In an upstairs room in Edinburgh Playhouse, Douglas Day Stewart looks more like a veteran of the New York Beat scene than a former naval officer of note. Day Stewart is in town to talk about the new stage musical of his Oscar-winning film, An Officer and A Gentleman, which arrives in Edinburgh next week, and the veteran screen-writer oozes the sort of blue-collar charm that reflects everything about the film.
As Day Stewart reflects on how his auto-biographical tale of a working class kid called Zack worked his way up the ranks and fell for local girl Paula became one of the biggest big-screen success stories of the 1980s, it’s clear from its brand new guise that it continues to be a labour of love.
“It’s a dream come true,” he says. “I’d wanted to do it for a long time, but I never had the right people to be involved with to take it to that level.”
It was a trip to Japan that proved to be the clincher, when Day Stewart saw the all-female Takarazuka troupe perform a version of his story.
“It was fabulous,” he says. “They put their music and their dancing, choreography and style into it, and I realised that, yeah, this story really works anywhere, because the movie impacted the world.”
Somewhat fortuitously, Day Stewart met Sharleen Cooper Cohen, the interior designer turned best-selling novelist, who went on to write hit stage musicals including Sheba and Stormy Weather before producing others on Broadway and the West End.
“She had a real dream of doing something with Officer,” Day Stewart says, “and she had the belief and passion to keep this project going through about fifteen years of experimentation, which has not always been easy, and hasn’t always been successful. It took this current situation to really bring this musical to the life and the spirit that it was meant to have all along.”
That came when Day Stewart met Nikolai Foster, artistic director of the Leicester-based Curve theatre.
“He understood this musical on the level that I’d always felt it should take,” Day Stewart says. “The very first time we spoke we talked about our love for the musical, Once. Up until then a lot of people had been pushing for a more bells and whistles kind of version of my story. I’d always resisted that, because my story was based on my own experiences of going to this school, knowing that girl, knowing that drill instructor, living most of the story’s elements.
“Then everyone got fooled by the fact that the movie became this big blockbuster success. They thought, oh, another one from the Hollywood hit factory. But it wasn’t. It was just a little film that started very very small, and was marketed in little tiny theatres, so not everybody could get in, and there were lines around the block. Suddenly we were up there neck and neck with ET the whole year. But Nikolai understood it as a simple working class story.”
Day Stewart was never meant to be a writer. His father wanted him to become a lawyer. Inspired by his uncle, Sidney Stewart, who wrote a best-seller called Give Us This Day, about his experiences in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, Stewart broke into TV.
From 1959 he worked on shows including Bonanza and Cannon, and scored a hit with TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, featuring a pre Saturday Night Fever John Travolta. He also wrote the screenplay for The Blue Lagoon, starring a young Brooke Shields. On a roll as he was, his script for An Officer and A Gentleman was continually being sidelined.
“Nobody would touch it,” he says. “Everybody hated the military, and it wasn’t until Reagan came into office and the climate changed a little bit that anyone noticed it. Then Paramount Pictures was facing a writers’ strike, and out of nowhere they decided to make this movie, even though they had no faith in it. They made it along with some of the biggest clunkers you’ve ever heard of, and yet it found its audience.”
Day Stewart puts the success of An Officer and A Gentleman down to the state of the world in the the early 1980s.
“There was a lack of love,” he says. “Everybody was seeing everything in a very nihilistic fashion. All the movies were really dark, and downer endings were the vogue at the time. But when Officer came along and offered a Cinderella story that people could actually believe, it gave everybody a kind of a hope. We were starving for a positive message, and today people are starving for that even more than they were in 1982. Everything is just dark, dark, dark right now, and I think people wanna’ be lifted up where they belong more than ever.”
With his first screenplay in twenty years, What About Love, in post-production, a script for a sequel to An Officer and A Gentleman is also in the works.
“I think I’ve taken a real exciting turn. I’ve gone with the female empowerment movement of today, and made the story about the daughter of Zack and Paula.”
One might argue that the musical of An Officer and A Gentleman is in part a trailer for its follow-up, introducing both to a new generation.
“I would love to see it get incestuous like that,” he laughs.
The show itself is aiming for similar cross-generational appeal.
“It’s not gonna’ disappoint the ardent aficionado of the original film,” Day Stewart says. “And I think it will also inspire a new generation of believers in the story. There’s nothing to stop a young person from being able to see this as their own and adopt it. I keep thinking they’re gonna’ go home to mom and dad and say, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta’ see this story, this is really amazing,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, honey, we saw this story 35 years ago….’”
An Officer and A Gentleman, Edinburgh Playhouse, July 2-7; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, September 10-15.
The Herald, June 28th 2018