It lacks trampolines, but I think in other respects "Nine" comes close to being this season's "Via Galactica." The musical that opened last night at the 46th St. Theater is at least as pretentious and tiresome as its predecessor, and, by coincidence, Raul Julia is once again the unfortunate star.
It's also giddy as a goose. Julia, the only man in the cast, is surrounded by a couple of dozen women in revealing (sometimes comically so) ensembles, black in Act I and in living color in Act II. The comical segment constitutes an Italo-German beef trust cavorting jelly-like and often obscenely to the mass merriment of sections of Friday's preview audience.
Let me explain. "Nine," though no reference is made to the movie aside from a curious program credit to a translator, is patently derived from Federico Fellini's semiautobiographical "8½," which concerned itself with an Italian filmmaker's fantasies and his guilt over dalliance with various pneumatic movie actresses. He was further unsettled by a Catholic conscience, as well as the gradual falling off of his box-office receipts.
Fellini's increasing emphasis on the grotesque, following his masterly "La Strada," frequently led him to seek out freak specimens, such as the massively-built woman encountered by a boy on a beach, a scene echoed here. But unlike the contemptuous use of such creatures in "Nine," Fellini was solely interested in the bizarre aspects of this and other Roman oddities.
The show, while dressed in high style, takes place entirely in a setting resembling a fancy display for plumbing fixtures before the fixtures have been installed. It is meant for most of the show's length, to represent a Venetian spa, and there actually is an attractive backcloth of the Venetian skyline. But it makes for a monotonous and constricting playing area with its 20 marble-like modules precisely spaced in tiers and fronted by a podium unit.
In Arthur Kopit's flat book, Guido Contini (Julia) is first discovered conducting, with baton, the women in his life - wife, mother, mistresses - in a kind of shrill magnificat. We shortly learn that he is having trouble with his patient wife, Luisa (Karen Akers) because of his affairs, and with his latest producer, a woman, whose queries about his "work-in-progress" he must continually evade since he's clean out of ideas.
There is not much more to be said about the story other than the intermittent and rather pointless appearances of himself as a boy of 9, and his sudden inspiration, after his sleek mistress has chided him on being a Casanova, to build his film around the figure of the 18th century adventurer, a decision that allows us to be smothered in more elaborate costumes than a Ziegfeld would have shelled out for.
The songs - both music and lyrics are the work of Maury Yeston - unwaveringly pursue the familiar while running the gamut from psuedo-religious outbursts to can-can to tarentella to 18th century recitative to other things. Guido's ballad, "Only With You," is pleasant, though poorly sung by Julia, and a telephone song, ironically titled "A Call From the Vatican," momentarily lifts our spirits as Anita Morris, playing Guido's voluptuous, redheaded mistress Carla, snakes her way about one of the modules while trying to entice Guido to drop by her place (the module to the left). Carla and Claudia, the latter a tall and gorgeous brunette (Shelly Burch), Guido's chief other mistress, along with wife Luisa, animated producer Liliane (Liliane Montevecchi) and his mother (Taina Elg) are the other principal performers.
Tommy Tune has staged the entire show with an eye on elegance and campy humor, and he has provided a few haunting images along the way, helped considerably by the versatile lighting, but to little more effect than if he were designing the windows for a Bloomingdale's nod to Italy.
It's hard to imagine anyone unfamiliar with Fellini's later movies being able to make heads or tails of "Nine." And speaking of numbers, though it's one up on "8½," I'd drop it down to 5, at most.
Once in a while a true original comes along. Just such an original is the new musical Nine, which, panting slightly and still faintly smelling of fresh paint, skidded in under the Tony nomination deadline at the 46th Street Theater last night. It is a marvelous musical, shimmering with ideas, both musical and theatrical, full of the tawdry joys of life, as hopeful as tomorrow, as decadent as today.
Its cleverness knows no bounds - yet it is not clever for sake of simply not being clever, it is not sophisticated because sophistication happens to be in vogue. Its originality is built in - like central heating. It is also smart enough, where necessary, to be conventional - like central casting.
Nine has been, as everyone knows, inspired by 8½, Fellini's autobiographical film about a director facing a mid-life crisis.
It seems that a contractual agreement, giving the musical rights to the story, stipulated that no mention of the film be made in the musical's marketing. (Fellini has always had a shrewd head for publicity.) The show goes one (or at least one half) better; it does not even mention Fellini's name in the playbill.
In any event it is clear that the real inspiration came from Maury Yeston, the Yale music professor who thought of the idea and wrote the zestfully inventive and thoughtfully imaginative music and lyrics, and the director Tommy Tune, who has masterminded and bulldozed the actual staging to the finish line.
Yet Fellini's hero is there all right, so is the Venetian spa setting, so is the theme of making a film about making a film.
And so is the character of the film director - in the movie Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroanni, in the new musical Guido Contini, played by Raul Julia. The very different versions of the Latin boy-lover, the artistic narcissist locked in the perpetual adolescence of his own choosing.
Guido when we meet him is in trouble. "His body's nearing 40, his mind's nearing 10." His last three films have been flops. His wife is threatening divorce. His producer - a fierce lady formerly from Les Folies Bergere - is threatening to sue for breach of contract. And Guido is work-blocked - land-locked in the sea of his own mind. Guido is in trouble.
Guido's trouble is simple enough. His infantilism, his inability to grow up; and women, his inability to grow out of them - a psychiatrist would have no trouble with Guido's trouble. Only Guido has trouble with his trouble.
So here he is, holed up in a spa with his long-suffering wife, awaiting inspiration, sought out by his brassily athletic mistress, ferreted out by his tenacious producer, and dreaming of his long-lost mother. What to do? He sends for another woman, a sometime lover and spiritual muse, and the star of his most successful movies.
At last - and by now purists should note that the musical is diverging from its Fellini source - he is given the idea of a film about Casanova. The film is a disaster - if decorative in a grotesquely rococo Fellini fashion - but, at last, Guido seems to escape from his bondage to woman.
Dramatically the second act is a good deal less successful than the first, but theatrically - if you see the difference, and Guido and Tune do - it works like a song. Everything in Nine works like a song - except the songs, and these are more complex.
Theatrically and visually Nine is a stunner, combining outrageous pizzaz with chic and good taste. The setting, for example, by Lawrence Miller is a Romanesque circular atrium with a panorama of Venice seen through the columns at the back. With its porcelain benches it looks like both a Roman spa adapted from a monastery and a super-modern orchestra platform. It happens to be just that - both.
Tune's idea has been to have Guido's story told entirely through the women in his life - aided only by a quartet of small boys, one of whom represents the 9-year-old Guido.
These women are the facts of Guido's life, and the fantasies of his memory, and in the melting pot of his brain box they become an orchestra while he, the male-supreme, is the conductor. It is what he calls: "Conducting my own affairs."
The musical starts with no music. Guido, with a beatific smile of contemplation wreathing his face, sitting at the center of his own attraction, talks to his wife and waits for the women to assemble. At last they arrive, sit around in an orchestral semi-circle, and Guido - the music starting - leads them through an a capella chorus of La-La-las. It is magic.
Maury Yeston's score - helped by Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations - is dazzlingly literate and also musical. It begs, borrows, and steals from anything appropriate in earshot. Some German ladies in the Spa evoke Richard Strauss, the ex-Folies Bergere vedette calls for a naughty Parisienne showstopper, Casanova suggests 18th-Century opera complete with recitative (incorrectly designated 17th-Century by the text), and so it goes on.
A film critic has a Gilbertian patter song as counterpoint to the French cabaret, Guido also has a patter-song, rather more Donizettian in texture, and the tarantella gets a going-over it won't forget.
Pastiche is everywhere like exotic potted plants in a hothouse - yet when push comes to shove, Yeston is no mean hand with a straightforward ballad, and his lyrics, while rarely deft, have a certain elegance. Arthur Kopit's book keeps the story going - despite the fact that the going gets muddier and slower after the intermission.
If dramatically the Casanova interpolation is weak in concept, stylistically it gives wonderful visual opportunities to both Tune and his bizarrely imaginative costume designer William Ivey Long, who here introduces color, chiefly ice-green and sugar-pink, into an austerely black-and-white color scheme. Visually - credit also to the lighting by Marcia Madeira - Nine brightens up the Broadway world.
The performances are joyous - with Karen Akers as the wife, Liliane Montevecchi as the producer, Anita Morris as a sexpot, Shelly Burch as the muse, Taina Elg as the mother, Kathi Moss as the plumpest of Felliniesque whores - but most of all the show depends on Mr. Julia, as the playboy of the movie world. He is childishly wise, boyishly insincere, and totally right.
Nine is a musical where you go out extolling Tune as much as the tunes, but your mind will be humming, your senses bubbling, your heart warily awakened. See Nine - it may only be an Eight and a Half but it's enough.
There are two unquestionable reasons to cheer ''Nine,'' the extravagantly uneven musical that opened at the 46th Street Theater last night. Their names are Tommy Tune and Maury Yeston. In this, his most ambitious show, Mr. Tune provides the strongest evidence yet that he is one of our 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 show biz 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.
In those numbers, ''Nine'' is remarkably faithful to the spirit of its problematic, unacknowledged source material, Federico Fellini's ''8½,'' without being imprisoned by it. Though ''Nine'' tells the same story as ''8½'' - that of a creatively and emotionally blocked film director in midlife crisis - it does not make the mistake of slavishly replicating the film's imagery. True, the setting is once again an Italian spa, where fantasy, reality and flashback intermingle as the hero, Guido (Raul Julia), sorts out the many formative women in his life. But where Mr. Fellini dreamed of harems and traffic jams, Mr. Tune and Mr. Yeston fill the stage with glittering, tuneful reveries of the Folies-Bergere and rococo opera bouffe.
There's so much rich icing on ''Nine'' that anyone who cares about the progress of the Broadway musical will have to see it. There is also a hollowness at the show's core that requires real patience. At the gut, emotional level, ''Nine'' never makes us understand or care about Guido or most of the women who gnaw at his soul. As drama, the show's structure seems static: Act I is overlong exposition that leads to sudden resolution in Act II - climaxed by an abrupt, unmotivated happy ending that is even more dishonest than Mr. Fellini's. There are also severe lapses of taste: for all the brilliantly styled moments in ''Nine,'' there are others where stylization curdles into the vulgarity of kitsch and camp.
If the show is a complex mixture of ecstatic highs and crass lows, its staging concept is simplicity itself. With the exception of Mr. Julia and the boys who play the childhood Guido and his playmates, the entire cast of ''Nine'' is women - 22 of all shapes and sizes, each with her own pedestal on Lawrence Miller's expansive white-tiled spa set. Mr. Tune uses the women as a Greek chorus and, with the aid of William Ivey Long's spectacular costumes, as the show's real scenery. Placed against a void, they give ''Nine'' its colors, its characters, its voices, even its Venetian gondolas -and remind us that the musical, in fact, unfolds inside Guido's troubled head.
The conceit also allows Mr. Tune and company to create their own theatrical equivalent of Mr. Fellini's subliminal cinematic style. As a group the women can form a cacaphonous mob that emblemizes the 40-year-old Guido's mental collapse - or a haunting, nun-filled Roman Catholic vision of his early youth. (Underemployed, the rows of black-clad figures at times can also become oppressive.) Meanwhile, individual chorus members glide about in specific roles, with no need for laborious set changes or conventional book scenes to affect the show's nonlinear, nonchronological transitions.
Some of those individuals - and their numbers - are stunning indeed. When Liliane Montevecchi, as Guido's producer, summons up her past as a Folies dancer, we get not a conventional Folies number but one as seen through the eyes of the impressionable young hero - in which the performer's runway dance routine and even her black feather boa are magically refracted into Freudian shapes. Miss Montevecchi, herself a former Folies headliner, is a knockout - a glorious amalgam of music-hall feistiness and balletic grace, with Toulouse-Lautrec shadows about the eyes.
Karen Akers, as the hero's wife, brings a powerful cabaret singer's voice to two laments. As Guido's favorite movie star, Shelly Burch is a Modigliani goddess with another strong voice and an almost otherworldly presence. Impressive, too, are Kathi Moss, as Saraghina, the earthy fat lady who introduces the young Guido and his friends to sex by means of a tambourine-shaking tarantella, and Taina Elg, as Guido's pixieish mother, who sings a lullaby to her son from her grave even as she re-enacts his birth.
Mr. Tune's most dazzling choreographic gem belongs to the brassy, redheaded Anita Morris, who plays Guido's mistress in a black lace body stocking: she superbly executes a one-body simulation of two-body copulation. But Miss Morris is also saddled with one of the show's broadest characterizations. Her breast-shaking siren goes beyond even Felliniesque exaggeration to become a caricature of female sexuality - and it sets the tone for the more grotesque shenanigans of other, anonymous chorus members. By Act II, there are so many gags about female sexual organs and so little actual eroticism that one wouldn't blame Guido for abandoning both sex and cinema for a monastery.
But who cares what Guido wants? For all his musical inspiration, Mr. Yeston can write pedestrian lyrics - and the weakest are used to define the hero and his wife. Guido's introductory song tells us only that he's split between the immaturity of age 9 and the maturity of age 40 - and this cliched definition is often repeated but never much deepened. Miss Akers's soaring torch-song melodies come with standard-issue sentiments about unhappiness in love (''No need to carry out this masquerade''); neither they nor the performer's affectless personality create a character. No matter how hard ''Nine'' tries to force Mr. Julia, Miss Morris and Miss Akers into a magnetic love triangle, they often seem as isolated as residents of different planets.
Arthur Kopit's sometimes stylish book doesn't find the lines that might help bring the man at center stage into focus. And Mr. Julia's sometimes charming star performance - persuasively Italian but vocally weak - lacks the galvanizing charisma that might draw us to Guido in spite of the text's holes. As a result, the big set piece of Act II - in which Guido's personal and creative crises resolve themselves in a surreal movie-opera-dream sequence about Casanova - is less a cathartic climax than an empty, if sumptuous, exercise in style. It breaks through the show's overly diagrammatic black-and-white color scheme but not through the hero's skin.
Yet it is still fun to watch, and Mr. Tune has more visions up his long sleeve, too. My favorite occurs before the start of Act II when the young Guido (Cameron Johann) walks through the audience, climbs up on the cakewalk surrounding the glowing orchestra pit and waits expectantly with the rest of us for the curtain to rise. What the image sums up is Mr. Tune's pure, childlike rapture for the theater, and while that's the only real emotion in ''Nine,'' it's so potent that it just may carry those who share it through the rest.