Some movies just never get old. No matter how many times you’ve watched “Shawshank Redemption,” for example, when it comes on television, admit it: You flip to TBS. For a lot of people, “Dirty Dancing” is that kind of movie. Its memorable lines (“I carried a watermelon”), beloved cast and dance moves — do not attempt that lift at home — turned the 1987 movie, which almost didn’t get made, into a cultural phenomenon.
The movie’s enduring popularity was something Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the screenplay, thought about a lot when deciding whether to turn “Dirty Dancing” into a play. She had heard that when television stations aired “Dirty Dancing” continuously over a 24-hour period, viewers would watch it multiple times in a row.
“I thought, ‘Why are people doing this?’ ” Bergstein said by phone from New York. “Not because it’s the best movie ever made. I mean, I know everything that’s wrong with it. I’m an A-plus in that. So why is it?”
After all, the story follows a familiar coming-of-age trajectory. Seventeen-year-old Baby Houseman, played by Jennifer Grey, learns about real life with the help of sexy dance instructor Johnny Castle (a hip-gyrating Patrick Swayze) during a vacation in the Catskills in the summer of 1963.
“And then I came up with the thought that it’s because something happens to [viewers] while they’re watching it,” Bergstein said. “And they want to be there while it’s happening. So, as much as they love the film, they hit against the flat screen.”
Offers to produce “Dirty Dancing” as a musical began rolling in as soon as the sleeper hit began storming the box office. But it took nearly two decades before Bergstein could envision a stage version, which opened in Australia in 2004. A touring production comes to Washington next week.
“I didn’t even know what I wanted,” she said. “I just knew what I didn’t want.”
What she didn’t want was Johnny and Baby melodramatically serenading each other with their lines. That would run counter to one of the aspects of the movie that the play’s director, James Powell, appreciates so much.
“I loved the kind of honesty of it,” he said by phone from New York, while on break from rehearsal. “You have films from around the same time that were a bit glossy and a bit more pretend, where this was so earthy and gritty and grainy and real. And that’s kind of the intention I bring to telling the story in the theatrical sense — to keep it truthful and real.”
That included tackling taboo themes, such as abortion, which is an integral part of the plot.
Bergstein wanted to fold all of that into a format that blends the ecstatic experience of a rock concert with a serious play. The play’s additional 30 minutes not only allow for more music and dancing, but also space to more thoroughly examine some of the social issues and discrimination of that era.
“There’s more about the summer of ’63 when everything was changing in the world,” Bergstein said. “If you look, it’s all in the film. But you had to really intuit and look very carefully, and here I have time to expand.”
Like the movie, the stage version has found incredible success. When it played at Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End in 2006 (also directed by Powell), it smashed box-office records. And now, as it comes to Washington, Bergstein is excited about the casting, including what she considers her ideal Johnny, actor Samuel Pergande, whom she calls “gorgeous and a brilliant, world-class dancer.”
Finding great talent has been pretty easy, she says, again thanks to the movie’s popularity. Dancers who are loathe to take a year off from a major company will make an exception for the right project.
“At first, they say, ‘Whoever you are, lady, this is not going to happen,’ ” Bergstein said. “And then I say, ‘Have you ever by chance seen the movie “Dirty Dancing?” ’ And they say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the reason I became a dancer.’ ”
Tuesday-Sept. 14. The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 800-514-3849. www.thenationaldc.org. $48-$98.