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ALL-SINGING, ALL-DANCING : What a Fantastick Concept

Try to remember the kind of September . . .

. . . when you could count on a live-action movie musical or two passing through the local Bijou. Try real hard: By most accountings, there hasn’t been a true hit musical since “Grease” in 1978, or a great one since “West Side Story” in 1961. There’s only been one full-on, non-animated film musical released so far this decade, 1992’s lambasted “Newsies.” When the latest botched attempt, “I’ll Do Anything,” was belatedly released this year with its songs hacked out, the genre was so widely presumed dead that few bothered ringing death knells.

But hold the hearse. In 1995, a veritable tidal wave of two film musicals will be released--both from the same brave director, Michael Ritchie.

United Artists announced a week and a half ago that Ritchie would be at the helm of a big-screen adaptation of the 34-year-old, nostalgia-themed Broadway hit “The Fantasticks” (source of the standard “Try to Remember”), set to shoot this fall.

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And now comes word that Ritchie is preparing an original musical for HBO before that. “Peace of Mind,” a singing ‘n’ dancing satire set in a contemporary small town, is centered around “America’s love affair with the gun.”

Ritchie’s one-man musical revivalism begs the obvious question:

What is he, nuts?

“The catalogue of attempts to revive the form that have failed and disappeared is frightening,” Ritchie admits. “But it is the great American art form. It is uniquely ours, particularly in the sense of film grammar. . . . I just hope that in a way for the ‘90s these two films can not only pay a little long-overdue homage but also educate--not educate, that’s too pompous a word-- initiate a whole new audience, particularly young people.

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“I feel like the character in ‘Field of Dreams': Build the musical, and they will come. It’s so bizarre that, with the musical being the only sure-fire success story on Broadway, the movies have been so shy about them.”

Ritchie’s latest release, “Cops & Robbersons,” might not seem to bode well for prospects of his reintroducing a lost art form. But viewers with longer memories will recall Ritchie’s string of critically hailed ‘70s satires, including “The Candidate” and “Smile,” or the Emmy-winning 1992 HBO picture heralded as his artistic comeback, “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom.”

“Peace of Mind” reunites the director with two “Cheerleader Murdering” cohorts, screenwriter Jane Anderson and composer Lucy Simon, with lyricist Susan Birkenhead (“Jelly’s Last Jam”) completing the team.

“It is an absolute in-your-face musical,” Ritchie assures. “This is not a film with incidental music; this is not a film with performance music that takes place on a stage like ‘Cabaret.’ This is a movie in which people sing their thoughts and feelings, frequently to each other. It’s a picture in which people dance in public places. It’s all the kind of dangerous things that were cut out of ‘I’ll Do Anything’ and that we’re bold enough to think we can pull off.

“And indeed it seemed to us that a subject like the madness surrounding guns and gun ownership had to be treated on a slightly surreal level, that the kind of inherent insanity that is going on in this country today could only be understood if you stepped back from it stylistically with the kind of unique overview that a musical format gives you.”

No casting decisions have been announced on either movie.

These may be projects to warm a hopeful film buff’s heart. For a skeptic, though, you need look no further than Albert Brooks, who’s starring in Ritchie’s non-musical summer release, “The Scout"--and whose last movie was (gulp!) “I’ll Do Anything.”

“Michael thinks he wants to do a musical again, huh?” winces Brooks, just out of earshot of Ritchie on the “Scout” set. “God bless him. “Maybe he can make it work, and I will be there opening night. But,” adds the star, “I’m here to tell you, it’s the silliest idea I’ve ever heard. I’m living proof.”

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