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The Toronto Sun
Showcase Sunday, February 19, 1989

Sing! Sing! Sing!

George Anthony

Dean Pitchford has a way with words. Especially when he
sets them to music.

Pitchford's lyrics for Fame, a collaboration with Michael and
Lesley Gore, won him an Oscar, a Golden Globe and two
Grammy nominations.

His lyrics for Melissa Manchester's You Should Hear How
She Talks About You, a collaboration with Tom Snow, won
Ms. M a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal.

His country hit for Dolly Parton, Don't Call It Love (again
with Snow,) won BMI's award as Most Played Song Of
The Year.

His lyrics for the nine-song score for Footloose earned two
#1 songs and sold more than 12 million copies worldwide,
setting a record as the largest-selling soundtrack in the
history of CBS Records and netting him two Oscar
nominations, another Golden Globe nomination and five
Grammy nominations.

Not surprisingly, BMI named him Songwriter Of The Year.

So what has he done lately?

For openers, Sing.

Filmed in Toronto last year, it's a new-fangled old-fashioned
musical that marks his much-anticipated boxoffice reunion
with Footloose producer Craig Zadan.

Scripted by Pitchford and inspired by a longstanding annual
competition between Brooklyn high schools, Sing is

rooted in the tradition of the old Judy Garland-Mickey
Rooney musicals A bunch of kids pool their babysitting
money and tips from bagging groceries, borrow a neighbor's
barn and put on a show which invariably turns out to be an
extravaganza worthy of Ziegfeld.

In Sing the barn is the auditorium of a Brooklyn school
about to be closed down, in a once-family neighborhood
that has urban-decayed into a graffiti-speckled playground
for dope dealers and muggers. Unlike Mickey and Judy,
these kids are putting on a show not in a juvenile attempt to
audition for Broadway but as a last-ditch (and probably
futile) attempt to ward off the final disintegration of their

While singing and dancing, that is.

Prolific Pitchford notes that in the more recent past,
'soundtrack musicals' featured songs played off-screen while
central characters walked down the street or sped down
country roads in cars.

But the songs in Sing, he points out, actually advance the
plot. When music teacher Patti LaBelle exhorts her pupils to
resist being distracted from the task ahead of them, she
demands - and delivers - Total Concentration (courtesy of
Pitchford and collaborator Tom Kelly.)

Richard Baskin, who makes his feature film debut as a
director with Sing, says he was "overwhelmed" by Pitch

ford's script. "The innocence of it charmed me. It was
captivating. We still have that innocence in all of us - these
days we've just got to dig a little deeper to find it."

No slouch at sharps 'n' flats himself, Baskin was only 24
when he composed and produced the score for Robert
Altman's Nashville ; most recently he co-produced Barbra
Streisand's triple-platinum Broadway album and directed a
successful string of music videos.

When he started shooting Sing, he admits, "I didn't know
how large a job it would be. It's like making two movies at
once. You go from a very stylistic scene where a student
and a teacher

communicate by dancing, to a very realistic scene that is in
fact a continuation of that scene, where the kid's older
brother beats him up, in front of the same teacher. And
those transitions are very delicate, very difficult to pull off."

The teacher-student scene described by Baskin is
performed by the film's two top-billed actors, Lorraine
Bracco and newcomer Peter Dobson. Bracco made her
mark last year as Tom Berenger's wife in Someone To
Watch Over Me; Dobson won the leading role of Domenic
over hundreds of other hopefuls because, according to
producer Craig Zadan, "Peter is the only young actor in
America who can act as well as he does and dance the role
of Dominic."

Dobson begs to differ. "I'm an actor, not a dancer," he
insists. True, he trips the light-metal fantastic in Sing; but true
to precedents set by Flashdance and Footloose, his complex
footwork is executed by choreographer John Carrafa. And
when Ms. Bracco makes her musical moves, her dance
double is doing most of the work.

Why the musical sleight-of-hand? "Because," says Zadan
matter-of-factly, "you can't take a dancer who can't act and
give him the lead. No studio in the world would go for that.
But you can take an actor who can act and teach him how
to dance."

Sure, sure. Like, you hire, say, Tom Cruise, and teach him
how to dance, right?

"As a matter of fact," says Zadan, "we looked at everybody,
I mean everybody, for Footloose, and the only two guys we
found who could act and dance were Kevin Bacon and Tom
Cruise. When Rob Lowe auditioned for us he said, 'Sure I
can dance!' - and immediately dislocated his knee. We had
to take him to hospital.

"So finally it was between Tom and Kevin. But Tom was
making All The Right Moves, which meant pushing the
starting date back a bit, which we really didn't want to do.
And Kevin had this edge about him we liked. So we went
with Kevin."

Zadan says the reason Sing is now a reality is because it was shot in
Toronto. Cost of shooting the movie in Brooklyn, he explains, was $17
million, a figure TriStar balked at. Cost of shooting in Toronto was $11
million, which the stu dio was will ing to live with.

("Eleven million dollars!?! For a Sing? ?" gasps Bella Tillis,
the teacher who launched the Sing program in her Brooklyn
high school in 1947. "We used to give the kids $10 and
they'd have to make do. And they did !")

So Toronto doubles for another city again, after mighty
efforts from production designer Carol Spier and art director
James McAteer. Turning T.O. into Brooklyn involved,
among other visual tricks, a double graffiti team (one team to
spray it on neighborhood walls, one team to repaint the walls
later;) the addition of roll-on dirt to removable adhesive
material on a school's walls; and locations that truly looked
the part. "We took a lot of pains," adds Baskin, "to make
sure it matched."

Not all his preconceived notions of Sing matched exactly,
however, especially when it came to casting.

"I was looking for a dark-haired, Jewish-looking girl to play
Hannah, the girl who gets involved with Domenic, when in
walks this girl who looks like Candice Bergen. She was
absolutely wrong, physically, but we let her read anyway, as
a courtesy. And after she was finished we just sat there with
our mouths hanging open, she was that good. And one of us
said, 'well, what do we do now?' "

What they did was hire her. Which is why dark-haired
Jewish heroine Hannah is now being played by blonde-
haired Toronto beauty Jessica Steen, who does not sing or
dance in the film. Nor is she required to; only half the
numbers in the movie are actually performed by the cast.

Before Sing reaches movie screens March 31, AM/FM
radio will be blitzed by the Columbia/CBS Records Sing
soundtrack, a dazzling earful of musical savoir faire. Among
the next-to-surefire chart challengers are Johnny Kemp's
Birthday Suit, Laurnea Wilkerson's What's The Matter With
Love?, the rousing Sing concert finale One More Time
(performed on screen by Gene Miller, performed on disc by
Michael Bolton and the cast of Broadway's Sarafina ,) and
the Sing school song, We'll Never Say Goodbye, performed
by Jena Rankin in the movie and Art Garfunkel on the
soundtrack album.

The stirring title tune, lavishly produced by Peter Wolf, is
sung over the movie's opening credits by Starship pilot
Mickey Thomas, and is the first of several stunning music
videos to prompt album sales, which will in turn sell the
movie, which will in turn sell the album, etc.

"We're breaking old ground here," quips Pitchford, eyes
twinkling. He's not in this year's Oscar race - his Ruth
Pointer song, Streets Of Gold, failed to bring home a
nomination for Disney's tuneful Oliver & Company - but he's
not exactly idle. He and composer Snow have also penned
After All, the new Peter Cetera/Cher signature tune for
Cybill Shepherd's imminent big-screen comeback in
Chances Are. And chances are he'll be tapped by Snow to
collaborate on Cybill's new pop album.

His beat goes on.

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Last update: November 1, 2000 3:28 AM