Posted May 4, 2010 by Phil Hall in Retro Cinema

Retro Cinema – The Fantasticks

The Fantasticks
The Fantasticks

This week, the long-running Off-Broadway musical THE FANTASTICKS is celebrating its 50th anniversary in New York. There are a number of special events commemorating this event, including a reunion of many of the actors who’ve played in the show over the years, and I wound up playing a bit part in the festivities this past weekend by introducing a rare screening of a 1964 made-for-television production of the show.

Conspicuously absent from the celebration, however, was any mention of Michael Ritchie’s ill-fated 1995 film adaptation of the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt classic.  This version of THE FANTASTICKS deserves attention, if only to call attention to the perils in adapting an inherently theatrical work for the cinematic medium.

The beauty of the theatrical version of THE FANTASTICKS has been the simplicity of its staging. A bare-bones set (a slightly elevated platform surrounded by four poles and two trunks), a score of light ballads and bouncy comic tunes, plus a minimalist musical accompaniment of piano and harp ensured that this could easily produced in black box theaters and community playhouses with little fuss or expense.

But the essence of the work is its theatricality specifically, its Off-Broadway theatricality, where an intimate setting and a decided lack of pizzazz and flash.  In concept, filming THE FANTASTICKS would’ve made more sense as a filmed play a hybrid solution that most cinemaniacs abhor, but which could capture the vibrancy of the theatrical event if handled with imaginative direction and superlative performers. Think of the Laurence Olivier version of OTHELLO James Whitmore’s Oscar-nominated GIVE ‘EM HELL HARRY! or even the Jonathan Demme-lensed Talking Heads concert film STOP MAKING SENSE all of these were theater-bound endeavors that made for memorable cinematic experiences. 

Sadly, that didn’t happen with THE FANTASTICKS.  Ritchie’s decision to transplant the film from its bare-bones set to a wider environment and a specific era the 1920’s in rural America, complete with a gaudy carnival setting not in the stage version immediately took away the timeless element of the story (the stage version is intentionally vague on where and when it takes place).  Not unlike another ill-fated stage-to-screen musical adaptation the 1973 filming of GODSPELL across a number of Manhattan locations the specifics of a physical location kicked at the fragility of the material.  Art direction, set design and costuming in this film version demanded equal attention with the score and story and considering the fragility of THE FANTASTICKS as musical theater, these new visual elements overwhelmed the source material.

Ritchie’s second mistake came in the casting.  As the young lovers, Joey McIntyre (of New Kids on the Block fame) and Jean Louisa Kelly has zero chemistry and barely adequate vocal skills to bring the Jones-Schmidt score’s ballad. (The current actors playing the roles in the Off-Broadway production, Erik Altemus and Kimberly Whalen, fill their roles beautifully I wish their performances would be recorded on film or video.)  As the their scheming fathers who plot to bring the young lovers together, Joel Grey and Brad Sullivan come across like a pair of old men hamming it up for a Rotary Club talent show they seem to be amusing themselves rather than filling the requirements of their roles.

Perhaps the biggest mistake was bringing in British television actor Jonathon Morris as El Gallo, the actor hired to concoct an abduction designed to unite the lovers.  Morris lacks the droll humor and magnetic presence needed for the character.  Even worse, his rendition of the score’s one classic tune, “Try to Remember”, is performed with utter indifference Ritchie stages the number as Morris drives off in a truck, and the actor’s pale singing and blank gaze gives the impression of someone absent-mindedly humming along to a radio tune while studying the road for a gas station stop.
Oddly enough, MGM/United Artists had high hopes for THE FANTASTICKS and planned to release the film in the fall of 1995 as one of its major holiday titles.  But poor reaction from preview audiences gave the studio second thoughts.  Lacking confidence in the work, the studio withdrew it from release and hoped to push it into a direct-to-video distribution.  However, a contractual obligation required a theatrical release.  Thus, the film was left in limbo for five years and the longer it sat on the shelf, the worst its reputation grew.
Finally, in 2000, MGM/United Artists brought in Francis Ford Coppola (a filmmaker not celebrated for his gift with musicals double-check “Finian’s Rainbow” for verification).  Coppola took his editing scissors and cut 25 minutes out of THE FANTASTICKS.  This didn’t necessarily make the film better, but it did make it shorter.  This leaner edition was dumped in a grand total of four theaters with barely any promotion.  Thus, the studio fulfilled its contractual obligation and THE FANTASTICKS wound up grossing less than $50,000 making it the least successful Hollywood movie musical of all time. 
The failure of THE FANTASTICKS helped to confirm a then-prevalent notion that musicals had no future as a film genre.  Ironically, it would be another film adaptation of an inherently theatrical piece Rob Marshall’s spin on CHICAGO that brought film musicals back to life.
If there is reason to seek out THE FANTASTICKS it would come as a textbook lesson for aspiring filmmakers: it provides an invaluable example of how not to make a movie out of a stage classic.

Phil Hall

Phil has written about cinema for the New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired Magazine, American Movie Classics Magazine, Tower Records Pulse! Magazine and the Organica Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including “Independent Film Distribution” and “The History of Independent Cinema.” Beyond film journalism, he is a former United Nations correspondent for Fairchild Broadcast News and a writer and editor for technology and financial publications.