Getting to the Bottom of Nine
By Peter Filichia
If you're in New York -- and are a fan of Nine -- you should saunter downtown to Theatre for a New City to see a revival of Six Passionate Women.
And what, you may ask, does one show have to do with the other? The play was written by Mario Fratti, who gets credit as "adaptation from the Italian" on Nine, the 1981-82 Best Musical Tony-winner (over Dreamgirls, yet).
But as Fratti tells the story, he was on the ground floor of Nine, thanks to this very play. Edward Kleban -- the lyricist of A Chorus Line, the subject of A Class Act and the BMI Musical Theater Workshop’s biggest champion – saw Six Passionate Women in the ‘70s and recommended Fratti as bookwriter to one of his fellow workshoppers.
His name was Maury Yeston, and he wanted to do a musical of Federico Fellini’s 8½, about a famed Italian film director who was having trouble making his next movie. Considering that Six Passionate Women dealt with much the same premise, Kelban thought the two could join forces.
Fratti reports the he went to Yeston’s apartment where he heard the songs that Yeston had developed. “All beautiful,” he says – and all enough to start the two working on Nights with Guido.
The hero of Fratti’s play (now being played with authority, bluster and bravado by Dennis Parlato) was named Nino with no surname. For the new musical, however, Fratti says he ”chose the name Guido Contini,” adding that Yeston liked the “combination of Visconti and Fellini.”
Fratti says that his suggestion that the musical take place in Venice -- where Six Passionate Women had been set – was one that Yeston embraced. In addition, Fratti claims that he sent their work to both The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and The Richard Rodgers Award committee; the result was a 1979 reading from the former and a 1980 grant from the latter. What’s more, when time came for a director, Fratti says he thought of someone who lived in his same building at 145 West 55th Street: Tommy Tune.
Yeston, in his liner notes for Nine’s 2002 CD release, fully credited “my conversations and work with Mario Fratti” and in the published hardcover text said “Nine required Mario Fratti’s contribution as dramatist.” But Arthur Kopit soon came on board as bookwriter. As he once told me, “Tommy suggested me because he’d recently seen my play Wings, which investigated the shattered mind of a stroke victim. And because he wanted us to look into Guido Contini’s mind, he thought I’d be good for it.”
How much of Fratti was retained is a question we can all ask our God when we arrive in heaven. After all, we can’t be 100% convinced that the parts of Six Passionate Women that resemble Nine weren’t added later.
Fratti’s play does have two men to Nine’s one, as Guido is surrounded by twenty-one women. But Yeston mentions in Nine’s liner notes that star Raul Julia became the only man less out of design than necessity. There were roles for men – a producer, a critic, a young lover and members of Guido’s entourage. “Inexplicably,” Yeston wrote that “the casting sessions in October and November 1981 produced no men who seemed even remotely appropriate.” That spurred Tune to think out of the box and proclaim an all-female cast (aside from four boys in quite minor roles).
Fratti has kept William (now played in wonderfully unctuous fashion by Kevin Sebastian), the real writer who has extensively helped Nino on film after film, but somehow never has received credit. Being ignored can make a man awfully happy when the big guy fails – or when he runs the risk of getting caught from all his womanizing. (There are fine performances by Ellen Barber, Giulia Bisinella, Carlotta Brentan, Laine Rettmer, Coleen Sexton and Donna Vivino as the sextet.)
Philandering was an important component of 8½ and Nine. Fratti has Nino struggle with impotence, which doesn't, you should pardon the expression, come up in Nine. For all the twenty-one women in Nine, there is no Lesbianism mentioned, which Fratti includes. He also turned the idea of Guido’s making a film into someone else’s doing the same – and that greatly impacts Mr. Contini.
But if you venture to First Avenue between now and Oct. 26, you’ll see that Fratti has a scene in which Guido is on a phone call with “Your Eminence,” which suggests a Roman Catholic cardinal. Fratti purposely doesn’t make clear whether or not this is a ruse to fool the woman who’s in the room with Guido, but that’s certainly the case in Yeston’s “A Call from the Vatican.” There Guido’s girlfriend Carla is actually on the phone offering to “kiss your toes” while he claims to his wife that he’s on a business call.
On the original cast album, Anita Morris r-r-r-rips through “A Call from the Vatican,” which brings up an amusing point. Mike Berniker, the recording’s producer, admitted in the liner notes that “we had five major stars, and my problem was to avoid the normal rivalries that existed between them.”
Well, certainly among 60% of them. Only days before the recording session took place, for the first time in Tony history, three performers from the same show were nominated as Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Nine’s Morris, Karen Akers and Liliane Montevecchi (who eventually won).
Added Berniker, “Doing the show song-by-song in the usual manner would have made things worse, as each actress, becoming the center of attention, might have tried to make too much of the situation.”
So Nine was recorded in dramatically different fashion from other cast albums. Instead of take after take after take, Berniker took the liberty of having the cast do the entire show in front of microphones. Once that was done, Berniker had everyone do the show again. He culled the best moments from each session and gave us what he could on the "long" playing record, and about fifteen minutes more in the less time-dependent cassette. The CD era allowed for all of this and more (meaning three bonus tracks of Yeston’s early demos to show us how far the musical had come).
It had come pretty far. Stephen Sondheim has won six out of the nine Tony races for which his complete scores were nominated, but one of the losses came at Yeston’s hands. When you consider that Nine’s victory was over Sondheim’s highly regarded Merrily We Roll Along, the win is that much more impressive.
Berniker stated that his recording the whole show live “was a rather daring approach.” Actually, it sounds like a rather good one. Performing the actual show that the cast has been doing every night, even in front of unfamiliar microphones, must involve some muscle memory that replicates the performances given on stage each night.
And what’s wrong with that? Have you seen the famous Company documentary where Elaine Stritch can’t get through her big number? Perhaps she might have done it lickety-split if she’d been doing it at the precise moment to which she’d become accustomed after more than a month’s worth of performances. And if a recording producer asks for retakes and gives suggestions, he or she might in some way be altering the performance that the director has painstakingly crafted for the stage.
Whatever the case, I don’t recall anyone’s grousing at the time or since about Nine’s original cast album. “Gorgeous” is the word I have most often heard applied to Yeston’s music. It often has the grandeur of classical music, which is one reason why Nine has become a classic. How many musicals win Best Musical, later Best Revival and then become a movie? To quote a line from a losing score of Nine’s season, “Damn few.”