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I viewed a kinescope of this TV special in the Museum of TV & Radio.
This production of 'The Fantasticks' is a Hallmark special, so -- like
all of that breed -- it's impeccably well-done family viewing, and
squeaky-clean. One problem with 'The Fantasticks' (adapted from an
Edmond Rostand play) is that the fathers of the young lovers conspire
with another man to have one father's daughter raped. Even though the
libretto takes care to establish that the word "rape" is being used in
its more obscure sense of abduction rather than non-consensual sex ...
still, when modern viewers hear the word "rape", they're going to
interpret it in the sexual way. Appropriately, this production revises
and downplays that difficult part of the plot.
This production's staging is note-perfect: on a spacious indoor set that convincingly depicts a rural outdoor setting in autumn. (As the beautiful opening song notes, this is September.) I was surprised by the elimination here of the top-hatted character known in the stage play as the Mute, somewhat equivalent to the Property Man in Chinese drama. Two other minor roles have been incorporated into the roles of the fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy. A press release issued at the time this special was broadcast on American TV stated that this was "to make the fathers' roles fatter and funnier".
And, oh, those fathers! The boy's father Hucklebee is played by the great Bert Lahr, whilst the girl's father (a slightly more difficult role) is tackled by the great Stanley Holloway. Lahr and Holloway had never worked together before, yet here they convince us that they've been cronies for years (despite their wildly diverse accents). Their harmonising on the comic duet "Never Say 'No'" is hilarious. Also, Ricardo Montalban is splendid and quietly dignified as El Gallo, the pimp of the rape that's not a rape.
As for the young lovers ... as the boy, John Davidson is, well, squeaky-clean. I was much more interested in seeing the performance of Susan Watson as the girl. It's amazing that Susan Watson is today so obscure. In the early 1960s, Watson was a vitally important Broadway performer: the bridge between Barbara Cook (before her) and Bernadette Peters (after her). Watson was the generic ingenue, starring in several Broadway musicals: among others, she played the Ann-Margret role in the stage version of 'Bye Bye Birdie'. Seeing her vivacious performance here, I'm surprised that she never translated her stage stardom into screen stardom. I'll rate this excellent chamber musical 9 out of 10.
Sadly, the long-running Off-Broadway stage musical wasn't filmed with
its original stars. This cut-down 1964 show for NBC gets it all wrong.
The music is too loud and too orchestral. The two fathers' roles have
been beefed up at the expense of the lovers' roles. The sets are
cheesy. The singing is bad.
First off, Ricardo Montalban as El Gallo can't really sing. Neither can the fathers, as portrayed by Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway. That they can't sing doesn't matter so much since they are characters parts, but there's no harmonizing and no chemistry. John Davidson as Matt is fine, but Susan Watson as Luisa is just plain awful and her high notes are weak and often sour. It doesn't help that the music drowns out the singers on several occasions.
Listen to the 1960 soundtrack from the original show if you want to really hear the terrific score by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (no not THAT Tom Jones). The original production utilized a piano, harp, and xylophone. This TV production's full orchestra is too big and loud.
Jerry Orbach was the original Gallo and he had a good singing voice. Likewise Kenneth Nelson as Matt. Their numbers together featured two strong voices and nice harmonizing. Rita Gardner as Luisa had a great soprano voice and held her own with the men as well as being able to hold those high notes.
Major victim here is the elimination of "It Depends on What You Pay," in which Gallo sells the fathers on the idea of a rape (abduction) so that the boy can save the girl. They mutter a few lines in place of the song. "Rape Ballet" has already (this is 1964) been renamed "Abduction Ballet" and played confusingly. Also, the "Round and Round" number is cut in half and badly filmed in an artsy out-of-focus way.
As bad as this TV production is, the 2008 feature film was even worse. If you want to experience "Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," and "They Were You," by the CD of the original 1960 show.
Rita Gardner, Kenneth Nelson, and Jerry Orbach stand supreme in this one-of-a-kind musical.
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