The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Into the Woods

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Nine

December 18, 2009,  Weinstein   118 minutes

I was nine years old thru all but three weeks of 1962, which as I've already noted was and always will be "my favorite year." The growth of consciousness I spurted then was awash in all the cultural signifers, from design to music to film and TV, and that magical playground they called Broadway. Was it simply a factor of my awakening that everything then looked so stylish & modern? Would I have felt the same if I awoke in 1971? or 1985? Perhaps, but I would rather doubt it. Except for maybe that scuffle over Cuba, 1962 was real swell. And so, too, was being nine years old, living in a five-year-old house in a virgin suburb of Southern California; and seeing for the first time both San Francisco and Palm Springs.

Among other things that happened in 1962, the Italian film director, Federico Fellini--coming off his peak international success: the scandalous and unavoidable La Dolce Vita--wrestled with his next picture, which became the brilliant, epic, and exceptionally cinematic reflection of the artist's eternal struggle with creation: Eight and a Half; the highest peak in Fellini's career and one of the undisputed classics of world cinema. 
                            And a most unlikely prospect for a musical.
The film had its own indelible soundtrack by Nino Rota--with snippets drawn from all over (including one of the most seductive uses of Rodgers & Hart's "Blue Moon" ever put on film). Rota, was of course Fellini's house tunesmith, and their collaborations are a match made in heaven. Tho Rota's music is unique, he doesn't write "songs"--there aren't lyrics to any of his familiar melodies--he's a classicist with modernist inclinations, and yet tho brimming with music, no one would call 81/2 a musical. It was gutsy to think it could be one.

And that was Maury Yeston. Who, like me, got religion at age ten seeing My Fair Lady (tho he saw it on Bway). Factor in his first composed musical as a new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (my own childhood favorite), and then the audacity of making one of 81/2---this is my kind of guy. (It helps that he writes beautiful melody that doesn't sound like anyone else's, and in particular I mean The Measure of the Age: Sondheim.) Yeston, who has certainly had his share of success, following Nine on Bway with Grand Hotel and the unlikely but brilliant Titanic, has also had some frustrating roadblocks. He had written a Phantom (of the opera) musical just prior to Lloyd-Webber's behemouth, which pretty much cramped his far superior version. Earlier still, Yeston was on board to score the first incarnation of La Cage aux Folles--a re-set in New Orleans to be called The Queen of Basin St. Sounds fun, yes? Not that one can regret Jerry Herman's Riviera-on-the-Hudson swan song. And yet. . . Yeston's music has depth and color, and tho he's twice won Tonys for Best Musical, he's not truly earned the recognition & clamour he deserves--which is no less than that accorded Sondheim or Lloyd-Webber. It was Yeston's audacity to attempt his first major work with the BMI Workshop on such a complex phantasmagoria as 81/2.

Fellini (as a source) was no stranger to Bway, having been musicalized twice before 1970--and entirely divorced from the mark of Nino Rota. His Nights of Cabiria turned into Sweet Charity (a great success), and La Strada as. . . well, La Strada--a four performance flop from Lionel Bart in 1969 (starring a very young Bernadette Peters and Larry Kert). But 81/2  was sui generis--a surrealistic cavalcade of images, a rambling stroll thru one (very un-common) man's crisis of the soul, that was simply breathless in its scope and ambition. It was  instantly among my favorite films when first I caught up with it in 1981; so I could well understand Maury Yeston's obsession--which scarcely a year later was on Bway. The story of Nine's long gestation process (from 1973) is in itself quite fascinating--the evolution from mixed cast to all-women (& Guido), the addition of new numbers right thru, and inspired by, the rehearsal process. The under-the-radar surprise critical smash, the last minute steal of the Tony from Dreamgirls. The sainthood, without further doubt, of Tommy Tune. It would make a good story on its own--a real Broadway story.

None of the women were really stars. Karen Akers a rising local chanteuse, Anita Morris, Shelly Burch, Laura Kenyon (the darling of Ben Bagley recordings) Taina Elg (one-time MGM third-liner) and Liliane Montevecchi--imported from somewhere French, maybe Canada. Each worthy a "star" moment, but further incarnations cast it more "worthy" of the title: Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, Mary Stuart Masterson and Chita Rivera in the 2003 Bway revival, or Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Fergie, Kate Hudson and Sophia Loren in the equally unlikely prospect that came to be: a 2009 film, directed by Rob Marshall, the man credited for reviving the movie musical with Chicago--but who hadn't come much further along that line since.

Of course at the center of this estrogen circus is Guido--a man so necessarily charming he had to be built around Marcello Mastroianni. Wisely, Yeston kept the original film's Italian soul intact, instead of adapting it, say, to Los Angeles. The musical's Guido was the Puerto Rican Prince of Bway: Raul Julia--a man of smooth charm & seduction (a perfect Gomez Addams later), equal to his Italian precursor--and a lovely singer as well. The first revival 21 years later lured Spanish film star Antonio Banderas to the stage. For the screen, Rob Marshall found yet another enchanter, no less convincing even while lacking the requisite Latin genes. Daniel Day-Lewis in accent or affectation is never less than utterly mesmerizing, and for him Guido is no stretch --except, perhaps, vocally. He's not a singer, but he manages to croak out the abundant lyrics to good effect. Daniel first came to my attention in 1986 with such vivid takes on such widely divergent roles in My Beautiful Launderette and A Room with a View. His chameleonic abilities allow him an incredible variety of characters, all played with his underlying aquiline touch: My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans, The Age of Innocence, The Crucible, Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, Lincoln; it's an astonishing resume, (yielding 3 Oscars from 21 movies) concise yet broad in range and high in quality. At age 60 with Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread  in the can, Daniel Day-Lewis claims he's retired from film. Apparently he really enjoys being a cobbler--acting just gets in the way.

Yeston's score was so instantly commanding that I'm sure I internalized it before seeing the show on Bway in October '82--four months after its surprise Tony win. I'd bought two orchestra seats far in advance, and on the appointed evening brought a NY friend to the 46th St. Theater (now the Richard Rodgers) where I'd had many an enchanted evening in years past, only to find at Will Call that my tickets were for the previous night! With the show sold out I was stunned into such visible shock that an angel stepped out of the ether and literally handed me two extra orchestra tix, entirely gratis. Thus, it was meant to be. The show was so fresh and melodic that I was back to see it scarcely two months later with TC in NY to celebrate my 30th birthday. (The album later became a staple of Sunday mornings for TC.) On Bway Nine utilized a single unit set, white tile boxes and columns evoking a Venetian spa; and its stageful of women, all in black & white costumes--a Neapolitan Ascot. It was a brilliant concept by stager Tommy Tune. But even more so was Yeston's smart adaptability translating Fellini's epic surrealism into a compact space without sacrificing the scope. Or simply put: cinema into theater.  It  was  a  gutsy  gamble that paid off. But to then make a film of Nine, is to be changing it back, now with inevitable comparison to Fellini's original--even while laden with extra baggage of its own.

Rob Marshall has stated his problem with film musicals: he needs justification for the singing. Which to me seems like an apology instead. Music and singing--much of it coming out of left field--has been in movies from the introduction of sound. I don't buy the argument that contemporary audiences (raised on MTV and YouTube) don't "get it." We all accept the most outrageous of alien or superhero scenarios. Yet Marshall needs to rationalize musical numbers by framing them as fantasy--all in the mind of the leading character (as if anyone slips into a vaudeville number to escape reality.) That was his big epiphany in restructuring Chicago for the screen--a narrative which worked there, so why not here? Well, for one thing it means a good share of Yeston's score must be sacrified, and Arthur Kopit's libretto must be rewritten, changing entire sequences and characters. Aside from cutting no less than (stupidly ironic) nine numbers (including the title song) adding two (which are at least by Yeston); the screenplay--begun by Anthony Minghella of The English Patient & Talented Mr. Ripley (who died midway) and finished by Michael Tolkin of The Player--then omits the show's central fantasy section: Guido's run with Carla's inspiration: Casanova in Venice, and the mini-musical that is "The Grand Canal." The film's Guido remains clueless to his imminent project thruout, even adding a "2 Years Later" coda to wrap the story up, where it never had to go before. Another casualty is Guido's French producer, Liliane LaFleur (on the not entirely unreasonable argument that European film producers  are rarely women); replacing her with British costumer and substitute Mommy (still called Lilli--and tailored to Judi Dench) as Guido's one true confidante. Film critic Stephanie Necrophorus is now an American correspondent from Vogue. And whereas the musical maintained a symmetry with its title focussing on nine women in Guido's life, the film drops two entirely: a columnist, Lina Darling, and a nun from his childhood, Mama Maddelena. In the end, Nine is one of the more bowdlerized Bway musicals to hit the screen since the 1960s.

Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas were both in serious contention for Guido, until Daniel Day-Lewis sent the produers a self-made audition tape. And even knowing how British he is, we are entirely seduced and convinced by his Italian mastery. Marshall claims Sophia Loren was the first woman cast, having told her he wouldn't make the film without her. As the only Italian among the principals, she holds the spiritual center of what became an smorgasbord of casting from across the continent and beyond. A wide range of Hlwd's top actresses came in and auditioned for various roles. A Spaniard, Penelope Cruz, was considered for Luisa and Claudia before finding her way to Carla. (And earning the sole Oscar nom within the cast). For Lilli (originally French) they brought in Marion Cotillard, who landed Luisa instead. So Lilli jumped the channel to let Judi Dench put her British stamp on it. Kate Hudson was given a newly invented fashion journalist role with a sycophantic, slightly silly production number that evokes the era of Hullaballo and her own mom, Goldie Hawn. A more unusual choice was American pop-singer Fergie for the earth-mother-whore Saraghina. Marshall first cast Chicago's Velma, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Guido's muse, Claudia--but upgraded to Nicole Kidman, whose statuesque beauty and '60s styling evokes Anita Ekberg. So now Claudia is a Swedish siren played by an Australian actress. Each and every one would do their own singing.
Onstage Nine assumed a contemporary ('80s) time frame. The movie sends it back to 1965, allowing for more direct reference to Fellini and the Italian style of the period--which has some logic to it. Marshall begins with Guido in mid-interview; "You kill your film several times," are his first words--hopefully not an excuse for what's the come. But shortly we are on a Cinecitta soundstage where, alone, Guido conjures a parade of the women in his life (past & present) on the half-built set of his next movie (Italia--big title, with no concept.) There are shades of Follies here; an exciting opening with stirring music (using the show's choral overture) giving each character a true star entrance. It's quite theatrical but works well cinematically. Marshall brings most of the numbers back to this set, whether they start there or not--narratively anchoring Guido's imagination. This made more sense for Roxie in Chicago because her dream was starring in Vaudeville. But there's no mention that Guido is making a movie musical--why would ruminations on his life and film come out as musical fantasies? Escaping the pressures of his production crew and a press conference, he slips into "Guido's Song" as a form of mental escape. It's a great "wanting" song--filled with conflicts and ego; and has one of Maury Yeston's very best lyrics:
    
     I want to be Proust
     Or the Marquis de Sade    
     I want to be Christ, Mohammed, Buddha   
     But not have to believe in God

The pic has him athletically bouncing around the studio set, intercut with his escape from Rome (in a vintage Alfa Romeo taking sharp turns with stunning views of the Forum and Amalfi Coast). The song's coda adds a cathedral of women gyrating, but the editing is sloppy, haphazard; a missed opportunity for the sort of breathless excitement the music commands. With the entire concept of "Grand Canal" discarded, Venice is replaced by Anzio (south of Rome on Italy's west coast)--and the spa (in both show and 81/2) is now a hotel--the very one that figures prominently in Fellini's Amacord. So the film loses "The Germans at the Spa," a wonderful choral number, which even in the show is actually extraneous--no Germans figure later in the show. And tho so much of the score is cut, at least the extended scenes are well written--much as they are in 81/2.

On stage Anita Morris made "A Call from the Vatican," while rolling around in a see-thru body suit; Penelope Cruz gets a full-blown Burlesque number on silk bannister and ropes. This is one song I've never cared for in any incarnation--it's just a bump & grind, and tho it seems to stimulate that cliched tired businessman, it does nothing for me. I'd like to think it's Cruz's scene work that earned her Oscar attention beyond this vampy number. Judi Dench gets some nice scene work too, and I suppose it isn't too much of a stretch to believe a Brit learned her trade sewing costumes at the Folies Bergeres. Her musical-hall performance reminds those who forgot (or never knew) that Dench was the original Sally Bowles in London; and later played Desiree Armfeldt as well. Facile bromides ("Try harder") from a cardinal sends Guido down memory lane (in black & white) to his nine-year-old self, seeking the whore Saraghina on the beach to teach him life lessons. But "Be Italian" quickly segues back to color and the soundstage set, now covered in 40 tons of sand, and Fergie on bistro chair--joined by an army of whores, kicking sand up in their tambourines. It's a

rousing number--the show's signature of sorts--and Fergie sings it well indeed, but aside from the fact that she's just too young (she looks like she just stepped out of high school) there's just nothing inherently believable about her as an Italian. Her Anglo-Irish-American looks work against the song she's singing. Couldn't they at least have died her hair black? On Bway and in Fellini, Saraghina was more corpulent and weathered--a bit of a hag. Perhaps if Kathy Bates sang. . .

Luisa arrives at a working dinner, and fades into her own reverie ("My Husband Makes Movies") tho it isn't clear if this is her vision or Guido's: imagining her viewpoint in song--the strain of Marshall's concept showing. (There was no such ambiguity in the musical, where this was her response to a question at a press conference.) Marion Cotillard sings it well, without fancy trappings--tho again we have drifted to the soundstage set. Carla's arrival sets tempers aflame, and in retreat Guido gets picked up at the bar by American fashion scribe Kate Hudson cueing a song revering, even fetishizing "style"--with no substance. I don't know what go-go dancers in Swarovski crystals has to do with  "Cinema   Italiano"---but  the  wind-blown,  sped-up 
catwalk choreography is a welcome uptick in energy at the mid-point. Surely one can't argue against Sophia Loren as (everyone's) idea of Italian motherhood. But wouldn't Guido recall a much younger mama than the 74 year-old we have here? Loren had put a few songs over in her 20s Hlwd years ("It Started in Naples," "Houseboat") so her own number was required here: an instrumental waltz from the show was given new lyrics by Yeston; "Guarda la luna"--essentially a lullaby set by Marshall in a neverland of candles. I wish I could say its impact met its intentions.

Mention should be made of the occasional use of ghosts--summoned by Guido's fancy: Mama riding in his Alfa Romeo; A wench stroking a cardinal while he's damning sex; Claudia watching Guido forge an autograph & kiss on her photo, while laying in her lap. Claudia appears only in his imagination until well into the second hour, arriving at last for costume fittings and begging for a script. In her first musical since Moulin Rouge Nicole Kidman gets the exquisite ballad "Unusual Way"--which is beautifully set on a  late  night  walk  thru  deserted  Roman  streets  (a direct 
steal from La Dolce Vita--there's a fountain, too, but her somber mood precludes wading in it--ala Ekberg). The song begins seamlessly on real cobblestone locations, but Marshall is constrained by his on-going concept; thus bringing a fountain to the soundstage set, before concluding back in front a real one in Rome. More invented scenes lead to Luisa's final straw, and we have again a confusion of perspective (hers or his?) in another burlesque bit; a new one "Take it All" (inexplicably nominated for an Oscar); a striptease with metaphoric pretensions--giving Cotillard, alone among all the women, a second number. With this final collapse Guido agonizes thru his final song, "I Can't Make this Movie" with one beautiful image, tearing down a sheet projecting film images. The story cuts to two years later, Guido walking with Lilli in a grey seaside village. She suggests he go back to work; he claims the only story he could write would be about a man trying to win back his wife (i.e. himself)--and of course, that's the spark. Where Fellini left off with a bubbly circus parade invading his outdoor Sci-Fi set, Marshall brings Guido back to Cinecitta shooting an intimate scene, while his armada of past women (and men) enter from above, as if in curtain call-- to a jaunty instrumental of "Be Italian"--to take their place behind him. He's joined lastly by his nine-year old self (who, I've not yet mentioned is adorable) who climbs on his knee on the camera crane as it lifts into the sky; as the music fades his final word is. . . Action. It's beautiful--just the right bit of softness, yet packing an emotional wallop.


Nine premiered in LA on December 8, and a week later in NY. I was fortunate to see it in the fabulous George Lucas ILM theater in SF on the 15th, prior to its main release on Xmas Day. The movie grossed a paltry $19 million domestic and only $54 million worldwide, falling far short of its $80 million budget. Tho hopes were high that Marshall would pull another Chicago out of his bag of tricks, the outcome can't be considered surprising. Tho catnip to some (and count me among them), ultimately who cares about the problems of an exalted Italian film director? One place the film falls short is in bringing out the full connection and resonance of 9-year-old Guido, with the 50 year-old. Yes, there are a few such moments; luring Saraghina from her beach hut; being caned by the priests, and that final joining on the camera crane. But his songs, "Getting Tall" and "The Bells of St. Sebastain" are missing--not to mention the title tune sung to him by Mama--giving weaker meaning to the title: Nine.

I was having my own reach back to the age of 9 that year (2009), reacquainting myself with the desert eden I first laid eyes on at that age in 1962. Since moving away from LA I hadn't been out to my hedonistic paradise, but with frequent trips to LA to see friends and theater, I began to include this detour in February. With renewed intention to retire there one day I was lured by Open House signs to casually check out the real estate market. Almost implausibly, I fell in love with the second house I saw; and loitering in it at length gave me the acquaintance of a realtor, Dave Stukas, who would become something of a friend. Dave wrote comic gay mysteries on the side, and had the same love for mid-century modern desert architecture.
Six years after my father's suicide, my mother, who wanted nothing more than to join him was still inexplicably clinging to life despite having shrunk to skin and bones, increasing dementia, conjestive heart failure and massive doses of morphine. On July 31st she finally gave up the ghost--quite literally as I later discovered from her Ukranian care-taker, Svetlana--as her struggle to let go was in battle with a dybbuk that apparently had possessed her for some time--which went a long way in explaining her behavior during those last years--short-tempered, unpleasant, ironically obsessed with "identity theft"--so unlike the Mother I once knew. 88 and long reclusive, there was no need of a funeral or burial; and for the second time The Neptune Society got my business. I had not an ounce of sorrow for the occasion, only relief. As it happened, I had a long-planned vacation scheduled the following week, which was the perfect release from all the concomitant stress. From San Francisco I drove first to Ashland, Oregon to see dear friends Lisa Loomer & Joe Romano, now relocated from LA, then on to Portland and Seattle where I was to meet up with Larry (flown in from LA) for us to catch the pre-Bway tryout of Catch Me If You Can--a thoroughly delightful show (ironically about identity theft!) I suppose there's some karma in my finding solace in a musical--much as I had built my own perfect world in my childhood bedroom, in protection from whatever horrific, war-torn secrets these people who conceived, birthed & raised me, deliberately and fatally kept from me. Yet I should thank them for allowing me to find my own kind of bliss.

It certainly wasn't in San Jose. Having never lived in that house myself, I had no reason whatsoever to hang on to Mother's haunted manse (still crusted in steel bars from my father's paranoia)--even as a rental property. Better instead to invest in my own future in Palm Springs. In November Dave had another Open House in a neighborhood I hadn't yet considered, and I had to admit this was the one. 5 lesbians had gone bankrupt keeping it up as a golf weekend getaway, and were losing it in a short sale. I had yet to sell Mother's house, but I clung to hope that no one else would snap up my PS dream in the meantime. One way or another I was going to find my way back to this desert paradise that first seduced & enchanted me when I was--but of course--nine.

Report CardNine
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity:  C
Songs from Bway:  8
Songs Cut from Bway:  9
Worst Omissions: "Nine" "The Grand Canal"
New Songs: 2 1/2: "Cinema Italiano"; "Take it All";  
      "Guarda la Luna" (lyric added to Bway "Waltz")
Standout Numbers: "Overture" "Be Italian"
Worst Addition: "Take it All"
Casting: Starry, International
Standout Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis
Sourthumb Cast: Fergie
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Lively, peripatetic
Choreography: More staging than dancing
Scenic Design: One unit set on soundstage
Standout Location: Anzio
Costumes: Slinky, swanky, Oscar worthy
Titles: End titles over numerous film clips
Oscar noms: 4: Penelope Cruz,
               Art Direction, Costumes,
              Song: "Take it All" (Yeston)

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