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Pitchford’s Number Comes Up in ‘Sing’

Gilbert & Sullivan. Rodgers & Hammerstein. Dean Pitchford & . . . just about anybody.

At least that’s the way it looks on the credits for “Sing,” the latest music-centered screen extravaganza from Pitchford, who wrote the lyrics for the songs in “Fame” and the lyrics and screenplay for the smash “Footloose.”

But where traditionally musical theater has been the domain of collaborators with a history of working together (never mind that Gilbert and Sullivan were not always on speaking terms), Pitchford--who won an Oscar for the song “Fame” and two Oscar nominations for songs from “Footloose"--has developed the uncommon practice of seeking out different writing partners to suit the needs of each song.

Among those enlisted to co-write for his latest film musical, “Sing"--an urban fable in which a music and dance competition provides a way out of the evils of the Brooklyn streets--were Patrick Leonard (best known for his work with Madonna), Tom Kelly (co-writer of “Like a Virgin” and many other hits) and hit singer-songwriter Richard Marx for what amounts to a sampler of contemporary music styles. The sound track album for the film, which opens Friday, was released last month and the first single, the funky “Birthday Suit” sung by R&B; star Johnny Kemp, is poised to hit the Top 40.

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“It’s a very complicated process,” the 37-year-old Honolulu-raised writer said of the way he develops each piece. “On this particular picture I’ve flown to Toronto, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles just to connect with songwriters and write the songs. You hope each one works out, but if not, then we scrapped the song and went back to square one.”

The truth is, Pitchford--a hypertalker who oozes enthusiasm with only a hint of the arrogance of success--is concerned that people might see “Sing” as merely a repeat of his first success.

“It’s a ‘Fame’ setting,” he acknowledged of “Sing.” “But it’s a ‘Blackboard Jungle’ setting too. But ‘Fame’ is for a lot of people the only reference point when people start singing and dancing on the screen. . . . ‘Sing’ has a whole different set of characters and is about different things; about the death of a community and tradition, the erosion of a neighborhood.”

The unfamiliarity with the musical form, Pitchford claimed, made “Sing” a hard sell in Hollywood--despite the success of his previous two musicals. It took more than four years to get the story to the screen, largely because the people at the studios who sign the checks remained musically illiterate, he said.

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“The feeling I get is that everyone in Hollywood would love a musical,” he said. “But they don’t know what one looks like on paper.”

He also noted that as musical theater has faded from Hollywood’s consciousness, the omnipresence of music videos has colored perceptions of what a song production number looks and sounds like. And thus, it’s pretty much necessary for him to seek out a variety of contemporary hit-makers in order to make the project fit Hollywood’s needs.

And that creates something of a fine line for him to walk. “I try to do something that is true to me at the time in terms of the music and film industry,” he said.

One theme in his films is clear: music as salvation. In “Sing,” as in “Fame,” it is a way out of the mean streets. (Also like “Fame,” “Sing” is based on a real program, a competition that in its four decades has produced such alumni as Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand and Art Garfunkle.) In “Footloose” it was an antidote to the stifling mid-American mind set. And despite the different locales, Pitchford insists there’s a lot in common between them.

“In a strange way growing up there (in Hawaii) made America a foreign country to me, being raised reading about this great country across the ocean in Life magazine,” he said. “Because now I live in New York and Los Angeles, I’m fascinated by people in the heartland, and Brooklyn is as far from Manhattan as you can get in terms of life style. A neighborhood there is as tightly knit as anything you’ll find in Cleveland. I’m not interested in the high life and Wall Street. It’s the Italians and the Jews and the Catholics all crammed together in those streets, four or five generations within blocks of each other.”

Not everything has gone Pitchford’s way, however. There was his attempt at writing a musical for the Broadway stage a year ago--a musicalized version of the movie “Carrie,” for which he wrote the book and lyrics (his “Fame” collaborator Michael Gore composed the music). Pitchford doesn’t like to talk about the experience, which would have numbed anyone--it’s not even mentioned in the bio sent out in conjunction with “Sing.” Time magazine labeled “Carrie” “the biggest all-time flop ever,” and the show closed 72 hours after it opened at a loss of more than $7 million.

While movie musicals have given him more than a degree of success, Pitchford doesn’t really expect--or even particularly want--to be labeled a film musical auteur .

“Other people tell someone that they’re an auteur ,” he said shyly. “It’s a word the public ascribes to someone. They can call you a despot or a maniac or a genius or whatever, but I don’t think anyone sets out to get a label like that.”

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