Thursday, June 11, 2015

the last movie musical

Good news.  The recent Twilight Time Blu-ray release of Michael Ritchie's "The Fantasticks" includes not only the truncated 86-minute release version of the movie musical but also Ritchie's original 109-minutes cut, as edited by William Scharf, in standard definition. And it's terrific.

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."

Now, about the Coppola cut... It is just another example of what studios traditionally have done when confronted with tightening movie musicals.  For some bizarre reason, the customary mentality has always been to trim the very elements that define a musical - the songs.  In the case of "The Fantasticks," some songs were routinely trimmed, while two were cut altogether - "Plant a Radish" and, unbelievably, the opening rendition of the show's most emblematic song, the achingly beautiful "Try to Remember." (That's Jonathon Morris pictured above singing the song).

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
An element that's available on the MGM Home Entertainment DVD of the film, but not included on the new Blu-ray, is a rough filming of "It Depends on What You Pay (The Rape Song)" as written for the original '60 stage production of "The Fantasticks."  The roughness is evident in the frame pictured above.  Ritchie must have filmed it as a test or perhaps a favor to the composers.  The song was eventually re-filmed and used in the movie but as "The Seduction Song," reworked by Jones and Schmidt.
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."


jeff said...

This is great news, just great. So wonderful that I can finally see the film as it was made.

Alex said...

Thanks for this. I've watched both versions and it seems to me that who ever re-edited the film didn't like Jonathon Morris, as a lot of his stuff was cut. Just a thought. Happy to see the opening song reinstated.

marvin said...

Joe, thanks for the very thoughtful, insightful article. Marvin

J. Thompson said...

Great, just great!

Nancy said...

Thanks, Joe! I didn’t know this movie existed. Fantasticks was my first live theater event; I have a very worn vinyl record of it - beautiful. That was followed by Camelot on Broadway, the original cast, and my enduring love of theater.

k.o. said...

Another case of great minds not agreeing. When I was living in NY in the early 60s, my first husband and I went to see "The Fantasticks." I just didn't get what everyone liked about it. So,I went to see it again -- and this time, walked out! "Try to Remember" makes me want to throw things and scream. Maybe it's the "earnestness" of it all I find most of a turnoff. Then again, there must have been SOMETHING that kept it going so long. Sort of like "The Mousetrap."

k.o. said...

Also, what the hell is it with "and follow. . . follow . . .follow...." what the hell are these people following?!?!?!?!? I didn't even know it had been made into a movie!

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mtngeyser said...

I like the uncut version, but I find Jonathan Morris awful as El Gallo. What was Ritchie thinking? Terrible voice....absolutely no charisma ...that he could charm Luisa is impossible. Everyone else is so well cast. Morris is cringe inducing for me....that it is difficult to watch the film...either version.

joe baltake said...

Your comment is apt. If you notice, the one casualty of the Coppola cut of the film is Jonothon Morris. It's as if whoever did the editing didn't like the actor and tried to delete as much of him as possible from the film. Hence, the senseless cutting of the opening "Try to Remember" number. That's the only explanation of that excision. They wanted Morris out of the film.

Brian Lucas said...

I know what mtngeyser means. I didn't mind Morris as I watched the film, but he lost me completely when he came out to take his bow during the curtain call, acting like a self-satisfied jackass. I thought, this man really likes himself.

Glenn Erickson said...

Great article and information .... everything I didn't know about FANTASTICKS, even as I learned it was happening at MGM. Much appreciated. The musical 'expert' I knew at MGM had nothing good to say about the movie.

WaverBoy said...

I completely disagree with the above posters re: Jonathon Morris. I thought he was the best thing about the film, and oozed charisma. His El Gallo is a fascinating character. Loved the film, uncut version of course!

joe baltake said...

I'm with you WaverBoy. Morris is terrific in the film - at least, in the uncut version. If you noticed, much of his business was jettisoned from the so-called Coppola cut of the film. The end titles credit a Melissa Kent with the editing of the shorter version. I've no idea who exactly did the editing but my hunch is that whoever it was, he/she didn't like Morris. I can't think of any other reason to delete "Try to Remember," Morris's song, from the opening.