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‘Dance Til Dawn’ at 30: The Team Reflects on ‘Unusual Casting Process,’ #MeToo Relevance and DJ Dick

The spring and summer of 1988 were consumed with a writers’ strike within the film and television industry, but one project that launched in the fall came out of it unscathed: “Dance ‘Til Dawn,” an original television movie about Hoover High’s senior prom first aired on NBC Oct. 23, 1988. The movie was a who’s who of 1980s television — from Kelsey Grammer and Alan Thicke, to Christina Applegate, Tempestt Bledsoe and Tracey Gold — and its multi-generational casting allowed it to be an early pioneer of content aimed at a co-viewing audience. It was also a love letter to Los Angeles, utilizing iconic locations such as the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel as its soundstage. Now, 30 years after its initial release, “Dance ‘Til Dawn” also finds new relevance within the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up.

“The whole idea of a prom was a universal thing for everybody — everybody had gone to a prom or didn’t go to a prom or had a feeling about a prom,” executive producer Larry Sanitsky tells Variety. “Overall we did want to capture the fun of the prom, but we also wanted to capture some of the poignancy.”

Designed as an ensemble piece, some of the storylines the teenagers’ storylines dealt with included various insecurities over not having dates for the prom (Alyssa Milano), not knowing what they were going to do after graduation (Chris Young) and being too caught up in image and planning for the future (Applegate), and the most popular guy in school (Brian Bloom) asking a girl (Gold) to the prom just because he heard she was “easy.”

Over the course of the night, that guy, Kevin McCrea comes to realize that girl, Angela Strull, isn’t what he expected but still wants to carry out his plan. So after a dinner at an Italian restaurant and dancing at the prom, they end up in a bedroom at an after-party, and he makes his move. But Angela was warned he might be only after one thing, and although she didn’t believe it at first, now she has her proof and successfully rebuffs his advances.

Both Sanitsky and director Paul Schneider say the movie was always intended to be empowering for Angela. Even if broadcast standards had not been as “stringent” as they were in the ’80s, Sanitsky notes, “we were never going to push boundaries with the kids.”

Angela’s empowerment wasn’t just about standing up to a teenage boy but her over-protective father (Grammer), who had been insisting she attend a bible college when she really wanted to study art.

“I wanted her to be strong, standing up for herself, but also for it to speak to the audience we were trying to at that moment and not let her be a victim,” Gold says. “Because in so much of it, she is an unknowing victim, and to have that moment where she stands up for herself, it was important.”

Gold was just off her third season of “Growing Pains” when she filmed “Dance ‘Til Dawn,” and she welcomed a return to more emotional fare.

“I started out as a dramatic actress, so for me, I really felt very comfortable being in a more dramatic role,” she says. “I was always the kid who could cry on cue. So to do ‘Dance Til Dawn’ where I could do more of the dramatic elements of the story, it spoke to more of my foundation.”

Producers Sanitsky and Frank Konigsberg, through their Konigsberg/Sanitsky shingle, were looking to make a film that was “multi-character, multi-generational,” Sanitsky says. So while the teenagers were learning lessons about not making assumptions about other people, the parents were reliving their own adolescence through their kids. For some — namely Edie McClurg and Grammer — it meant following their kid around on prom night to make sure she didn’t get into the kind of trouble they had, while for others, such as Mary Frann and Cliff De Young, it was about reevaluating the relationship they started in high school that had changed drastically in the subsequent years.

Sanitsky says the late Konigsberg used to talk about invoking Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” — a comedic movie featuring an ensemble with romantic complications who spend a night at a country house to “sort themselves out” — while he kept invoking the universality of problems that come with a prom, such as “Do you have a date?”

The original title for the project, according to music supervisor Richard Rudolph, was simply “Senior Prom,” and that inspired the theme song, which Rudolph wrote, along with Michael Sembello, Rick Bell and Frank LaRosa, and which featured lyrics such as, “Our senior prom, it’s the night we’ve waited for; we can hold it back no more.”

“We really tried to get into it and capture and become part of the emotional fabric of the piece and try and think about what these kids were thinking about and anticipating as they were going through their senior prom, which is a seminal and iconic moment in everybody’s high school career,” Rudolph says. “There’s a build up to it and a feeling of ‘This is the greatest time in my life and nothing else is going to compare’ — we tried to [incorporate] everything a kid thinks about and distill it down.”

Sanitsky recalls it was important to the producing team to keep the majority of the movie “light and bright,” even when dealing with some more serious issues. He credits both Rudolph, who also worked on the score, and Schneider for executing that vision beyond Andrew Guerdat and Steve Kreinberg’s script.

But the casting was also an integral part to the project. Schneider remembers “an unusual casting process,” at least at the time, for “Dance ‘Til Dawn,” in that the producers and the network “wanted every young teen star you could think of…all together in one movie.” With the film as a “star vehicle for all of these young folks in mind,” calls were made to start reaching out, and the young ensemble rounded out with actors including Applegate, who had just finished her second season of “Married…With Children”; Bloom, who had come off “As The World Turns”; Bledsoe, who had been starring on “The Cosby Show” for four years; Milano, who had just come off her fourth season of “Who’s The Boss?”; Young, who had wrapped the final season of “Max Headroom”; and Matthew Perry, who had just finished “Boys Will Be Boys.”

“As you heard more and more people were cast, it was the cool high school project to do,” Gold says. “It was a no-brainer and almost felt like summer camp in a lot of ways — because it was the break from our regular jobs, and we had one of those long Winnebago trailers with the accordion doors so we could all talk to each other in our dressing rooms.”

The production team wanted to give equal weight to the adult cast, as well, bringing in “Newhart’s” Frann, “Small Wonder’s” McClurg, “The Leatherstocking Tales'” De Young, and”Chicago Story’s” Molly Cheek, in addition to Thicke and Grammer.

“It was written for all of these lead actors who are on all of these TV shows, a shared experience,” Gold says. “There were three networks and everyone circled in each other’s orbit, and to be in that environment and to get together to do a movie was really rare and really cool.”

With so many actors to service, it was important for the movie not just to tell a bottle episode-style story that took place at the prom. Instead, characters were introduced in the hours leading up to the infamous evening, as they got ready to attend at their homes and at the mall, as they visited pre-game locations such as restaurants, and in the case of some characters, as they found ways to avoid attending at all and instead went to the movies. “Dance ‘Til Dawn” was filmed completely in practical locations, as opposed to building sets on a soundstage — although the Cocoanut Grove club in the Ambassador Hotel served as a more traditional set, where they set up camp to shoot the actual prom scenes.

“It was sort of a baptism by fire,” says Schneider, whose background was primarily in theater before “Dance ‘Til Dawn.” “There was so much to do — so many actors, so many locations, all of that complicated logistical stuff at the prom. I wanted it to work and I wanted it to be good.”

The biggest challenge Schneider remembers was “getting the fun of the prom and not getting overwhelmed with the logistics of everything in the short amount of time we had.” But although he did have crowds of extras and important dialogue and choreography with which to contend, one potentially problematic story element was nipped in the bud before the production phase.

“The script originally called for a band to perform at the senior prom,” Rudolph recalls, noting he immediately flagged that as not time conducive to the shoot because everyone would have to be in sync and pantomiming their tracks while actors performed dialogue over them, in multiple shots, takes and scenes. “And it wasn’t one song that you’re shooting to — you have songs going on all of the time, and you have to try to make a cohesive thing.”

Rudolph suggested featuring a DJ at the prom instead. “He can be a character, part of the fabric of the piece, some kind of connective tissue,” he told Sanitsky. Sanitsky loved the idea — and talked Rudolph into playing the DJ, who was named for him and became an iconic image in the movie for his ’80s-teased long hair and musical performance. (Rudolph says he did not actually sing, but instead used tracks Sembello had recorded.)

“All of the actors, they thought I really was this guy, DJ Dick, and on more than one occasion on the shoot they’d come up to me and say, ‘Hey DJ Dick, we’re having a little party afterwards, do you want to come hang out with us?’ And I would go, ‘I have kids your age! I don’t know what you’re thinking about here,'” Rudolph says. “Larry’s still in trouble for making me do it, but I became like a cult hero to my daughter’s friends at the time because they loved all of the kids who were in it.”

Rudolph used a combination of licensed tracks and originals for the music, including a re-recording of Heatwave’s “Grooveline,” a cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” and an original, “Rock Until You Drop,” which he wrote with both Sembello brothers.

“When you’re [watching] a movie, sight and sound are both equally important. The music is half of the senses you’re using, so it has to be right,” he says. “The best stuff is collaborative, and the stuff I’m happiest to work on is where music is not just a post-production element — where it becomes an emotional postcard of the piece.”

The production team also collaborated on the iconic prom theme — “Paris in Puce.” Although Sanitsky says the general idea for the theme was created at the script level, the look of the space, which was decked out in puce and white polka dotted tablecloths and an Eiffel Towel wall decoration done in lights, as well as the costumes — from Applegate’s puce and white polka dotted ensemble to Milano’s frilly pink princess dress to Gold’s sparkly black halter gown — were a meeting of the minds among the team.

“It was really just supposed to [depict] a night of fun,” Sanitsky says. “Entertainment was the ultimate thing, and there was an escapism in television.”

Sanitsky admits that the idea of a reunion movie has never been seriously broached over the course of the years, mostly because it was of its time. Even though it dealt with some “sober topics,” there are many issues plaguing teenagers today that he feels such a movie would have to address, that at the time were not playing out in public — issues such as sexual orientation, drugs, and competitiveness in sports and with grades.

“This kind of captured the world of those people who say, ‘Oh the best years of your life are in high school,'” he says. “It’s a little bit of a different world now. … The stakes seem a little higher to me today.”

Instead, he sees its legacy as what came after it — the changes the movie inspired, not only with new projects that reached across demographics, but also ones that starred his very cast.

“What was so interesting was after it was on and it did so well, Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC, said the next Monday, ‘This is what we should be doing,'” he says. “And at one point ‘Friends’ and ‘Frasier’ and ‘Jesse’ were all on, so [NBC] had the Thursday night lineup of those who had been in ‘Dance Til Dawn’ years earlier. It was like, ‘Oh wow.’ In a way, that was the aftermath of the movie.”

But Gold, for one, sees some value in potentially returning to Hoover High.

“How fun would it be to have the stars who were the kids play the parents now?” she says.

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