by Jon Bastian
This plum is way too ripe…
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Since the 1970s, the “Death of the Hollywood Movie Musical” has been regularly announced, usually with the release of every new musical. Some of them since that era have been incredible — Cabaret, The Wall, Moulin Rouge. Some of them were interesting but failed experiments — Absolute Beginners and Godspell. Some of them carried too much baggage to please anyone — Evita (which I actually liked) and Jesus Christ Superstar. A few of them just plain sucked — Xanadu, Annie, A Chorus Line. If you’ll look at that list again, you’ll notice that a stage to film adaptation is no guarantee of success. Indeed, the film version of Cabaret bears only the vaguest resemblance to the stage show, sharing most of the songs and its main plotline, completely revamping the B story and pulling back in source material from Christopher Isherwood that Kander and Ebb didn’t touch in the 60s. Evita was probably the most well-realized adaptation, Superstar the most radical. But there’s a reason you won’t be seeing Cats, Broadway’s longest running musical, on film any time soon. I’ll keep my opinions of that show out of it, but there’s no way it could make the move from the heightened non-reality of the stage to the heightened reality of film. It just wouldn’t fly.
In other words, what works on stage won’t always work on film, and Michael Ritchie’s ill-fated 1995 adaptation of The Fantasticks is a perfect case in point. You see, The Fantasticks is the longest running stage musical in history, having played for four decades in the same off-Broadway theatre. It also holds the record as most-produced musical of the twentieth century. Probably the only show that beats it out for uninterrupted runs (the Bard aside) is Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap.
With a track record like that, you’d think that someone would have made it into a movie long ago. You’d also think that the movie would be magical and wonderous, with all the delights that have kept stage audiences coming back for years.
You’d be wrong on both counts.
There are two things working against The Fantasticks, really. One is that the original production was designed to be minimal, theatrical and very stagey. The second is that, frankly, the songs aren’t really that interesting or memorable, with few exceptions. Yes, this is the show that gave us “Try to Remember” and the one-time Barbra Streisand signature song “Soon It’s Gonna Rain.” But there’s really no zip to the numbers, no bigger than life element. That can be fine in a live, hundred seat theatre. On film, it just lies flat.
It’s a shame, because there are inspired ideas and moments here. The plot is a sly riff on Romeo and Juliet, with the original production introducing the central characters as “a boy, a girl, two fathers and a wall.” You see, desiring their children to fall madly in love, their single fathers have done the only thing they can think of to guarantee it. They’ve faked a feud between themselves, built a high wall between their houses, and then forbidden their children to see each other. Naturally, it works like a charm as the two woo each other through holes in the wall, Pyramus and Thisby style. Seeing that their children are madly in love, the fathers decide that it’s time to end the “feud,” but they have no idea how to do it. Then, fortuitously, a travelling carnival arrives in town, advertising itself with fliers that happen to mention that one of the ringmaster’s specialties is settling feuds. Meanwhile, the two children, Luisa (Jean Louisa Kelly, Mr. Holland’s Opus) and Matt (Joe McIntyre, a former New Kid on the Block), having been forbidden to go to the carnival, both wind up there — again, exactly as their fathers intended.
On paper, it’s a delightful story, and the cast members seem to be having fun here, particularly Henry (Barnard Hughes, Cradle Will Rock), a somewhat addled Shakespearean actor, and Mortimer (Teller, Penn & Teller Get Killed), his mute assistant who specializes in death scenes of every variety. Grey and Sullivan, as the fathers, are also having a blast and it shows in their big number together. McIntyre is not bad, but his part is given short shrift after the heroics are over. Kelly is also well up to the task here, but there’s just something about her character in the second act that becomes rather unlikeable, and it’s hard to root for the hero and heroine getting together when the heroine loses audience sympathy. The relative unknown of the cast, Morris gives us tons of panache as El Gallo, and bears a very uncanny resemblance to the bastard child of Nick Nolte and Roger Daltrey.
Despite this talented cast and some imaginative directing touches by Ritchie (The Candidate, Smile), it never really comes together. The canvas is way too big for the painting, and it all feels a bit labored. It doesn’t help that almost every number seems to be a mellow ballad, forcing everything into a lackadaisacal, low-key mood. Even the love duets, which should be soaring, just float around and go nowhere.
Still, the songs and the story feel like an awkward hybrid stuck on a sociological fence. This is sort of a 50’s musical with a post-beat sensibility grafted onto it, but no awareness of the changes of the coming decade. (It premiered in 1960.) It seems to have an enforced innocence while also forcing its leads to lose that innocence by the end. And yet, it’s all very innocent in places where it should have been edgy and nasty. El Gallo’s designs may have been dark forty-one years ago. Nowadays, they’re downright coy.
The Fantasticks was originally shot in 1995, set for a Thanksgiving release, but then MGM got a look at what they had and got cold feet. However, their contract stipulated that the film would be released theatrically, so they brought in Francis Ford Coppola to re-edit it into something. He cut out twenty-five minutes, there was a very brief and limited theatrical run, and then the film disappeared until its recent release on DVD.
The DVD includes all of the material that Coppola cut out, and some of it is instructive. It’s quite clear that, in the original film, there was a lot more to the character of El Gallo. He was obviously manipulating events from the outset, and he had more of a mysterious magician feel. The theatrical release also lost a second duet between Grey and Sullivan, “Plant a Radish”, which is a shame, because it’s a good number, elaborately and creatively staged. Less understandable is the elimination of some truly funny scenes between Teller and El Gallo, in which Teller talks about the difficulty of doing a proper death scene, explaining that “dying isn’t easy.” (Yes, I said talks. If you’re a fan of Penn and Teller, you know that he does talk, but he never did in the final film, which is unfortunate.) Several other cuts revolve around minimizing the use of the word “rape.” Here, El Gallo clearly defines it in its ancient sense of an abduction and, in fact, had an entirely different musical number about all the various kinds of rape he could arrange for a price. In 1960, it was a slightly naughty little ditty, but in those times “rape” was about as serious a matter as a parking ticket. Ensuing attitudes have made it unconscionable to be so casual with that word, and rightly so. Still, the deleted material makes the original connotations quite clear to even a modern audience.
Another cut makes less sense — originally, El Gallo begins the show the way he ends it, on the road with the carnival while singing “Try to Remember.” Maybe Coppola decided to save up El Gallo’s entrance, but again, it’s a cut that diminishes the overall impact. As a bracketing device, “Try to Remember” means very different things at beginning and end. Deleted from the beginning, it comes from nowhere at the finale and drifts off into nothing as the carnival vanishes down the road.
Diminished overall impact is the watchword here. Obviously, there must be something to the stage version of The Fantasticks, otherwise it would have closed long ago. But whatever that something is, it did not translate to film. I can only recommend the DVD if you’re a die-hard theatre geek or a huge fan of the original. Otherwise, it’s really only a curio, yet another failed attempt to go from stage to screen.
Jon Bastian is a stage, screen, TV and short story writer who lives in his native Los Angeles, and whose first college stage musical was Philemon, from the creators of The Fantasticks.
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