STAGE TO SCREEN: Soon It's Gonna Open

STAGE TO SCREEN: Soon It's Gonna Open It’s here. After five years, “The Fantasticks” is coming to a theater near you -- if New York or Los Angeles qualify as “near you” -- on Sept. 22. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to wait until December, when the jam packed DVD comes out. (More on that in a little bit.)

It’s here. After five years, “The Fantasticks” is coming to a theater near you -- if New York or Los Angeles qualify as “near you” -- on Sept. 22. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to wait until December, when the jam packed DVD comes out. (More on that in a little bit.)

What are we to make of this almost unheard-of delay? Studio reps have given numerous reasons (studio bankruptcy, lawsuits, etc.), none of which have anything to do with the quality of the product. I asked director Michael Ritchie about it, and he referred me to a series of statements that he and coauthor Tom Jones had already made about it (and about the contributions of Francis Ford Coppola, who reportedly cut about 25 minutes from the film). They say, in essence, that they’re happy the film wasn’t released in 1995. As Ritchie later told me, “during those five years, we realized that we had not made the perfect film of The Fantasticks. We now feel that we have the perfect ‘Fantasticks’ film.”

Now, this seems more than a little disingenuous to me. I believe the release has as much to do with Ritchie’s contract and the forthcoming DVD as it does with any change of heart at MGM. However, people who have seen both versions say Coppola’s cuts -- most notably “Plant a Radish,” which Jones had suggested removing -- have made a big difference. Ritchie points out that The Fantasticks debuted as a one-act musical and that “Happy Ending” was originally the finale of the entire piece, not just of Act One. He says the crew wanted to restore a little more balance to the two halves: “One of our needs was to shorten the first act as much as possible so that people didn’t think it was over with ‘Happy Ending.’”

Ritchie says he has been in love with the show ever since he saw it the week after it opened in 1960. He was an assistant to the producer of the TV culture series “Omnibus” at the time, which enabled him to cadge free tickets to just about anything -- a privilege he took advantage of repeatedly at the Sullivan Street Theater.

No matter how much he loved the original, though, Ritchie concedes that film requires a very different style. The inherent naturalism of film puts demands on the piece that don’t come up in the ephemeral stage production. “The first thing we had to do was find a time and place,” he says. In finding that period -- the film is currently set in the 1920s heartland and was filmed in Arizona -- Ritchie and the rest of the creative team decided to set the action in a traveling circus. This put a further (and far more high-tech) emphasis on the mystery and stagecraft that the stage production produces out of its one trunk of props. “If you think about it, it’s a logical extension of the confetti and poles and drapes from the stage production,” says Ritchie, who cites Tod Browning’s “Freaks” and Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” as antecedents for the concept.

With the possible exception of Joel Grey, the casting leans favors character actors -- Barnard Hughes, Teller -- over name actors. (Ironically, Grey also stars in the film musical “Dancer in the Dark,” which opens two weeks later.) The one role that could have gone to a star was El Gallo. In fact, Ritchie says he talked to a few name actors before settling on an unknown British actor named Jonathon Morris.

“The concept was to do the film for under $10 million, which was a huge undertaking,” Ritchie says. “I was delighted by the fact that Jonathon was a complete unknown. It fit in perfectly with our concept of El Gallo, which was to make him less an audience confidant and more a character of duplicity and mystery.”

Ritchie was almost as excited to talk about the DVD, which will have an additional 35 minutes of material. “Plant a Radish” is just the tip of the iceberg: “For purists -- and I’m certainly one of them -- everything will be available.”

“Everything” will include the “Rape Ballet,” which has been replaced in virtually every production but the New York one by “Abductions.” (“Fantasticks” producer Lore Noto didn’t want to mess with success and decreed that the “Rape Ballet” stay in at Sullivan Street.) Ritchie filmed both versions, so although the theatrical release goes the safe route with “Abductions,” audiences everywhere will be able to program the DVD and see whichever version they choose.

Note: I’ve decided to hold off on any personal comments on the film until you’ve had a chance to see it and comment on it. I will say, however, that expectations can be your worst enemy or your best friend. See what you think.

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Speaking of troubled theatrical releases, “Urbania” almost died on the way to your local multiplex. The adaptation of Daniel Reitz’s Urban Folk Tales, which I profiled in last column’s season preview, was acquired in March by Unapix Films, which had been doing publicity for the film all summer. Two weeks before its scheduled Sept. 13 debut, though, Unapix (whose only other film thus far was the pro-hemp documentary “Grass”) announced that it lacked the funding to release the gay-themed drama. Not to worry, though: Lions Gate Pictures promptly snatched up the rights, and the delay was only pushed back by two days, says coproducer Stephanie Golden. Dan Futterman, Alan Cumming and Josh Hamilton star in the film, which was filmed in New York City in less than three weeks for a total of $225,000.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Neil LaBute’s next project is pretty highbrow. He’s currently shooting the film of A.S. Byatt’s Stoppardian romance “Possession” in London. The film, which follows parallel romances between modern-day literary scholars and their respective subjects, stars Gwyneth Paltrow and LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart as the modern academics, with Jeremy Northam and Tony-winner Jennifer Ehle (The Real Thing) as the Victorian poets. ... Jeffrey Hatcher is rewriting his Compleat Female Stage Beauty for the big screen. This comedic biography of Edward Kynaston, a famed portrayer of women in 17th-century London, will be filmed sometime in 2001. ... I was a bit premature last column in lamenting the limbo of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa; New York’s Channel 13 aired the monodrama last week, and other PBS stations are expected to follow suit. Speaking of PBS, the first “Stage on Screen” appears set. It opens Oct. 7 with a live broadcast of the Roundabout’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner” with Nathan Lane, followed by already-filmed productions of A.R. Gurney’s “Far East” and Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles” in the spring. “Stage on Screen” may also present some of the recent BBC Samuel Beckett adaptations, including ones by David Mamet and Anthony Minghella. ... I just saw the preview for “Bootmen,” the latest effort from Tap Dogs impresario Dein Perry, and the audience was whooping it up in a downright mean-spirited way. ... Look for Ben Shenkman (Proof) and Arija Bareikis (The Last Night of Ballyhoo) in “30 Days” (Sept. 15), a romantic comedy produced by Arielle Tepper (Freak, James Joyce’s The Dead). Also opening that day is Eddie Izzard in “Circus” and David Morse (who appears in three major releases this fall) in “Bait.” And Billy Crudup and Philip Seymour Hoffman are both said to give superb performances in “Almost Famous.”

My Favorite Thought: Regular contributor Kevin weighs in on “Mame” (minus some of the cattier remarks -- sorry, Kevin):

“If you're looking to evoke Mame's wild side, how about Courtney Love? (With a strong director and some vocal coaching, she might be wonderful.) Personally I'd like to get away from that drag-queen image of Mame: the notion that all you have to do to become Mame is to rattle those bracelets, wave around an outsized cigarette holder and shriek ‘Oh, darling!’ at everything in sight. (Even Rosalind Russell, generally considered the definitive Mame, makes me feel like I'm watching a man. I bet she was sensational on stage, but blown up on the big screen it comes across as a female impersonation -- if an entertaining one.) Anyway, I doubt any upcoming Mame will be all that wild. I imagine a P.C. Mame: no smoking, no drinking, no swearing, doesn't wear fur, etc. But wouldn't it be nice, just once, to have a sexy, feminine, relatively young Mame? (I know Angela Lansbury was all of 38 when she first played Mame, but even then critics commented on the character's sexlessness.) And please, please, no Bob Mackie tackie.
"And I'd love to see it filmed strictly in period. I mean made the way a movie would be in the eras the story takes place in. ‘It's Today’ should look like an All-Talking! All-Singing! All-Dancing! early talkie in two-toned Technicolor, going to black and white when Mame goes broke; the plantation sequence and title song should resemble ‘Gone With the Wind’; ‘Bosom Buddies’ done like a sleek, sophisticated ’30s high comedy; ‘If He Walked Into My Life’ early film noir; and the ending in bright, garish ’40s Technicolor. Are you listening, Craig Zadan?”

Your Thoughts: Are you going to see “The Fantasticks” in the theatre or wait for the DVD? Is The Fantasticks less suited to the “reality” of film than other musicals, or is the problem simply endemic? Let me know what you think when you see it. And for those of you who have already seen the full-length version, let me know how the two versions compare.

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.