'Fantasticks' moves closer to the screen

BROADWAY BEAT

September 09, 1994|By Joseph C. Koenenn | Joseph C. Koenenn,Newsday

"We've been doing power lunches for years, a lot of awfully big lunches," Tom Jones said the other day. The subject matter: translating to film "The Fantasticks," that small musical that became a big hit 34 years ago.

The lunches involved Mr. Jones, his writing partner Harvey Schmidt and whatever power in Hollywood was excited about the project at the moment. "Paramount got really interested, with Gower Champion directing," Mr. Jones said. "We spent a lot of time touring Italy looking for locations, but it didn't happen. Later on, the opera director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was going to do it.

"But this is the first time it's ever seemed real."

How real? Director Michael Ritchie has always been a fan of "The Fantasticks" and, when it comes to talking Hollywood deals, it doesn't hurt that he has a good bit of clout (from such films as "The Candidate" and "Bad News Bears"). He took his enthusiasm to United Artists.

"They bought the rights to it and put us into one of those development deals or whatever they call it," Mr. Jones said. "It's an unknown world to us stage folk, but Harvey and I have been working on the script since last Thanksgiving."

The concept is Mr. Ritchie's. "It's the first vision of the play that wasn't, in some way or other, like doing a film of the stage version," Mr. Jones said. "I think of it as Dorothy's Kansas, the Great Plains in the early '20s. A small-time carnival comes to town headed by El Gallo," an enigmatic figure who gets involved in the love affair between two neighbors. "He plays with these young people's illusions and then, eventually, disillusions them."

The finished script was delivered to United Artists last week, and Mr. Jones, Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Ritchie are awaiting word from on high. Meanwhile, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, "The Fantasticks" is well into its 35th year, the longest-running show in New York theater history.

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A BLOODLETTING: Fresh from the latest controversy to embroil the National Endowment for the Arts, Ron Athey brings his "4 Scenes in a Harsh Life" to Public School 122 next month. It will be his first New York appearance since performances in ZTC Minneapolis, using some NEA funding, set off a storm among those congressional conservatives who consider the arts agency happy hunting ground for all sorts of subversion.

As P.S. 122 artistic director Mark Russell puts it, "Ron does pressings from a human printing press." The "ink" he uses is blood drawn by cutting a colleague's skin; the impressions are made on paper. Part of the controversy stemmed from the fact that Mr. Athey is infected with the AIDS virus. The colleague in Minneapolis was not.

Despite the controversial aspects of the performance, Mr. Russell said, "it is really moving and quite legitimate in its concerns: Here is a man with a death sentence, in a way, and yet he's not a victim. He deals with very complex issues." To head off some of the controversy that might arise, Mr. Russell said the East Village performance space will not use any public funds for Mr. Athey's Oct. 27-30 engagement.

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MIXED BILL: It's unlikely now that "Blue Light," the new Cynthia Ozick play, will come directly to Broadway from this summer's sold-out Long Island engagement at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tentative plans had called for a late October opening, but script work is needed. Sources say there'll probably be an intermediate stop at another theater prior to the Broadway premiere. Presumably director Sidney Lumet will stay with the production. No word yet on the cast, headed at Bay Street by Mercedes Ruehl and Dianne Wiest. . . .

The cast album of "Passion," the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, sold 11,600 copies in its first week in stores late last month. That earned it the 103rd spot on Billboard's Top 200 chart covering all types of music. It's the highest point reached by an original cast album since 1988, when the recording from the London production of "Phantom of the Opera" climbed to No. 33.

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CASTING ABOUT: Scotty Bloch, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Caitlin Clarke and Sol Frieder will be members of the Stern family in the production of "Unexpected Tenderness" that launches WPA's new season Oct. 6. Israel Horovitz' memory play about three generations of a Jewish family is, like much of his recent writing, set in small-town New England. . . .

Jason Graae, seen last season in "A Grand Night for Singing," has replaced Robert Stanton in "All in the Timing." Mr. Stanton left the long-running production of David Ives' playlets to join the cast of "A Cheever Evening," which will open Playwrights Horizon's season Sept. 16. . . .

Ernie Sabello will be reunited with a fellow voice from "The Lion King," Matthew Broderick, in "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." The Broadway-bound revival will be launched at La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse this fall. Although it's not confirmed, Jonathan Friedman, recently of the "She Loves Me" cast on Broadway, is considered likely to join the production, which is due in New York in early March. . . . Jerry Stiller is the latest addition to the cast of "What's Wrong With This Picture?" Donald Margulies' comedy opens Dec. 8 at the Brooks Atkinson.

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