The release of a new movie musical is almost as rare as an appearance of Hailey’s Comet. The genre would be extinct, were it not for Disney’s animated features; non-musical-musicals like Woody Allen’s Everybody Says I Love You (featuring the non-musical voices of non-singers like Allen and Julia Roberts); and music video-style musicals like Evita featuring MTV-born stars like Madonna. As the musical comes closer to gasping its last breath, we have the long-awaited screen version of the longest running musical of all time, The Fantasticks. While the film, which is in limited release, will not single-handedly resurrect the movie musical, it will hopefully make the few open-minded studio executives in Hollywood realize there is indeed some life left in the genre.
The Fantasticks opened on May 3, 1960 at the Sullivan Street Theatre in New York, where it still continues its forty-plus year run. The film, with score by composer Harvey Schmidt, features such memorable songs as “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” by lyricist Tom Jones. The show is a small-scale, intimate musical, self-consciously presented as a theatrical piece on a nearly bare stage. Fortunately, the film version, directed by Michael Ritchie, never loses its sense of theatricality like other theatre-to-film misfires such as the Sir Richard Attenborough’s horrendous screen version of A Chorus Line. Instead, Ritchie has crafted an old-fashioned musical that retains the show’s most vital elements its terrific score and romantic book, inspired by Edmund Rostand’s play, Les Romanesques.
Joel Grey, Barnard Hughes, Jean Louisa Kelly, Teller, Joe McIntyre, Jonathon Morris, Brad Sullivan
Like an old musical from the 1940s and ‘50s, The Fantasticks transports you back to a time and place when life (and movies) were so much simpler. Although some musical numbers were cut (“Plant A Radish”), retooled (“It Depends on What You Pay”), and trimmed (“I Can See It”), the simple plot remains intact. Two fathers Bellamy (Joel Grey) and Hucklebee (Brad Sullivan) scheme to get their respective children, Luisa (Jean Louisa Kelly) and Matt (Joe McIntyre), to fall love. Knowing their kids will resist an arranged marriage, they use reverse psychology and pretend to be feuding, build a wall between their two houses, and forbid their children to speak to each other. When their plan works, they enlist the help of the proprietor of a traveling carnival, the mysterious El Gallo (Jonathon Morris), to end their faux feud. El Gallo pretends to kidnap Luisa with the help of his traveling troupe, which includes an elderly Shakespearean actor (Barnard Hughes) and his silent sidekick Mortimer (Teller), and arranges for Matt to rescue her. And so, it seems as if everybody is going to live happily ever after.
In the second act, the romantic moonlight is replaced by the burning sun, prompting Matt and Luisa each to venture out on their own to see the world, only to witness its harsh realities, compliments of El Gallo and company. In the process, their youthful romanticism is replaced by a more realistic understanding of love. As the wise El Gallo reminds us in the show’s signature song, “Try to Remember,” “Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.” In trying to capture the feel of an old movie musical, Ritchie recorded many of the musical numbers live (the actors reportedly listened to Jonathan Tunick’s terrific orchestrations through an ear piece). The songs, particularly “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You” are nicely delivered by McIntyre and Kelly. McIntyre, a former member of the original boy band, New Kids on the Block, physically suits the role of wide-eye farm boy Matt, though he is a better singer than actor. Although she is too old for the role, Kelly carries the film musically with her beautiful soprano voice. In a role originated on the stage by Law and Order‘s Jerry Orbach, British actor Jonathon Morris, who is best known for portraying a vampire in cheapie horror flicks like Vampire Journals and Subspecies: Bloodstorm, adds just the right touch of roguishness to the role of El Gallo. As the film’s comic relief contingent, Grey, Hughes, Sullivan, and Teller, are more polished performers who appear to be having the time of their lives. With a relatively low budget (around $10 million), The Fantasticks is a handsome production, thanks to Fred Murphy’s cinematography, which nicely captures the film’s remote Arizona location the same area used 45 years ago for the screen version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. Douglas W. Schmidt’s production design and Luke Reichle’s colorful costumes give El Gallo’s traveling carnival a surreal, Fellini-esque quality.
The Fantasticks almost never saw the light of day. Shot in 1995, the film’s Thanksgiving release was postponed indefinitely by MGM/United Artist, who lost faith in the project (a little ironic, considering MGM was once Hollywood’s premiere musical studio!). A contractual obligation to Schmidt and Jones to release the film theatrically forced MGM to put some time and money back into the project. Francis Ford Coppola, who sits on the MGM Board of Directors, was enlisted to re-edit the film. He trimmed 25 minutes, bringing the film’s running time down to 86 minutes.
His efforts paid off. And although a few of his editorial choices are questionable (Luisa’s opening ballad, “Much More,” seems a bit choppy and a stagy dance sequence in “Around and Around” could have been deleted), Coppola skillfully keeps the action moving and also maintains the intimacy that has made The Fantasticks such a memorable piece of theatre history. So when El Gallo sings “Try to Remember” at the end of the film, he is perhaps not only lamenting the days “when life was slow, but oh so mellow,” but also the lost innocence of the musical genre itself. And hopefully, like Luisa and Matt, the movie musical will one day finds its way home to Hollywood.