BOOTLEG FILES 315: “The Fantasticks” (1964 made-for-TV adaptation of the Off-Broadway musical classic).
LAST SEEN: Available in its entirety (with the original commercials!) on Google Video.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unavailable for commercial release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It doesn’t appear very likely.
For the past few years, I’ve been trying to track down a copy of the 1964 television production of “The Fantasticks,” the classic Off-Broadway musical. However, that proved to be something of an elusive commodity – none of my favorite collector-to-collector sites had this title.
I recently decided to give my search another go-round, so I headed to Google for a new hunt. Lo and behold, my luck changed dramatically. Not only did I locate the title, but I didn’t have to shell out any money to get a copy – the entire production, complete with its original commercials was available for real time viewing on Google Video.
This version of “The Fantasticks” was very unusual at several levels. For starters, it represented a rare circumstance when a filmed adaptation of a theatrical hit was presented while the source material was still playing on stage. In this case, the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical was entering its fourth year as an Off-Broadway staple when NBC decided to make its own version of the work.
However, to say that the TV production had no impact on the Off-Broadway presentation’s commercial viability would be a gross understatement. By the time “The Fantasticks” had its final performance in January 2002, it racked up 17,162 performances, making it the longest running production in the history of American theater.
Also, this adaptation was severely truncated – “The Fantasticks” was presented within a one-hour format as part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. Take away the time needed for opening and closing credits plus three commercials for Hallmark greeting cards, and the production runs the risk of being a Cliff Notes equivalent of the musical. To shoehorn the show into the format, two songs from the original score were cut and large chunks of dialogue were also sacrificed. As a result, the supporting characters of the ham actors and the distractions by the silent character called The Mute were completely erased.
“The Fantasticks” also presented an unexpected challenge as a TV production. The traditional staging of the show relies on a bare bones set that used poles and curtains; a pole held up by a clearly visible actor signified a wall separating two neighbors. For whatever reason, it was decided to create a real wall and to use painted backdrops and a tree for the TV version’s set design. However, the two-sided cardboard disc that doubled as sun and moon was brought from the stage, and pantomime is used to suggest the gardening efforts that contribute to some of the scenes.
Director George Schaefer also made a curious decision to shoot most of the production in close-ups and medium shots, with the actors looking straight into the camera while singing and reciting their inner thoughts monologues. In lesser hands, this may have been lethal.
However, the show was blessed with two veteran clowns who played the scheming fathers to perfection – Bert Lahr, who was best known as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” and Stanley Holloway, who was best known as Alfred Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” Most contemporary movie lovers only know Lahr and Holloway from their respective film hits (the actors were primarily theater stars), so watching them here is something of a revelation. With their brilliant clowning and mastery of comic lyrics, it is difficult to understand why neither Lahr nor Holloway were more visible in film – and their timing is so precise that it is also a shame that the men never worked together again.
Equally intriguing was the casting of Ricardo Montalban as El Gallo, the show’s narrator and catalyst for bringing the estranged young lovers together. Today, Montalban is mostly recalled as either the wrathful Khan by Trekkies or the super suave Mr. Roarke by the “Fantasy Island” generation. What is not recalled was that Montalban was a capable singer – he performed the Oscar-winning tune “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the 1949 MGM musical “Neptune’s Daughter” and he co-starred opposite Lena Horne in the Broadway musical “Jamaica.” Montalban has the task of performing “Try to Remember,” the hit song from the show, and his rendition is a careful, almost rueful meditation on the tune’s wise lyrics.
As the young lovers, John Davidson and Susan Watson were cast. Davidson was a flyweight presence who later had a mildly successful career as a frequent guest on TV variety programs and game shows. But Watson is the real elusive figure here – she originated the role of Luisa in the very first production of “The Fantasticks” (a 1959 test run at Barnard College), but she passed on the Off-Broadway premiere engagement in order to originate the role of Kim in the Broadway version of “Bye Bye Birdie.” However, Ann-Margret snagged the role of Kim for the film version and no other film projects materialized for Watson; her later career was primarily focused on Broadway and small TV roles. “The Fantasticks” was her only major role, and the beauty and vibrancy she displays here can make you think that a genuine talent never got the break she deserved.
And what is the end result of these odd ingredients? “The Fantasticks” turned out to be a completely charming and wonderfully entertaining production – arguably, it is the best presentation ever. In many ways, the truncated version played up the show’s high points while carefully eliminating its lulls and nonsense (particularly the sour song “The Plum is Too Ripe”). In this case, the TV version of “The Fantasticks” is an excellent example of achieving more with less – and it is certainly miles ahead of the miscast and ill-conceived 1995 film version, which unwisely opened the show up while steamrolling the simplicity of the source material.
“The Fantasticks” was broadcast on NBC on October 18, 1964, as the opening episode for that season’s Hallmark Hall of Fame. The show was presented in color, though the copy that is available today is a somewhat grainy black-and-white kinescope. It is highly unlikely that there is going to be a DVD release – there is a question of clearing the music rights and locating a decent copy of the original color telecast. In a way, I am surprised the bootleg version on Google Video hasn’t been taken down yet!
But while “The Fantasticks” is still on the Net, try to find an hour to check it out. It is a pleasant, old-fashioned, good-natured entertainment, and its emergence is one of the happier developments in the bootleg video world.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!