"Fame" seems destined to live forever.
It began with the popular, Oscar-winning 1980 movie musical about a group of talented students at New York's High School of Performing Arts. "Fame" then got the small-screen treatment, first on NBC in 1982-83 and then in syndication from 1983 to 1987.
The series has now graduated from the classroom, moved out to sunny Hollywood and been re-christened "Fame L.A." The glitzy syndicated musical drama premieres Sunday on KCAL-TV Channel 9.
"I went after 'Fame' because music is my favorite part of the filmmaking process," says Richard B. Lewis ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "The Outer Limits" and "Poltergeist: The Legacy"), who created the new version and executive produces it with partners Pen Densham and John Watson.
Initially, Lewis says, MGM Worldwide Television Group was more interested in resurrecting the old premise. He had other ideas, telling executives there, "You really need to flip this whole concept and make it a little bit more contemporary."
"For me personally, I had come to L.A. from Northern California in my early 20s. [We needed to] make it about that experience, about trying to make a living, more of the real world. They went along with the idea."
The series, which has a 44-episode commitment, is set in the Jungle, a two-block area near Venice Beach, and follows a group of young actors, singers, dancers, musicians and comedians from all walks of life as they struggle to succeed in Hollywood.
Among the stars-in-waiting are singer-songwriter Suzanne (Heidi Noelle Lenhart), who works as a production assistant to earn rent; would-be actor Ryan (Christian Kane), a naive hunk from Wichita; Brent (Brent David Fraser), Ryan's older brother, a self-destructive singer with a heroin problem; Lili (Roselyn Sanchez), a native of Puerto Rico who has been studying dance since she was 8; and T.J. (T.E. Russell), a classically trained musician who works at a recording studio.
The cast are unknowns save for William R. Moses ("Falcon Crest"), who plays David, the acting coach-mentor of the group. David also operates a popular club called the Who's Who, where most of the aspiring performers live and work.
It's been a real challenge to do a mini-musical every week, but Lewis and his staff seem energized with the task. "No one is doing this [on TV]," Lewis says, "not on the big screen and barely in the theater. It's a great opportunity for everyone."
"Fame L.A." occupies two sound stages at Sony Studios in Culver City. Yet another stage is used as a rehearsal hall for the dancers. Recently, it was converted into a working sound stage for a dance class sequence.
Choreographer Marguerite Pomerhn Derricks, who won an Emmy for last season's finale of "3rd Rock from the Sun," was a dancer on the original "Fame" series. But "Fame" and "Fame L.A." are not alike, she says.
"Dancers in New York and L.A. are completely different," she says. "So what we are doing on this show is L.A. choreography, and we're representing the kind of jobs that dancers get in Los Angeles, as opposed to what we did in the original 'Fame.' "
Usually, Derricks stages from two to five dance sequences per episode and only has one day to rehearse the week's numbers.
Selecting music for the series has also been a heady task. The pilot episode alone contains 21 tunes. Music consultant Jeffrey Pollack has assigned a team to help make the decisions.
"It's kind of fun and exciting, and our standards are very high," he says. "All of us argue every week about what songs should be in there. I think it's something that will surprise people. You don't really expect high-quality music on TV. I think people have forgotten that when it's done well, TV is a marvelous place to expose new talent."
The first episode features the American debut of Sting's "Twenty-Five to Midnight" and a new version of the Oscar-winning "Fame" tune performed by the group AZ Yet. Siedah Garrett of the Brand New Heavies, Taj Mahal and violinist Linda Brava will appear in subsequent episodes.
More than 80% of the series' songs, Pollack says, have never been recorded. "We let all the publishers and the writers we all knew know that here is a marvelous opportunity to showcase your music on TV," he explains.
Mercury Records plans to release a CD early next year featuring the songs from "Fame L.A."
Pollack acknowledges that other series that have tried to incorporate music and drama, most notably Steven Bochco's "Cop Rock," have failed.
"In terms of 'Cop Rock,' I thought it was a wonderful experiment, but it was hard for people to have policemen sing and a jury sing. It's much easier for people to accept up-and-coming kids [singing and dancing]."
Lewis believes "Fame L.A." will appeal to a wide audience. "You are dealing with underdogs and people struggling to make it," he says. "Everybody roots for the underdog. The struggle is universal."
* "Fame L.A." premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. on KCAL-TV Channel 9.