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I think the defining moment of "The Fantasticks" is the presentation of the song, "It Depends on What You Pay." In this film, that title is the only line from the original song that makes it into the film. That's because an alternate title of the original song is "Rape," the word being defined in the musical as "abduction," not the darker meaning. That explanation, curiously, remains in the film, but the other lyrics, describing different kinds of "rapes" are excluded. The exclusion of those lyrics is not surprising--what seemed only risque in 1960 now seems not only politically incorrect but surprisingly callous and insensitive. The fact, however, that one song from a 1960 Off-Broadway musical cannot fit into a 1995 movie, doesn't necessary mean the rest of the musical can.
Much of what was classic in the past no longer fits into contemporary thought. Updating, however, cannot necessarily preserve what made it into a classic in the first place, and it is not just "It Depends on What You Pay" that's been updated.
Speaking of the original "Fantasticks" as a whole, the score is something I fell in love with 34 years ago. The simplicity of it--scored basically for harp and piano--was a revelation compared to overscored Broadway shows. It also accentuated the music's occasional harmonic surprises, which seem to look forward to Stephen Sondheim. More than this, the minimalist staging--no real sets or props--also was very foward-looking, and assisted in making more timeless what might now seem like a very timebound story. I think the fact the original play has run non-stop for 41 years verifies this.
All this is lacking in the film. Jonathan Tunick's updated orchestrations are good, but they blunt the impact of the score. In place of a bare bones stage, we now see location shooting and a huge carnival set. Other songs are abridged, and dialogue omitted. Maybe this had to be done to adapt the musical into something that didn't seem just a filmed stage event and adapt it for modern audiences, but it isn't really "The Fantasticks" anymore, and it shows on the screen. The film comes off hopelessly hokey and contrived. Worse, it comes off as the very thing I believe I remember Luisa asks God not to make her in the play's introduction to "Just Once": ordinary.
Perhaps this is a film that should never have been attempted. And perhaps someone will have the foresight to release the 1960's TV version on video soon.
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