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These Movies Aren't Singing Our Song

Why can't Hollywood make stage shows like 'The Fantasticks' work on film? The problem lies in how the theatrical and the cinematic are blended.

September 24, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

Over and over, heartbreak. Broken pieces of heart, everywhere. Devotees of the musical theater are used to it.

Too often, we have seen a deservedly famous Broadway musical turned into, well, the film version of "A Chorus Line," for example.

Too often, we have seen a sentimental favorite transformed into the lamest sort of screen masquerade. Take "Man of La Mancha." I'm no fan of the "Impossible Dream" stage show--I'm more a possible dream kind of guy--but on film, producer-director Arthur Hiller proved a klutz compleat, treating it sort of realistically, sort of not. And it was sort of terrible.

"A Chorus Line," a show about dancers auditioning for a show, and "La Mancha," a show about Miguel de Cervantes putting on a show in prison, don't have much in common. Except this: They are shows about people putting on shows. A lot of musicals are. Onstage, their innate, self-referential theatricality is a large part of what puts 'em over.

If there's anything tougher to capture on screen than a sense of what made a stage musical work in the first place, it's a sense of theatrical magic.

Which brings us to "The Fantasticks."

In 1995, filming a modest $10-million screen adaptation of the long-running off-Broadway phenomenon, director Michael Ritchie took on a fragile charmer indeed. For five years, nothing. But two days ago, the long-shelved results opened in limited release in Los Angeles and New York. A longer version of the movie, including 35 minutes of additional material, comes out in December on DVD.

We haven't had a full-on, big-screen edition of a stage musical since Alan Parker did "Evita" four years ago. As such, the mere existence of a project such as "The Fantasticks" carries an extra layer of novelty.

The shelf life of the stage version won't depend on what people think of the movie. The Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical remains alive and well, internationally. Its record-breaking 40-year run at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village continues apace. The number of consecutive off-Broadway performances, as of tonight: 16,728.

For better or worse, it is our American "Mousetrap," a wee musical theater stalwart famous, in part, for being famous, like Susan Lucci before she actually won that Emmy. Yet "The Fantasticks" has something. It is both of its time and weirdly outside it.

Seeing "The Fantasticks" in its Sullivan Street incarnation, with some entranced kids in the audience, revealed some surprisingly potent reasons for its long life. They go beyond the loveliness of its standout songs: "Try to Remember," "Much More," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "They Were You." They have to do with delicacy, an easygoing comic touch, forthright deployment of some of the oldest tricks in the book.

*

Those reasons remain hidden on screen.

Ritchie's film is neither "Man of La Mancha" terrible, nor, to be sure, "Cabaret" terrific. It is a timid curio, uncertainly stylized.

Jones and Schmidt based their show on "Les Romanesques," the first stage effort by the author of "Cyrano de Bergerac," Edmond Rostand. A wry variation on "Romeo and Juliet," Rostand's play at once mocked and embodied romanticism, the pain and joy of young love.

Jones and Schmidt used Rostand's basics. A young woman and young man pine for one another, separated by a wall built by their feuding fathers. The kids don't realize the wall is but a ruse, as is the feud. The fathers want the match.

Once the wall falls, however, girl and boy become disillusioned. The obstacle is missed. The boy leaves, for a while. The girl's heart is busted up like kindling by a bandit-for-hire, named El Gallo in the musical. (Jerry Orbach played El Gallo and sang "Try to Remember" in the original "Fantasticks" cast.) The young lovers reunite in the end, but cleareyed. They have come to learn that love isn't all moonlight.

Simple stuff. As staged by Word Baker, the off-Broadway "Fantasticks" heightened the fakery in disarming, tender, naive ways. A cardboard moon. Colored bits of paper. A mime--a mime!--deployed without a trace of irony, moving the minimal scenic bits here and there.

But these archetypal elements tend not to go over well on screen. Director Ritchie knew this, certainly. Rethinking "The Fantasticks" for a new medium, he collaborated with screenwriters Jones and Schmidt on a more or less realistic framework.

They placed the tale in a specific setting: the 1920s in the American heartland (filmed in Arizona but strongly evocative of Texas, home to both Jones and Schmidt). El Gallo (Jonathon Morris) becomes the head of a traveling circus, "the Congress of the World's Strangest People and Attractions." In the prologue, the circus sets up shop near the homes of the two fathers, played by Joel Grey and Brad Sullivan. Matt, the boy, is played by former New Kid on the Block Joe McIntyre. Jean Louisa Kelly plays Louisa.

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