Irene Cara, the singer, actress, and dancer who made an indelible mark at the intersection of disco, pop, and “show music,” has died. She rocketed to international fame in Alan Parker’s celebration of theater kids, Fame, singing lead on three of the film’s platinum-selling album, and followed-up by recording the theme to Flashdance (“Flashdance … What A Feeling”), an international #1 hit which still ranks at #38 on Billboard’s All-Time Hot 100 Songs nearly 40 years later. She was 63 years old.
Cara’s death was announced on Twitter by her publicist.
Cara, whose birth name was Irene Cara Escalera, was born in the South Bronx to a Puerto Rican father and Cuban-American mother. She made early television appearances on Spanish-language television, and as a pre-teen performer she landed a spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in July 1971. (Other guests that night included a murderers’ row of old school comedians, Bob Hope, Selma Diamond, Marty Allen, and Godfrey Cambridge.) That same year she was cast as a member of “The Short Circus,” the house band on PBS’s educational sketch comedy series The Electric Company.
Cara maintained an impressive resumé throughout the 1970s, appearing in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. Among the successes were The Me Nobody Knows, a Drama Desk and Obie-winning musical about the lives of inner city youth that was nominated for a Tony when it transferred uptown. Among the notable “big swings” was Galt MacDermot’s follow-up to Hair, Via Galactica, set on an interplanetary asteroid, which closed after seven performances and was the first Broadway production to lose over $1 million. (Raúl Juliá and Mark Baker were also in the cast.)
On television, she was part of two highly-watched miniseries, Roots: The Next Generation, in which she appeared in three of seven episodes, and the terrifying Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, which stared Powers Boothe, Ned Beatty, James Earl Jones, and Randy Quaid.
And then she was cast in Fame.
Released in 1980, the edgy teen drama set at a performing arts high school was a massive success, reveling in the joys and struggles of youth and creativity. While there is no main character, Cara’s Coco Hernandez is certainly first-among-equals in the ensemble. (And her rude awakening final sequence was, and still is, quite shocking.) Her character sang lead on three numbers from the soundtrack album: the ballad “Out Here On My Own,” the goofy-funky celebration “Hot Lunch Jam,” and the unforgettable, traffic-stopping title song, “Fame.” It’s the greatest scene anyone ever saw.