Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2 is one of a handful of semi-fictional artistic autobiographies, by and about a true genius. The others in that category are Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George; Stew's musical Passing Strange; Bob Fosse's All That Jazz; Woody Allen's Stardust Memories; and in an ironic, smartass kinda way, John Water's Cecil B. Demented

And in a manner that can only be called Felliniesque, the original film 8 1/2 and its adaptations now form a wonderful kind of strange loop. The film was adapted for the musical stage in the early 1980s, retitled Nine, won tons of awards, and became an instant classic of musical theatre, originally directed, choreographed, and shaped by Tommy Tune. Then Rob Marshall adapted the musical for the screen. But he chose to make a film adaptation of both the original film and its stage adaptation. Marshall made the stage musical into a new Fellini film, as if Fellini was making a film version of the stage musical Nine.

And I fell completely in love with it.

I've been wanting to work on Nine since I first heard the cast album in 1982. And I've always thought that it would be both a perfect New Line show and an incredible showcase for our incredibly talented and versatile local women actors.

I remember the first time I saw 8 1/2, it was like I had never really seen all that film was capable of before that moment, and now for the first time I saw how much more film could do than what we routinely see from Hollywood. It was like the first time I heard Sunday in the Park, HairMarch of the Falsettos, and Floyd Collins. Each of those experiences felt like I was Dorothy Gale emerging from the sepia and into Technicolor. I've now watched the Fellini film several times over the years, and each time I find more richness in it -- and more comedy. I loved it so much that it moved me to start exploring the other Fellini films, each one of them amazing and wondrous and mind-blowing, in all the most fun ways.

Fun Fact: Fellini gave his film its title as a joke: his lead character was so blocked artistically that his story didn’t even get a real title (its original title was La Bella Confusione), just a number. Fellini had already directed six full-length films and one short, and he had co-directed two films, so this was number eight-and-a-half.

Bonus Fun Fact: Fellini's film Nights of Cabiria is the source for Sweet Charity.

Both the film and stage musical tell the story of genius filmmaker Guido Contini going through a very painful midlife crisis, an artistic crisis, and a complete emotional breakdown -- and all presented as a wildly entertaining, surrealistic romp, all happening inside the head of this troubled, brilliant, creative man. The challenge for Guido is to recognize his toxic behavior and his terrible treatment of the women in his life, all of which has been tolerated by those around him, and to finally, at age forty, Grow Up.

Songwriter Maury Yeston had begun to write Nine in 1973, nearly a decade before it opened on Broadway in May 1982. Yeston (who would go on to write the score for Titanic and half the score for Grand Hotel) was obsessed with the Fellini film. 

But because the musical was no longer actually Fellini’s work, no longer autobiography, the new title Nine referred to the age to which the central character Guido wishes he could return. Yeston began writing songs for a stage version of the film, working with Mario Fratti, who adapted the original Italian screenplay into English. In 1979, a workshop was done with lyricist-director Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors) at the helm. Several new songs were created and the show’s ending was discovered.

In the fall of 1981, Yeston teamed up with director-choreographer Tommy Tune, co-choreographer Thommie Walsh (already immortalized as a character in A Chorus Line), and playwright Arthur Kopit. At that point, several characters had to be cut, including a male producer, his daughter, a critic, and others. The decision was made to cast the show entirely with woman around the one male character, the antihero Guido. Later on, four boys were added to the cast for a flashback. It was then that the overture was written, to be performed vocally by an “orchestra” of women, all the women in Guido’s life, past and present.

Tune staged the show more minimally than any Broadway musical in a very long time, finding at last that inimitable style that marks a Tommy Tune musical. With the entire cast clad in black and a set made entirely of white tile to suggest the spa, the show looked like no other. Tune’s production moved dreamlike in and out of scenes, in and out of songs, in and out of chronological order and conventional storytelling, creating an impressionist musical that challenged audiences and musical theatre traditions.

The show won five Tony Awards out of ten nominations. The wins included best musical, best featured actress (Liliane Montevecchi), best director, best score, and best costumes. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, “In this, his most ambitious show, Mr. Tune provides the strongest evidence yet that he is one of or theater’s most inventive directors – a man who could create rainbows in a desert. Mr. Yeston, a newcomer to Broadway, has an imagination that, at its best, is almost Mr. Tune’s match. His score, giddily orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, is a literate mixture of showbiz and operatic musical genres that contains some of the season’s most novel and beautiful songs. Together, Mr. Yeston and Mr. Tune give Nine more than a few sequences that are at once hallucinatory and entertaining – dreams that play like showstoppers.” He went on to say, “There’s so much rich icing on Nine that anyone who cares about the progress of the Broadway musical will have to see it.”

Nine ran 732 performances. Productions were mounted in several other countries. A concert version was presented at London’s Festival Hall in 1992, with Liliane Montevecchi and Jonathan Price, and then a full production was mounted at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1996. A successful Broadway revival was mounted in 2003 with film star Antonio Banderas in the lead, alongside theatre stars Chita Rivera, Jane Krakowski, and others. That production won Tonys for best revival and best featured actress (Krakowski).

I've been wanting to work on this rich, delicious material ever since I first encountered it. And part of the joy of finally directing it was the fun of casting some of region's strongest, most talented women, some of whom we've worked with before, and quite a few of whom we haven't. And part of the fun of the show is that each character gets a spotlight moment. I can't wait to start blocking this show. Our fearless scenic designer Rob Lippert has designed a cool variation on the original set, and we're staging the action across the middle of our blackbox, with audiences on either side, like we did with Head Over Heels and Atomic. It's going to be very up close and personal, and so much fun!

We've just learned the score but already this cast sounds so wonderful. It's so rare that we get to hear a group of only women, singing four-part harmony. It's gorgeous.

Another adventure begins! I hope you'll share it with us! I'll keep you posted.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Tickets for Nine are on sale now. For more info about the show, click here.

P.S.S. To donate to New Line, click here.

P.P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, He Never Did Anything Twice: Deconstructing Stephen Sondheimclick here.