I wanna live forever: Hopefuls line up for their shot at "Fame"

By Kevin D. Thompson, Palm Beach Post Television Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Debbie Allen is being ridiculously patient.

How patient?

Let's just say that Job, the do-right man in the Old Testament whose faith in God survived the test of repeated tragedies, would be impressed.

And Simon Cowell would not.

Allen, the famed producer/choreographer/drill sergeant, is sitting through hundreds of auditions -- most of them dreadful -- at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts for Fame, NBC's new American Idol-like talent search series.

Of the 400 or so hopefuls Allen will see today, only a handful have talent. One overly energetic rapper, for instance, sings a horrific version of Missy Elliott's rap anthem Work It while bouncing around like Richard Simmons on crack. Another off-key contestant won't stop crooning Stevie Wonder's Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing even after Allen politely asks him to leave the stage. Security is at-the-ready.

Another keeps forgetting the words to J. Lo's I'm Real. Someone reads... poetry.

Yet a black-clad Allen, who's not much taller than a parking meter, continues to smile, offer soothing words of encouragement and wisecrack to ease the tension.

"This is not a Saturday Night Live sketch," she says good-naturedly to the contestant struggling through I'm Real.

It doesn't work. The J. Lo hopeful still can't remember the lyrics.

"Well, that's as far as you're gonna get," Allen says. "You can't say I didn't try."

NBC is certainly trying to find a talent show series that can attract the kind of ratings and buzz American Idol has for Fox. Fame (8 p.m., WPTV-Channel 5), loosely based on the movie and '80s TV series about a group of New York City high school arts students who wanted to live forever, is a new reality series on the hunt for singers and dancers with star potential.

"I'm looking for that triple threat," says Allen, who played Lydia Grant, the hard-driving dance teacher in the movie and TV drama. "That's a very rare bird. Either people are not developed enough or they get shy and feel they dance better than they sing. I know I've been called a triple threat, and that I was always living in a small circle of people."

While 'N Sync's Joey Fatone will host Fame, the 53-year-old Allen serves as the show's driving force. She whittles down the 2,500 contestants in the four-city search (New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were the others) to 24 semifinalists. Over the following nine weeks, a panel of celebrity judges and viewers at home will decide who will win recording and management contracts, agent representation, a car, a Los Angeles apartment and a year at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.

"It's an instant résumé," says Jeff Margolis, Fame's executive producer and director. "We're giving this kid an opportunity to spend a year in Hollywood and make it."

The question is: Can Fame make it?

Since the phenomenal success of American Idol -- a whopping 33 million people watched Ruben and Clay duke it out on stage in the show's finale -- it seems as if every network is jumping on the talent show bandwagon.

Allen says she's not worried about American Idol comparisons or other comparisons, for that matter.

"We can't avoid those comparisons," she says. "If you do a new cop show, (critics) are gonna go back to Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. You have to be ready for those comparisons because that's the nature of the business. The mother of all these shows, as far as I'm concerned, is the amateur hour at the Apollo (Theater). It was live, in Harlem, and they had a hook that would drag your butt out, honey!"

20 seconds of fame

The Gusman Center lobby is bustling with excitement and anticipation. Although there are "Quiet" and "Silence" signs posted all over, no one is paying them much attention. The wide-eyed hopefuls, ages 16 and up, are a bundle of nervous energy as they prepare for their 20-second audition in front of Allen. Although they don't know it yet, they will also perform a five-minute group dance number they'll only have about 15 minutes to learn.

Lageinha Dean, a 29-year-old Miami native who lives in Tampa, has been in line since 7:25 a.m.

It's 10:30 a.m. now.

Dean plans to sing a pig Latin rap. Yes, a pig Latin rap!

"I'm here to get recognized 'cause I have talent," she says confidently. "It's always been my dream to become a famous rap artist. This is my big break."

When told she'll have to rap and dance, Dean doesn't blink.

"I catch on good," she says.

Allen, for one, is glad to see several rap artists for the auditions. Surprisingly, the popular genre is rarely represented on TV talent shows.

"I can't understand that," Allen says. "Maybe it's too cutting edge for some people. But it's the music of America today and the music of the world. There's a reason why Christina Aguilera has rappers and why Mariah Carey has rappers every time she sings. You have to get with the times."

Someone who is not only with the times but ahead of them in terms of talent is Michelle Livigne.

A 17-year-old high school junior from Boca Raton, Livigne sings a goose bump-inducing rendition of Chicago's All That Jazz. She also earns one of the few enthusiastic ovations.

Livigne, who has been dancing for 14 years and singing for nearly five, takes it all in stride when Allen praises her performance and calls her back for second round of auditions.

"I had an awesome blast," says Livigne, who plans to study entertainment law at Columbia or Fordham University in New York City. "Debbie was very cool and personable with everybody. She really took the time to speak with everyone and look at everybody individually."

And what did Livigne learn?

"Have fun and not get stressed out over everything," she says.

Some more stressed

Rebecca Manriquez is probably a little more stressed because, unlike Livigne, she wasn't called back after singing Christina Aguilera's Genie In A Bottle.

"They wanted more dancing when I was singing," says the 21-year-old Lake Worth nursing student at Florida Atlantic University. "But it's kind of hard to hold a microphone and dance at the same time and have a good voice. At least I didn't get nervous like I used to and choke and forget the words."

Allen's encouraging words during the grueling auditions (she starts at 9 a.m. and doesn't leave until well after midnight) remind you of American Idol's Paula Abdul.

Well, on second thought, Allen's critiques actually make sense. Sure Allen, who has starred in such Broadway productions as Purlie, Raisin, West Side Story and Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity, can be brutally frank at times. But she notes it's also important to uplift a contestant's spirits.

"I remember auditioning myself," she says. "There's the director and table full of people looking at you and not giving you much energy. It can be very nerve-wracking. It's important to let them know it's not a big deal one way or the other and that it's actually a good experience whether you make it or not."

Allen says her goal, however, goes way beyond finding a Fame star. She wants to continue serving as a self-appointed ambassador for school arts programs that are slowly disappearing.

"There was a time when you could go to your public elementary school and there was music in every school, and there was dance, drama and a band," Allen says. "That doesn't exist now. The public schools are so focused on reading, writing, math and computer science, they're taking out the most important factor -- the arts. It's the conduit to creativity."

If Debbie Allen had her way, that would live forever.