The original production of the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical opened May 3, 1960, at the 153-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Adapted from a one-act play Les Romanesques by Cyrano de Bergerac author Edmund Rostand, the little nine-actor musical (later reduced to eight) got mixed reviews--no crazy raves, no outright pans.
Nursed along by producer Lore Noto, who sometimes stepped into the cast himself, the show about a boy, a girl, their two fathers and a mysterious semi-magical figure named El Gallo, rarely sold out, but managed to eke out a profit and inched its way into theatrical legend by gradually overtaking every other, first Off-Broadway, then Broadway, and eventually topped out at 17,162 performances before it closed on January 14, 2002, a run of nearly 42 years.
No other musical anywhere has touched that original. Broadway's long-run champ The Phantom of the Opera only recently notched its 10,000th performance. Only London's non-musical the Mousetrap tops them all, with better than 25,000 performance and counting.
At the time of its 2002 closing, The Fantasticks was still turning a profit, but two factors contributed to the untimely shuttering. First, the Sullivan Street Playhouse itself was being sold. It was eventually torn down and replaced with a small apartment building. There was some sentiment about moving the show to another theatre, one closer to Times Square perhaps, but there was concern that the charm of the show was somehow tied up with the charm of the Playhouse and with the Village itself.
Second, Noto was ill and no longer able to function as producer. He wanted to close the show, and Jones and Schmidt acquiesced to his wishes. Noto died later that same year. But Catherine Russell was among those who felt the New York's theatre scene was not quite the same without The Fantasticks. In 2006, she and two co-producers refurbished a former beauty school at the corner of Broadway and 50th Street, turning its two floors into two theatres, one of which was configured much the same as the Sullivan Street Playhouse: long and shallow with the stage to one side of the middle and the seats arranged in a few long rows around it. The space was named the Jerry Orbach Theatre after the actor who originated the leading role of El Gallo.
On its own, the 2006 revival is making a mark of its own--at 2,838 performances it is already the eighth-longest running show in Off-Broadway history. Russell has added that number to the original 17,162 tally to bring the total up to this Sunday's 20,000.
Russell said the show keeps puttering along because, "It appeals to so many different kinds of people. The audiences are always eclectic. We get a lot of tourists, but a lot of New Yorkers, too, many of whom saw they show years ago an want to see it again. It reminds them of when they were young. People also bring their kids because it's a good way to introduce a 6 or 7-year-old to the theatre. A couple of years ago someone bought out the whole theatre for a performance during Christmas as a family event. They said it was the only show they knew that a 4-year-old and an 80-year-old could enjoy equally."
Russell added that a significant part of the audience consists of actors, both amateur and professional, who have been in one of the hundreds of regional and international productions and want to see how it plays in New York. "You always get that one guy who comes up to the box office and says, 'I played El Gallo,' and starts singing." Among current Broadway stars who appeared in productions over the years: Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli and Broadway's current Prince in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella, Santino Fontana. The current cast of The Fantasticks includes George Dvorsky as El Gallo and Eli Ewolt as The Girl.
The Fantasticks has celebrated more milestones than any other, so Sunday night will be relatively subdued, befitting its modest size. Producer Catherine Russell will welcome the audience. Original cast members Tom Jones (who played The Old Actor in addition to writing the libretto) and Rita Gardner (The Girl) are expected to be in attendance, she said.
See other Playbill.com stories on the phenomenon of The Fantasticks: