A Ring of Relationships

Sam Underwood and Martha Plimpton. Photos courtesy of Hello Again LLC.

A senator visits a rent boy. A streetwalker propositions a soldier. A young wife has a clandestine tête-à-tête with a privileged college boy, while her husband has his own encounter aboard a ship with a studly young thing. A pop diva heats things up with her ex, now a record producer, and a day nurse has it off with the boss’ son. And it’s all set to music!

Acclaimed as “a musical love affair (or a series of them) spinning through time,” Hello Again is the feature film adaptation of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1993 Off-Broadway musical. That production, in turn, was inspired by Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s controversial 1897 play La Ronde (or Reigen).

The film has recently been released more widely on DVD and V.O.D.

“I’m excited to have another film of ours out there in the world,” says producer-director Tom Gustafson. “And one that’s truly unique, celebrating a composer we’ve long admired, Michael John LaChiusa.”

Regarding the reason he and his partner Cory Krueckeberg were so eager to see Hello Again on the big screen, Gustafson says: “We’re not interested in the typical ‘dialogue’ films with only one or two settings. We’re drawn to musicals – not just music ‘driven’ films.”

Gustafson credited Krueckeberg with initially bringing the entire project to his attention. However, he was already a fan of the Off-Broadway production, which ran in 1993 and 1994.

“And we had been talking to Michael John [LaChiusa] about doing another one of his Broadway productions, turning that into a film. But in the meantime, Cory acquainted me with the score of ‘Hello Again,’ and we decided that it would be a very interesting and challenging film to make because of all the different time periods.”

Producing a more modestly budgeted musical that is set in diverse eras and ages hadn’t really been tried before as an independent film, he said, and that, too, was deeply appealing.

“We also wanted to be a part of the long history of La Ronde itself,” he says. When the play was written, it was summarily banned for many years due to its blatant sexual content. “There have been numerous films and plays adapted from it, so to be a part of that whole filmography and history of this piece was also very gratifying.”

Hello Again manages to skirt two widely contrasting genres – sensual romance and musical dramedy.

A pansexual circle

This film is for mature audiences, and it’s set, for the most part, in New York City. The French title of Schnitzler’s original play refers to a round dance, which corresponds with the story’s structure: 10 interlocking scenes between 10 pairs of lovers. In due course, these come together in a riveting pansexual circle.

Each person appears in two sequential scenes. Then the most recently introduced partner carries on into a new scene, and the one who was introduced earlier steps away. Each time, the more-naive party who was pursued consequently reappears as the more-worldwise pursuer. The action progresses in a daisy-chained exploration of love, lust, regret and finally, redemption. Each figure slips easily in and out of the other’s arms, with the action of each rendezvous getting racier with each passing episode.

If this set-up sounds at least vaguely familiar, it should. Schnitzler’s formula has since been used by films, plays, and plenty of sitcom episodes, from M.A.S.H to The Simpsons. In transforming the play into a stage musical, LaChiusa took this basic outline one step further, making each new segment transpire in a different, non-consecutive decade of the 20th century. Each figure’s basic identity remains the same, but the decade they are existing in changes from scene to scene.

LGBTQ characters added

Tyler Blackburn

Schnitzler’s couples were fundamentally all heterosexual, but the musical integrates several LGBTQ characters, and a lot of the original dialogue has been transformed into well-phrased lyrics set to haunting melodies. The dancing is free-flowing, courtesy of choreographer Todd Underwood.

Gustafson and Krueckeberg have made four features together, “and it’s always such a challenge to get them out there and seen,” Gustafson says. As they’ve often done with their projects, the two teamed up on many aspects of re-creating Hello Again for the big screen.

“We kind of oversaw everything together, and the lines of the different jobs were always kind of blurry – which works for us,” he says with a grin.

Their greatest challenge in this film was the live singing, he said, and that’s also what made the project so appealing in the first place.

“We’ve done numerous musicals,” he says, but because the score for this one “was so intricate and so vast – I mean, the entire thing is almost completely sung through! – it was a huge consideration. But that’s also why we decided to take it on – we knew we could do it.”

When they were choosing the cast, Gustafson says, “We weren’t just looking for talented ‘name’ actors. We needed actors who were both incredibly talented and are amazing singers, too.”

When it came to the sexuality inherent to the piece, Gustafson says, the performers’ agents were among those who placed limits on what could be shown.

“We really wanted to approach the film in terms of the sex scenes, by making each one unique and not repetitive,” he says. He and Krueckeberg would discuss with the actors what they would be comfortable with and what would show. As Krueckeberg fashioned the screenplay, he was mindful of what each sexual interaction could be for that pairing. He also focused on how he could make it new and unique from the one right before it.

“So that was an entire dialogue, and it kind of transformed as we were casting and shooting. … There are other films out there that push boundaries more in terms of nudity and sexuality, but based on our limitations, we have a movie that’s still very sexy, even though there’s really very little skin.” he says.

The action begins

The characters in the original play were labeled by their position in life. In the film, Martha Plimpton plays the key role of Ruth, known as the “Politician,” who essentially frames all of the goings-on.

When we first see her, she is walking gingerly through a dingy back alley littered with random objects that will gain more meaning in the various sequences to come. Entering the back door of an obvious adult arcade, she sits down at a booth. After she pays, a curtain raises to reveal a muscular masked man (Sam Underwood) who seems to be already chummy with her.

“I’ve been looking for someone,” she says with a touch of bewilderment in her voice, “but I don’t know how to get to where I don’t know where I’m at.”

“Once you’re finished with the outside,” he says, smiling, “look within.”

Immediately, we’re taken to a seedy road beside the Hudson River where a lady of the night – the “Lady” – is looking for customers. Keeping to the shadows, she is clad in frilly black and a conspicuous ruby pendant. The year, we learn, is 1901. Soon a “Young Soldier” (Nolan Gerard Funk) approaches.

“Hey there! Where you goin’, soldier?” the woman croons softly. “Look here, don’t you know my face? You there, come and tell your sweetheart where you been (it don’t matter), hello again!” Before their horizontal and heated transaction is through, he’ll make off with that ruby pendant, an item that connects the various pairings throughout the film.

Our G.I., now back in uniform, scurries away down an alleyway, where the time magically transforms to 1944. Now he’s a frisky fighting man at a U.S.O. dance.

Faces from Broadway

Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton

Thus begins a musical journey through time that involves standout performances from Broadway heavy-hitters such as Cheyenne David Jackson and Audra McDonald, as well as Rumer Willis, T.R. Knight and Tyler Blackburn (Pretty Little Liars).

Willis unveils her incredible voice and singing talent here as the hapless Emily. Also credited as the “Young Wife,” she’s been left wanting by her husband at home. But she does seem to be one of the only people we’ll meet who has any semblance of a moral compass.

“I’m morally bankrupt,” she sighs after trying several times, with an equal amount of failures, to “satisfy” her would-be Romeo, a chronically flaccid frat boy she meets in the balcony of a movie theater. “I hate the movies!” she cries before they part, even sadder and emptier than before.

Next, we find ourselves in 1956, on the anniversary of Emily and her stodgy husband, Carl (Knight), who casually mentions that he’ll be taking a business excursion to London and wants tonight to be special – so they’ll be celebrating with a night at the opera.

“The greatest of adventures that a man and woman share is marriage,” he admonishes her in that paternalistic brand of self-righteousness that the decade was known for.

Shortly after, during her solo (performed in a bathtub), she longingly recalls her first infidelity.

On to the Titanic

The ensuing installment finds Carl on the return leg of his so-called business trip, now as a passenger on a certain historically ill-fated ship; the year is 1912.

“This is a ship of dreams,” observes Jack (Tyler Blackburn), an adolescent hunk from steerage class, as Carl welcomes him into his first-class cabin. This part was conceived in Schnitzler’s original text as the young “Miss.” When LaChiusa chose the cast for the Off-Broadway musical adaptation, though, he realized he could add a refreshing bit of variety by making this a male role, referred to as the “Young Thing.”

Carl learns from a steward that the ship has hit an iceberg and is rapidly taking on water. He’s so eager to play the gay romancer, though, he doesn’t bother to tell Jack.

The boy is furious when he learns of the encroaching catastrophe, and he dashes down the Titanic’s corridors with the other fleeing travelers. The electricity falters before the ship succumbs to its watery fate.

These flashes switch to the pulsating lights of a disco, circa 1976. There, Jackson plays Robert, the “Auteur.” He strolls into the club, omnipresent camera in hand, in search of the next stellar talent he can discover. When he briefly turns the lens away from himself, it singles out Jack, now a full-fledged, out-loud and proud “Party Boy,” done up in his glam-rock best. They go back to Rob’s cramped apartment for a night of passion.

A new song, a new scene

Jumping to 2003, we discover Robert has reunited with his former girlfriend in hopes of retooling her image into something more up-to-date and commercial. “A beautiful, sexy pop star” he assures her. She is played by Audra McDonald, the six-time Tony Award winner, who channels her inner Beyoncé as the bisexual songstress Sally.

“Audra was the first we approached,” Gustafson says. “Not only is she utterly incredible in terms of Broadway, but also, Michael John has a long history of collaborations with her. So we approached her about possibly playing a role. Then once we got her name attached, we feel we set the bar very high for the others in the cast.”

Given her roles in such hit Broadway offerings as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill as the legendary Billie Holliday, McDonald’s fans are in for an exhilarating surprise. She unveils an entirely new style. Indeed, the song she performs, “Beyond the Moon,” was written just for the film.

“Cory and Michael John specially wanted to write a new song for this segment,” Gustafson says, and McDonald served as an inspiration to “kind of lead the way” on what that song should be.

“This whole scene was written new for the film,” Gustafson says. In the musical stage production, it was a “Director” and his “Artist” in the silent film era. But having McDonald’s dialogue flash on the screen like title cards would have been a waste of her enormous talent. Instead, her segment was reset to 2002, where she’s a singer in a recording studio looking to improve her professional image. Jackson was re-imagined as her “Music Director/Producer.”

“So instead of that whole 1920s scene, we wanted to make this segment more modern, as well as to play with the whole idea that as an actress or singer, you’re often forced into being a certain way or this certain type,” he says. “What the guys came up with was very fun, exciting and it definitely is not something that Audra had tried before!”

Completing the circle 

In the end, we catch up once more with the “Politician” from the opening. By this time, we’re aware that Plimpton’s Ruth is a smart striver, a senator who staunchly puts her career first. Traditionally cast as a male on stage, the “Politician” is based on Schnitzler’s more Euro-centric “Aristocrat” in La Ronde. Re-envisioning the role as female for the film effectively enables her pairing with McDonald to interject an invigorating sense of sexual and gender parity that’s in keeping with the overall multiracial, pansexual attitude here.

Afterward, a tired, world-weary Ruth makes this cycle of affairs complete by returning to those moments in the movie’s opening. All indications are that it’s the present day, as she once more trudges through the cluttered and chaotic alleyway to that salaciously painted red door.

But with this visit, she bothers to learn that the brawny tattooed Adonis in the glass booth (Underwood) is named Leocadia (“but you can call me “Leo,” he says with a wink). Underwood’s face is boyishly handsome, but still androgynous enough to pull off the illusion required for his earlier scene as the “Lady,” separated in time by more than a century.

Ruth confides in him, and he soothes her, leading to the final idyll, wherein she fittingly gives him back that aforementioned ruby pendant, which somehow, in one form or another, has figured into each escapade.

“I think every person who watches this film can identify with at least one of the characters or relationships that’s in it,” Gustafson says. “As an independent film – and principally an independent musical – we definitely created something that’s very unique. … We’re all very proud of that!”

Hello Again is now available on DVD from all major video retailers and on V.O.D. from most streaming platforms, including Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and VUDU.

Photo courtesy of Jose Cuervo

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