Twenty years later, we can see now see Ritchie's vision - an immaculate film most likely doomed because of its loving fidelity to the original Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt 1960 stage production. The landmark musical started life as a small off-Broadway effort that subsequently ran for a whopping 17,162 performances - that's 42 record-breaking years.
Ritchie kept matters intimate, despite his film's open-air settings, and even though movie musicals had virtually no audience interest in 1995, the filmmaker probably thought - and rightfully so - that those 42 years in New York meant that the show had an obsessively loyal following.
But those people (plus those who had performed the show in school and in community productions) never got a chance to see the film. United Artists test-screened "The Fantasticks" for audiences no longer familiar with film musicals. The scores were predictably low, the film was shelved.
For five years.
MGM Home Entertainment was preparing a direct-to-video release of Ritchie's cut in 2000 when Francis Ford Coppola reportedly stepped forward and offered to re-edit the film for a theatrical release.
Twenty-three minutes were taken out of "The Fantasticks" and it was given a "limited release" in only four markets - New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. The film played a week and then went away until it materialized on home entertainment in Coppola's cut, not Ritchie's.
Ritchie supported Coppola's cut. He died in 2001. "The Fantasticks" was not his last movie, as widely reported. (That would be "A Simple Wish" in 1997.) Now it's 2015. Twenty long years have passed and Ritchie is gone but "The Fantasticks" has somehow, miraculously, survived. The fastidious attention that Michael Ritchie devoted his movie is, well, humbling.
His film is not an adaptation of "The Fantasticks." It is "The Fantasticks." Ritchie retained the show's original graphic (as seen in the frame from the opening credits above), as well as the show's overture - arguably the second most famous musical overture after Jules Styne's "Gypsy."
It's ironic that when it comes to his own films, Coppola adds footage (see "Apocalypse Now Redux"), but then it's unclear if Coppola personally re-edited "The Fantasticks" himself (see Note in Passing below).
That said, many thanks to Craig Spaulding, Ed Dennis and their gang at Twilight Time for believing in Ritchie's film and presenting its Blu-ray incarnation as something of an event - a circumstance that I could have never imagined. And thanks to Julie Kirgo for astute liner notes that express thoughts about the film that the critics missed. And the topping, of course, is the privileged experience of seeing Ritchie's original cut - a straightforward, no-frills, no-nonsense, old-fashioned movie musical.
This is not a modern aberration, along the lines of Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge." No, it's a real musical. The last real movie musical.
Ritchie's cast assembled for a curtain call
Note in Passing: Much was made about Francis Ford Coppola being brought in and using his American Zoetrope facilities to re-edit the film, reducing it from 109 minutes to 86 minutes. But an end title on the release version of "The Fantasticks" credits Melissa Kent with the "additional editing." Hmmm. That title card, incidentally, replaced one in the end credits of the Ritchie version that announced that the film's soundtrack album would be available on Telrac Records.
Of course, a soundtrack album never materialized.
Finally, The Hallmark Hall of Fame aired a one-hour adaptation of "The Fantasticks" in 1964, starring Ricardo Montalban as El Greco, Stanely Holloway and Bert Lahr as the fathers, John Davidson as Matt and Susan Watson as Luisa. Watson, who created the role of Kim MacAfee in the original 1960 Broadway production of "Bye Bye Birdie," created the role in the inaugural Barnard College production of "The Fantasticks."