your own, and you have to stay truthful to the role. Otherwise, I'd be doing an injustice to the character, Travolta, myself, and the show as a whole."
The fact that the script follows the original screenplay so closely doesn't necessarily help an actor distance himself from the role's famous originator. "The musical is almost exactly the same as the film," Blake notes. "And that makes it difficult [to avoid a Travolta imitation]. At the same time [and unlike the film], we are actually singing the Bee Gees' songs. And that makes a difference."
A huge difference, in fact. The stage version packs in many more dance numbers than the already-dance-laden film. And, to be honest, it's far tamer. Big commercial musicals have been exploring dark subjects in more and more graphic detail at least since the rape of Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. And the form has opened up considerably with the overwhelming success of grittier shows like Rent and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Still, a production like Saturday Night Fever, an endeavor clearly intended to ride the youthful wave of a now-diminished '70s-retro craze, can't be too shocking. What would the children think?
"I did Rent on Broadway for a year and a half, and this is a little bit grittier," Blake says of Saturday Night Fever. He admits, though, that harsher elements of the original have either been eliminated or toned down. "We've had to change some things and clean some other things up because it is a live theatrical show and you have kids coming," he explains. "We've taken out a lot of the language and toned down a lot of the violence and the sexism and the racism. It's all still there, though. For us as actors, we wish it was there more than it is. In New York, it was [darker]. But we had to cut a lot of it for the tour because you are going to Middle America, through the Bible Belt, and into places where you would get torn apart. In New York, you can get away with swearing a lot more and calling out racial slurs. People there understand that it's a play and that you are telling a story. But some places, you have to be careful because you have a lot more children coming to the show and you have a lot more people who get offended. I hope I'm not saying anything bad here, but when people come to New York, they feel like it's okay, it's expected. But 'Hey, don't bring it to my town.'"
Through April 24th.