After trying to remember, Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees found herself trying to forget, because she's had that song stuck in her head for days now.
"If you have a heart, [The Fantasticks] can't help but touch you."—former cast member
Try to Remember is a retrospective about the theatrical phenomenon The Fantasticks, the modest little musical that ran for a record-breaking 42 years and 17,162 performances before closing in 2002. In addition to showing us glimpses of the final performance and talking with both cast and audience members about what the show has meant to them, the documentary unfolds the story of its creation by writer Tom Jones (not that Tom Jones) and composer Harvey Schmidt (with considerable support by producer-actor Lore Noto), its original reception, and the audience response that kept it running for over four decades. It looks at the qualities of the show that made it timeless and gave it appeal to audiences of different ages and generations, and it also touches on foreign performances, the television production, the film version, and even the importance of the show's tiny basement venue.
In addition to Jones and Schmidt, a wide range of former cast members appear to discuss the beloved musical and their role in it, including Jerry Orbach (Law and Order), who originated the role of El Gallo. (Unfortunately, we don't get to hear him sing.) Orbach and F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) are the most prominent alumni who appear here; although the musical was a launching point for many young actors—Richard Chamberlain, Glenn Close, Harrison Ford, Elliott Gould, and Liza Minelli—and featured star turns by Robert Goulet and Ricardo Montalban (in the television broadcast), they are present here only in photographs and the reminiscences of others. Their absence is a bit disappointing, but it emphasizes the fact that this documentary, like the very musical it honors, is a small-scale labor of love. The case insert even contains remarks by director Eli Kabillio that reveal the many difficulties that lay in the way of making this documentary.
Audiovisual quality is good for a low-budget documentary; the performance footage is really the only part of the film that betrays poor sound quality and mediocre picture quality, both natural consequences of capturing live theater on video. The inclusion of extras for such a modest little documentary is a nice touch, particularly the inclusion of "deleted scenes," interview segments that were cut but that offer additional reminiscences about the show (particularly disastrous and potentially disastrous performances, including one that had an audience of exactly one person) that enhance the documentary. The ephemera gallery is a self-navigated tour through vintage still photographs—many of which were used in the film—and images of vintage posters and playbills, including some from different countries. (Fans who are curious about the origin of the posters' characteristic visual motif—the title in bold, distinctive writing—will learn the answer in the documentary.) The trailer is also included, although it was largely recycled as the opening sequence to the documentary itself.
For those who have never seen The Fantasticks—and I am one of them—the documentary offers just enough plot synopsis for context, but not enough so that we know exactly what all the characters' functions are (I'm still a bit fuzzy on the functions of El Gallo and The Mute). There are also references to the musical's roots in commedia dell'arte and a play by Edmond Rostand (author of Cyrano de Bergerac), but not much elaboration. Rather than being an in-depth examination of the musical, this is really a look back for the many people who already know and love The Fantasticks—although I can see it also being of interest to fans of musical theater in general as a case study in how an experimental musical can find an audience despite the odds. To be truthful, I can't say it made me long to run out and find a college or high school production of the show so that I could get in on the magic. But it was still an uplifting success story, and if I do see that a local theater is performing The Fantasticks, I am more likely to feel a quickened interest now that I know more about the show and its history.
For the many devoted fans of this musical, this documentary should be a pleasantly nostalgic experience, a testament to the love the show inspired over its long life. Indeed, one former cast member began tearing up as he described his participation in it as the happiest time of his life. "Maybe if I cry on camera they'll bring it back," he said, only half joking.
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