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Debbie Allen reconnects with 'Fame'

August 31, 2009 | 10:09 am

On Sept. 25, MGM's new version of the 1980 film "Fame" -- which also spawned the 1982-87 television series -- will make its debut almost 30 years later. (Take a peek at the trailer above.)

Although the story is still set in a competitive urban high school of the performing arts, everything's changed -- that is, except Debbie Allen, who in the first movie portrayed no-nonsense dance instructor Lydia Grant, now returns as Lydia Simms, married and the no-nonsense principal of the school.

Allen -- whose movie role was expanded in the TV series, and who served as choreographer for both the 1980 film and the TV show -- is now busy with her own Debbie Allen Dance Academy, which recently moved from Culver CIty to new digs in Crenshaw Plaza. But she took a few minutes with Culture Monster to reminisce about the old film and talk about the new one.

For the TV show, Allen's character always admonished her students: "You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying ... in sweat." It stands to reason that a woman like Lydia Grant would end up running the school, Allen says...

Cat "We wanted to remake this movie 10 years ago; we were talking about it even then," she says. "We thought that even then Grant would be the principal."  She describes Grant's blunt teaching style as "just letting them know what's up."

There was no hip-hop dance back in 1980, Allen says -- but beyond that, the disciplines of ballet and modern dance, the bedrock of any professional dance career, remain the same. There's also some continuity in the fact that the choreographer of the 2009 "Fame" is Marguerite Derricks, whom Allen calls one of her " 'Fame' babies" -- Derricks played a dancer on the TV show.

"I just think it's great that it's going to re-energize the brand," Allen says of the new film.  "And if it does even a little of what it did before, this will be a great blessing for the arts worldwide. 'Fame' did so much globally to reinforce not only the value and the merit, but the joy of the arts in young people's lives. It created performing arts schools all over the world."

Revisiting "Fame" has not been Allen's only recent project. Her Broadway production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," with an all-black cast including James Earl Jones, Adrian Lester and Allen's sister, Phylicia Rashad, will open Dec. 1 at London's Novello Theatre in the West End. She says it's important to refer to the cast as "black," not "African American," since many roles are played by British actors this time around.

Still, she says that even in London, journalists interviewing her about "Cat" invariably start with questions about the new "Fame."  "Yeah, it's buzzing," she says.

-- Diane Haithman

Photo: Big Mama (Phylicia Rashad) is comforted by daughter-in-law Maggie (Anika Noni Rose) in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."  Credit: Ari Mintz / Newsday