STAGE TO SCREEN: MGM is Fantastuck and Mayer Gets Stupid

STAGE TO SCREEN: MGM is Fantastuck and Mayer Gets Stupid The hardest part of turning musicals into films is actually getting them in front of the cameras. Movie rights tend to get snatched up as soon as smashdom is imminent; turning those rights into a workable script is where most of these projects run aground.

The hardest part of turning musicals into films is actually getting them in front of the cameras. Movie rights tend to get snatched up as soon as smashdom is imminent; turning those rights into a workable script is where most of these projects run aground.

So what to make of "The Fantasticks"? The beloved Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical, still going strong after almost 40 years off-Broadway, was filmed back in 1995. (To put that in perspective, "Evita" was filmed and released since "Fantasticks" wrapped. Doesn't that feel like ages ago?) The cast includes Joel Grey, Barnard Hughes and Teller (of comic magic duo Penn & Teller). Jonathan Tunick reorchestrated the score for a symphony orchestra. Schmidt and Jones, who rewrote the script for the film, are both reportedly delighted with the final product. So why has it never been released in theaters, on video or anywhere else?

Schmidt, who moved to Texas a few years ago, says MGM/UA didn't -- and still doesn't -- know what to do with it. "We think it will come out eventually, but we don't really know. There have been a few problems at MGM/UA." Schmidt didn't get into specifics, but news of MGM hirings, firings and bankruptcy have been commonplace for the last few years. The studio went as far as showing a trailer and holding test screenings a few years back, but nothing came of it.

It was filmed in Nogales, Texas, not far from where "Oklahoma!" was shot. (There's a certain symmetry to this: The Fantasticks was originally envisioned as a big, Oklahoma!-esque Wild West musical named Joy Comes to Dead Horse.) The new script abandons the verse format and has what Schmidt calls "some new ideas that don't at all violate the integrity of the stage piece. ... It's a very poetic, almost surreal film."

Schmidt says director Michael Ritchie, whose early high points ("The Candidate," "Smile") have more recently given way to high-concept comedies like "The Golden Child" and "Fletch Lives," reportedly has it in his contract that "Fantasticks" must be released as a film. That doesn't necessarily force MGM's hand -- studios occasionally screen a film in one or two small towns before dumping it onto video -- but it does increase the odds that "The Fantasticks" will get released. The two film ingenues have both since gone on to bigger things. Jean Louisa Kelly had a featured role in "Mr. Holland's Opus," and former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre currently has an album out. "He looks younger now than he did when he filmed 'The Fantasticks,'" says Schmidt. "I don't know how he does it!"

In fairness, I have talked to more than one person who is not as charitable about why we have yet to see "The Fantasticks." Pirated videotapes abound (I have yet to see one myself), and several musical theatre fans have suggested the film should remain on the shelf. But with even such infamous recent film flops as "Annie" and "A Chorus Line" attracting cult followings, and given the smallish production budget, I remain unconvinced. Now that MGM's financial situation is starting to get squared away, let's hope we finally get a glimpse at the film of the longest running musical in history.

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After directing six major New York shows in two years, Michael Mayer could be forgiven for taking a long break. (Bear in mind that two of those shows -- Triumph of Love and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown -- had out-of-town engagements and that Side Man, Stupid Kids and A View from the Bridge played in a total of seven different houses during that time. Only The Lion in Winter stayed put.)

Apparently, though, Mayer is about to make his film directorial debut with the movie version of Stupid Kids. Variety reported on June 17 that Universal imprint Jersey Shore is about to sign a deal with Mayer and producer/screenwriter Richard LaGravenese ("Beloved," "The Fisher King"), who would revise the script. Playwright John C. Russell, a longtime friend of Mayer's, died of AIDS in 1994, before Stupid Kids was ever produced; Mayer has said he promised Russell he would direct it someday.

Casting has not yet begun, but one original cast member is out of the running: James Carpinello begins rehearsals July 19 for the lead role in Saturday Night Fever.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Keep your eyes peeled for "The Boys," an Australian thriller that opens June 25 in New York and Los Angeles. The Toni Collette film, which has been kicking around (and winning film festival awards) since 1997, is based on an acclaimed 1991 play by Aussie playwright Gordon Graham. ... Speaking of film festivals, "An Ideal Husband" hit one more major fest before opening June 25. Lord Goring has always been considered the showiest of the play's roles, and Rupert Everett's portrayal won him an acting award at the Seattle International Film Festival. ... Nicholas Hytner's new film, set in the world of ballet, marks a turning point of sorts for two of its stars, Peter Gallagher and Donna Murphy. As you may remember, Gallagher was cast as the male lead in Passion, only to be replaced during rehearsals by Jere Shea. The new film, which begins filming in New York this month, is not yet titled. ... "You Can Count on Me," Kenneth Lonergan's directorial debut, is currently shooting in upstate New York. The This Is Our Youth playwright, who's filming his own script, has rounded up an all-theatre cast: Laura Linney and Jon Tenney join Youth's Mark Ruffalo, plus recent Night Must Fall costars Matthew Broderick and J. Smith-Cameron (Lonergan's longtime girlfriend).

-- Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine and a theatre critic for Back Stage.