Hello Again – Film Review
Musical theatre fans are simultaneously excited and circumspect when a stage musical is adapted for the screen. For every expertly transitioned musical such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and The Music Man, there is a Mame, Man of La Mancha, or Rent reminding us that musicals are a tricky medium to rethink through the camera’s lens. Another musical has made the leap from stage to screen. Michael John LaChiusa’s spare and compact 1994 musical Hello Again is set to hit theatres on November 8, 2017. Though the results are decidedly mixed, the film is a commendable adaptation of a stage show that probably was better left on the stage where its inherent theatricality is better served.
Hello Again is loosely based on the 1987 Arthur Schniztler play La Ronde, a moral essay on sex as it is experienced by different members of the social classes of the day. The play was written for coupled pairs, with one member of that duo moving on to the next scene and experiencing a new liaison. This process is repeated until all ten characters have had two scenes, the finale returning the last character to the person in the first scene who didn’t move on. La Ronde means the “The Circle” and that is exactly what the play is. Hello Again follows the same conceit, but instead of keeping the characters in one particular year, each new scene jumps to a new period in time. For example: we are on the Titanic for one sexual encounter. The pretty young boy in that scenario jumps to the 1970s where he becomes the muse of a film writer. Time is not linear here, characters slip easily through the 20th century and the new millennium unfettered by reality.
Film audiences will either buy into Hello Again’s non-linear structure, or they will reject it as confusing and jarring. It does demand that you pay attention, so if that is not your forte, this may not be the film for you. Hello Again played marvelously onstage in its original production at Lincoln Center, the conventions of the stage keeping the production simple and the attention focused on its strengths: a terrific score that challenges the audience, and an ensemble cast of top-notch actors pouring their souls into their brief ten minutes of stage time. The film aspires particularly to the latter (the cast includes Audra McDonald, Martha Plimpton, T.R. Knight, Jenna Ushkowitz, Rumer Willis, Sam Underwood, Nolan Gerard Funk, Cheyenne Jackson, Tyler Blackburn, and Al Calderon) and not one of them fails the film (though the film occasionally fails a few of them).
Director Tom Gustafson creates some magical transitions from scene to scene, giving the viewer the sensation they have awoken from a bad dream (only to find themselves in a new one). It is one of the film’s more-breathtaking feats, the way it seamlessly shifts to a new time-period by holding the transitioning character in their pose from the scene prior. Where Gustafson occasionally does fail the performers is in his compulsion to keep the camera moving doggedly throughout many of the scenes, neutering any nuance or subtlety within them. You just want the camera (and editing) to spend a little more time on the performers, drinking in the wonders they bring to the table. The score also requires a little down-time from the frantic antics as well. Let us drink in its poetry and quiet reflectiveness. The film also paints a mechanical, unbecoming picture of sex. Few of the scenes of “passionate” love-making come across with any spark and are, in fact, perfunctory and bland. This may have been a conscious choice of the director, but for a film that keeps most of its characters in the bedroom, it seems like an odd one. Only a love scene between Martha Plimpton (The Politician) and Audra McDonald (The Actress) has any heat and believable connection.
What doesn’t work is not necessarily a condemnation of the whole piece. In fact, the individual performers are so glorious in their individual scenes that you extract a great deal from Hello Again. Martha Plimpton is particularly affecting as “The Politician”; her rendition of “The Bed Was Not My Own” is the musical highlight of the film. Plimpton Is a painfully honest performer, so exact in her interpretation of any word she utters that we ache with her. Her pairing with Audra McDonald results in the film’s most electrified scene. McDonald is deliciously diva here, yet penetratingly vulnerable. It’s the film’s most complex performance (in other words, Broadway’s darling does not disappoint). Jenna Ushkowitz proves that she spent many years on TV’s Glee underutilized or hiding her light under a bushel. She shines here, playing the nurse and giving two distinctly different variations on a theme, from naïve waif to purring tigress. Of the men, T.R. Knight stands out for his characterization of the hot mess which is “The Husband,” devastating in his final moments of the Titanic sequence. These are the standouts, but the cast is universally appealing, sing well, and overcome the challenges of minimal screen time to carve out characters.
Hello Again is a musical that is never going to appeal to the masses. It didn’t onstage and most film audiences are unlikely to go for its unconventional approach to musical theatre storytelling. It is, however, a respectable adaptation that will most-likely be enjoyed by fans of the show and by filmgoers who don’t mind stepping out of the box for a few hours. If I wasn’t satisfied by the overall product and felt a lack of connection with the piece, I did find much to admire along the way.