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I'll own up to liking musicals, though the form is not particularly popular nowadays. As few as two decades ago, there was still a good level of appreciation for the stage musical outside high school theater arts programs, but nothing like the love of musicals that pervaded the early and middle decades of last century. Perhaps the fanciful occurrence of people suddenly breaking into song finally wore too thin, so that audiences today cannot suspend disbelief and stay with a story through musical numbers. Maybe the medium of film, having moved beyond a Broadway-stage affectation, can no longer convey the inspiration of stars who sing and dance. For whatever reason, musicals seem outmoded nowadays.
I could conjecture that this is why it was so refreshing to watch a musical last night--and one whose filming retained that simple, on-stage quality. Realization: it may be the invention of cinematic tricks like computer animation and an increasing dependence on quick cuts that have cost the musical its popularity. If the two cannot exist symbiotically, then the older, slower form will naturally pass from the cultural collective conscience.
There's no doubt that The Fantasticks has a leisurely pace compared to almost every film that's come out after My Dinner with Andre. But again, it was that very facet that made this a delightful evening of viewing.
For those who don't know, The Fantasticks was the longest running musical ever. The official Web site cites the opening performance as May 3, 1960 and the last consecutive performance as January 13, 2002-17,162 performances in all without missing a season!
What's so timeless about a play that can last so long? Well, it's a love story, and it has some of everything--adventure, betrayal, illusion and disillusion--all set to some of the most memorable songs to come out of musicals (and that's saying quite a lot, considering how many musical numbers have been hits--ask your parents).
The story begins in the house of Louisa, the girl, and her widower father. Next door is a boy, Matt, and his single father. The two fathers are in a bitter feud and their children have developed a juvenile crush in spite of them. What we quickly learn is that the fathers are in cahoots, acting out the feud under the belief that saying "no" to their kids is a foolproof way to get them together. They sing "Never Say No," which contains a verse I always loved as a kid: "Why did the kids pour jam on the cat, raspberry jam all over the cat? Why should the kids do something like that, when all that we said was 'no'?" Now that their kids seem to be magnetically attracted, the two fathers scheme about how to put an end to the faux-feud and bless the wedding.
Surrounding this little drama, a travelling carny has come to town, led by the enigmatic narrator, El Gallo. The two fathers find a willing accomplice in him and a good staging ground in the surreal realm of the carnival. The three plan to stage an abduction where El Gallo will play the villain and Matt the Boy will be set up to come in an save the day. Louisa the Girl will have a hero and the fathers will bury their feud in the happy ending. Note that in the 1960s version, there was a big production number, "It Depends on What You Pay," about the "rape" of Louisa. This contemporary film, adapting a more modern stance, changes the number to downplay the word "rape" and up-play the word "abduction." Maybe this song, quite a good replacement, has been performed on numerous stages since some date between 1960 and 2002, but knowing only the soundtrack version from 1960, I hadn't head it before.
The plot within the plot hatches almost flawlessly. But the naivete of Boy and Girl leads them to stay up all night bickering "This Plum Is Too Ripe." Their ideas of love are purely ideal, and not based in any real knowledge of each other. So, things fall apart. First, the father's plot leaks out. This causes Matt to seek a real fight with El Gallo, and he is handily trounced. In humiliation, he immerses himself in the carnival with drunkenness, debauchery, and tortures of the body and soul, orchestrated partly by Teller, playing very well The Man Who Dies, a man, conveniently for Teller, without a speaking part.
Meanwhile, Louisa discovers the romance of El Gallo and his gypsy ways. She desires to be swept away by him and his carnival and he takes her through a funhouse tune "Round and Round" where he ritually blinds her to the tortures of Matt, the world, and her own false seduction. Louisa loses a precious object to El Gallo, a strong symbol for her virginity, and as she packs up to travel on with the circus, El Gallo packs up the circus faster and gets out of town. It has been a long night for Boy and Girl and they come out "Sadder But Wiser," to cross-reference The Music Man.
Finding one another in the stark morning after, they recognize love's foundation for what it is: a bittersweet mix of mutual attraction, dependence, independence and separateness. They find comfort in one another and seem to end in union, as Man and Woman now. The return to their tiny farms and their fathers is accompanied by the aptly bittersweet "Try to Remember," a song about first love's fatality and the longevity of its dimmer, subsequent echoes. It's more sentimental and heart-tugging than John Cougar Mellencamp's version ("Jack and Diane") "Oh yeah! Life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone," but the idea is similar. More in line with The Fantasticks is the French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (see my archives), also a musical from the sixties that is deeply heart-stirring for those who do not participate in the practice of jaded detachment.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.