Hello, Again, Tom Gustafson’s film version of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1993 musical (itself an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1900 play La Ronde), is yet another example of why it is so difficult for musicals to translate to the screen, but it is certain to add a new perspective to the debate, to put it mildly.
A series of vignettes marking the sexual encounters of ten characters, Hello, Again begins, as does La Ronde, with an exterior episode between a soldier and a streetwalker. Scene two, the soldier couples with a nurse; scene three, the nurse with a student, scene four, the student with a young wife, and so on until the roster of ten characters has had its way with each other, ending in the final scene with the streetwalker from the first scene, a la ronde. Schnitzler’s play was considered quite scandalous in its day, and wasn’t produced until 20 years after it was written, though the scenes were mainly pre– or post-coital, or both, with the characters exiting to the boudoir together to indicate their coupling.
Of course, the film doesn’t do that. The (mostly) hand-held camera keeps the attractive cast company during their intimate exertions, often while they are singing, and this is where that pesky stage to screen “movie musical” difficulty keeps cropping up. It is difficult enough, even for folks like myself who enjoy musicals, to suspend disbelief when an onscreen character bursts into song, but in the case of Hello, Again, that difficulty is compounded by the impulse to look away when the singer has his pants down below his hairy butt and is banging his scene partner harder than a screen door in a hurricane. The prurient interest one might feel at the outset of the film quickly wanes, as each scene is centered ruthlessly upon the same activity: the whole point, I think, is to walk us through the repetitive emotional emptiness of one-night stands, but by about the fourth scene the only novelty the film can offer from the relentless ritual of seduction and carnal satisfaction is the variety of courtship; will it be missionary position, fellatio, masturbation or doggy style?
That this modern version of Schnitzler’s more oblique approach mixes race, same-sex and trans-gender couples into the fold is interesting, but at the end of the day not really helpful in terms of clarifying the material. Neither is setting each scene in a different decade of the 20th Century, scrambled into no particular order, which perversely turns the film’s pairing couples into singing, soft-porn time-travelers. Kind of like Glee on steroids, or should I say, poppers? The production elements, especially the various period costumes of Rebecca Luke, are excellent throughout, but by the time you are halfway through this film, at almost an hour in, you might be tempted to wander off to the concession stand to find some popcorn for some emotional solace. Michael John LaChiusa’s interesting score expresses the variety of the musical periods well, though the high point for me was the 1944 Stage Door Canteen setting of the second scene, where Karen Marie Richardson as a chanteuse and Kingsley Leggs as a crooner light up the room with their snappy vocals, while keeping on all of their clothes. So do the coyly draped “in delicto flagrante” couples: clothes are worn throughout the sex scenes for the most part, the women stay dressed, either fully or down to bras and panties, the men often unzip or pull down their pants past their buttocks, but that is as far as the nudity goes. The only nipples on display here are masculine, so in a sense even the visual eroticism of this exhausting film goes no farther than the proverbial utility of tits on a bull.