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The Fantasticks on Film!

Michael Ritchie, Tom Jones, and Joel Grey on the long-delayed movie version of the beloved stage musical. logo

Jean Louisa Kelly and
Joe McIntyre in The Fantasticks
There is something about The Fantasticks that lends itself to long stretches of time. The most durable theatrical production in American history, still going strong at the Sullivan Street Playhouse after more than 40 years, is the source of a movie that has had an exceptionally lengthy stay on the shelf prior to its big-screen release. Shot in 1995, the film version of the beloved musical is finally having its coming out party on September 22.

Joking with the film's director, Michael Ritchie, during a recent interview, we suggested that if everyone who has performed in any of the play's thousands of productions around the world goes to see the movie, it will be a smash on that basis alone. Ritchie laughed and said that he used that argument to get the film financed--and it worked! Now, all of those actors--as well as the millions of fans that have been charmed by the stage musical--have their chance to see The Fantasticks in a brand-new incarnation.

The creators of the show, Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music), wrote the screenplay themselves in collaboration with Ritchie, so the film is very much what they hoped and wanted it to be. And, while it was obviously a long time coming, Jones says that it needn't have been. "The first few years [after The Fantasticks opened on Sullivan Street], we could have taken the money and run," he says. "There were plenty of movie offers. They were actually making movie musicals at that time!" The reason a film version of the show wasn't made back in the 1960s, Jones tells us, was very simple: "We didn't have a vision of how it could be done. And we were very protective of the stage version."

Those with long memories will recall that there was a Hallmark TV adaptation of the show starring John Davidson, Susan Watson, and Ricardo Montalban. "It was a one-hour fairy tale, and it didn't capture the dark side," says Jones. "The longer the show ran [Off-Broadway], the more we realized that it was established as a stage piece and, therefore, wouldn't be hurt by a film version. And we began to have ideas of how it might be done for the screen. But our opening up to the idea coincided with the end of the big-money offers."

Nonetheless, people did keep knocking on their door from time to time: for example, Elliott Gould, who was one of the hottest actors in America around the time M*A*S*H* hit movie screens and who had played El Gallo in a tour of The Fantasticks that also starred Liza Minnelli. Others who tried to get a film version of the show going included director William Friedkin, actor Dustin Hoffman (who wanted to play El Gallo, and purportedly learned to sing "Try to Remember" in preparation), and Charles Bludhorn, then president of Paramount Pictures. The latter, according to Jones, had never seen the show; "but he figured that, if it was running so long, it had to be good." Bludhorn went so far as to hire Gower Champion to direct and Howard Koch to produce a Fantasticks film; both went to Italy to scout locations, but the project never went any further than that. "It lay there until Michael Ritchie contacted us," Jones continues. "He had an idea for doing it that wasn't a photographed stage play. He wanted to put it in a real world, with El Gallo as part of a carnival. We said we'd love to pursue it."

Ritchie has had an emotional tie to The Fantasticks ever since he saw the show one week after it opened in 1960. "I was an assistant in TV, and I never dreamed of being a filmmaker," says the director of such memorable movies as Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Smile, Fletch, The Bad News Bears, and Semi-Tough. "I had a chance to acquire the rights to The Fantasticks in 1990--but, at first I didn't know how to make the movie." When he figured it out, he went to Jones and Schmidt, and "they liked my idea."

McIntyre and Kelly
as Matt and Luisa
With a Jones-Schmidt-Ritchie script in hand and a deal from M-G-M/UA to finance the movie at a budget of under $10 million, next came the job of casting the film. "I always wanted the teenagers [Matt & Luisa] to be played by teenagers, or close to it," says Ritchie. "We had a wide variety of auditions." The director eventually chose Joe McIntrye (of "New Kids on the Block" fame) to play Matt, and Jean Louisa Kelly (best known for her performance as the student with a crush on Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland's Opus) to play Luisa. But the first person that Ritchie cast was Tony Award-winner Joel Grey as Luisa's father, Bellomy.

"Michael saw me at a mutual friend's house and got the idea to cast me," Grey recalls. "Next thing I knew, Tom, Harvey, Michael, and I started talking about the numbers that I would be in. That early collaboration was a lot of fun. I had seen The Fantasticks during the first year of its run and, in the course of making the movie, I fell in love with the score and the show all over again."

Ritchie wasted no time in hiring Barnard Hughes to play the old Shakespearean actor in the film. ("Who better to play him?" the director asks rhetorically.) He also made the inspired choice of Teller--the silent half of the comedic magic act Penn & Teller--for the role of Mortimer, the old actor's sidekick. But Ritchie ran into a roadblock in casting the pivotal role of El Gallo. "I always wanted to go with an unknown," he says, which left out obvious choices like Kevin Kline. The director wanted someone with "no baggage and a great deal of mystery." On a trip to England, he found his El Gallo in the person of Jonathon Morris, a respected musical theater actor there. "He's a dream come true," says Ritchie. "The talent is there, and so is the mystery. The audience won't be able to figure him out."

Turning a beloved stage musical into a movie is a tricky enterprise--especially when the play is so much about what you don't see and the movie, by its very nature, is all about what you do see. For instance, a rope stands in for a fence in the stage production, and the set design in general is the very definition of minimalist. In the film, we see the fence in all its glory--just as we see the carnival and the wide-open spaces in which the story takes place. Ritchie was well aware of the possible pitfalls, but feels that he has successfully avoided them. "When we were making the movie," he says, "many of the crew had never seen the play, and they were amazed that it could ever have been a play. And those who had seen the play were surprised that we were able to turn it into a movie."

What they couldn't turn it into was a release--not at that time, anyway. According to Tom Jones, "The marketing department at M-G-M asked, 'Who is this film for?'" Apparently, some folks at the studio complained that the movie was a sort of a fairy tale, yet sophisticated and rather cynical. ("Of course, that's what I like about it," Jones says drily.) The marketing people didn't think it would work, so they screened the film in a cineplex and proved their point. ("It was disastrous," according to Ritchie.) After that, M-G-M wanted to send The Fantasticks directly to video. But Jones, Schmidt, and Ritchie had been sure to add a stipulation to their contract with the studio: The film had to have a theatrical release before it could end up in the video market.

Over the next few years, the creators came to feel in their own hearts that, perhaps, the film wasn't quite ready for public view; but, says Ritchie, "We couldn't put our fingers on the problem. So I went to see my friend Francis Ford Coppola [who was then on the board of directors of M-G-M], and I asked him, 'What's wrong? What failed in the transition from stage to film?' " According to Ritchie, the legendary director pinpointed the flaws: "The movie lacked a strong narrative. We were too reverential to the play. And too much of the story was told by El Gallo."

In response to Coppola's suggestions, the filmmakers cut 20 minutes from The Fantasticks, giving it a faster pace and a brand new structure. "Now, we have a film that we're very proud of," Ritchie proclaims. Yet he notes that, "In dealing with a classic, you have to be very careful when you make changes. There will be people who will look at it and say, 'Gee, I miss this or that from the play.' But Tom, Harvey, and I absolutely agreed to take certain things out to make it a better movie." Word is that "Try to Remember," the show's most famous song, is now sung by Morris only at the end of the film rather than at the beginning, as in the original cut; and that "Plant a Radish," one of Joel Grey's two duets with Brad Sullivan (who plays Matt's father, Hucklebee) has also been excised.

Overall, Jones is pleased with the outcome. "When it works," he says, "the movie is like a mixture of an old M-G-M musical and a Fellini film. When that happens, it makes me deliriously happy. The movie doesn't make me happy all the time, but enough of the time. It's offbeat, just like the play. I hope that people who know The Fantasticks will come to know and like this film--that they'll open themselves up to it. It's The Fantasticks in a new way, and I think that's exciting and wonderful. Some things work better [than in the stage version], and some things don't. There are rewards to seeing it on a big screen--and I hope people will see it quickly, because I don't know how long it will be in theaters before it goes to video."

Whether it's experienced on the big screen or via home video, one thing the film of The Fantasticks is almost certain to do is to send viewers back to the stage version to compare the two. In which case, they will be twice blessed.

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