‘Dirty Dancing’ musical’s gay performers weigh in on Atlanta stop

It was a massively popular movie, known for launching the careers of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze and for the immortal line “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” Now “Dirty Dancing” has been turned into a stage musical.

Besides a lot of dancing and new musical numbers, the show has two gay performers, John Swapshire and Chris Vandenhende. We caught up with both men before the show hits the ATL just after Thanksgiving to talk about how the gig came up, how they compare the musical to the movie and what modern audiences can take away.

Howdy, John. How did the show come up for you?

Strangely enough, a friend invited me to come audition. I wasn’t that familiar with the musical but I went. I was not that prepared; I almost didn’t go. But I wanted to show my skills and I got it.

Who are you in the show?

I am part of the ensemble but I also understudy the role of Tito. In the past, Tito was a dancer, a great mentor to all the dancers in the show. Has been doing it for years. He’s strong and everyone loves him.

How does the musical differ from the film?

The show is a lot different from the movie. It brings some highlights from the film – you have your two or three big numbers that people remember – but it has more music and scenes. I think there are 20 extra songs. It also opens up new relationships. We have a live band as well.

How does the time period play a role?

It deals with issues that were going on during the time. The show takes place during the time Martin Luther King gave his speech. There is a moment where the speech is going on and some of the cast want to go see it. What I love is that we are all one and here together. Having a diverse cast here is so crucial to the show. The show is perfect for reminding us what we don’t want to go back to. It’s important to keep that diversity moving forward.

It’s also about dirty dancing and not wanting to be looked at as a rebel or outcast. It can be hard to do your own thing, but eventually you have to live and enjoy your life

Chris, how do you become a part of the ensemble?

For me, it was a long process. I started auditioning for it six months ago and this is my fourth time. This style was right up my alley and after a while, here I am.

Why do you think the material is so iconic?

To brush up, I did watch the movie. It’s really fun. I think it remains the force that it is because it is so relatable. Many people can relate to Baby with people telling you “no” all the time and having to find the strength to persevere.

Besides being an ensemble member, you go on sometimes as the lead character Johnny. Tell us about him.

He is a tough guy but Baby touches him and he becomes a more sensitive and caring guy. He finds that there is more than being a cool guy. Baby is different than the women he has encountered. He transitions into a caring gentleman. Johnny has to learn that not everything goes your way all the time. Sometimes you have to roll with the punches.

“Dirty Dancing”
November 25 – 27
Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Marietta, GA 30339