Try to remember a time when The Fantasticks wasn't part of the New York theatre scene, and you'll have to go back to 1959.
On May 3, 1960, the little musical about lovers who meet despite their feuding families (who are pretending to feud in order to get their children together!) opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. It would go on to create theatre history, running 41 years — and counting.
But that count could go down to zero unless the show's box office spikes upward in the weeks ahead. The Fantasticks' producer, Tony Noto, has begun advertising "last weeks" for the show, warning that because the building, on the desirably Village-y Sullivan Street, has a new landlord, and real estate prices have escalated so precipitously, a flat-lining box office could kill a show that four decades of television, movies, rock concerts, computers and virtual reality could not.
On May 3, the Off-Broadway tuner by lyricist-librettist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt show celebrated its 41st anniversary in the same 135-seat, living-room-like theatre where it was born, the Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village.
In 1986, when producer Lore Noto became ill, the show announced it would end its long run, and the final weeks were sold out. Letters and pleas to keep it running poured in and the show was kept afloat, uninterrupted. Tony Noto, the producer's son, told the NY Daily News (July 27) that the current situation is more dire: "If it does end, it may be quick and bloody." Noto told Playbill On-Line (July 27), " This is serious. It's not necessarily totally fatal, but [the closing] could come at any time. In 1986, when we announced our intention to close, a lot of people still wanted to see it but couldn't just come in two weeks. We wanted to allow them the time to come from all over the world to see it. We hoped to `set' our closing date on our own terms, and honor our pledge to allow people time to come see the show. Our biggest concern now, because of a lot of things happening internally — new contracts, the financial drain of maintaining our own theatre without landlord support, the economy slump — we might have to close in a day...
"The landlord wants to raise our rent significantly to ask our support for [his] overpaying for this building. He hounds us with proposals to not just renovate but reconfigure it so he can add apartments. But if he does that, the theatre would be dramatically different; the upstairs gallery would disappear, the physical space would be smaller. It would not be the same. We did make some compromises with the previous landlord, but this is different. Nobody wants to put the actors in the basement. All we want to do is just run our show. Quite frankly, we just wish this guy would go away."
Producer Lore Noto told Playbill On-Line (July 31), "All this legal stuff is very expensive. We worry, `Are people gonna cancel because of these kinds of problems?' We're up to a $40 ticket price today just to survive. We're competing with all sorts of discounts. `Roundabout Theatre: save $10, save 10 percent. We're competing with corporations. American Airlines supports Roundabout Theatre's accordion-fold brochure, one of those things that opens up and opens up and has all kinds of material in it. I understand Ford has a theatre of its own. All of this is competition. It's subsidization by the corporations required to dispose of their money by law. We're not not-for-profit, though it's been awhile since we saw any real profit. We're also 100 percent Equity. You wouldn't get the kind of talent we've had over the years if we were non-Equity."
Asked about the show's attempts to stay open through these tough times, producer Noto said, "We've been running `Last Weeks' in the Times ABC listings for two weeks. Since then we've had some calls from the media, who really want to see what they can do to see that the show doesn't close because it's being ignored. And the box office reported that the phones have been ringing and ringing since Howard Kissel's Daily News article on Friday. Right now we're going to the middle of September, that's pretty much for sure, unless we take some extreme losses. It costs us about $15,000 a week to break even. Maybe we eke out a very small profit in the course of a month. I won't know till tonight what the actual story is from the box office for the past few days."
Decca Broadway re-released the remastered original cast album on CD April 25, 2000, and the liner notes and illustrations are new. The flirtatious, evocative musical arrangements for piano and harp are by Julian Stein.
The musical was suggested by Edmond Rostand's Les Romanesques, and gave the world "Try to Remember," "Metaphor," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "I Can See It" and "They Were You."
The show's innocence-to-wisdom themes are universal, and productions sprouted throughout the world over the years. Its blank-stage set, company of 10 (including two musicians) and breezy, experimental feel have made the show a perennial favorite in school, stock and community theatre.
A national tour with Robert Goulet as El Gallo played to arena-sized houses, but not even that (some would say) ill-advised extravaganza could sully the reputation of the humane romantic musical. Times have changed so much over the years that the 1960 version's references to rape were changed to "abduction."
A program note in the Playbill for the 41st anniversary reads: "Every audience member at each performance of The Fantasticks is contributing to theatre history. The longest-running musical in the world continues to set new records and charm new audiences at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, where it opened during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. It has survived many of the newspapers that reviewed it in May 1960, and it has seen nine [sic] presidents thus far. With its May 3, 2000, 40th anniversary, The Fantasticks present[ed] its 16,562nd performance to an audience that began as bobbysoxers and today includes cyberkids. [The May 3 performance of this year marked perf. No. 16,875.]
"Before the mud of Woodstock there were the love songs of The Fantasticks. Before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, before Elizabeth Taylor received an Academy Award for 'Butterfield 8,' and before Wilt Chamberlain completed the first of his seven consecutive years as basketball's top scorer, 'Try To Remember' and 'Soon It's Gonna Rain,' from The Fantasticks, were part of our national culture. Today, with more than 12,000 productions in U.S. cities and towns, and more than 700 productions in at least 67 nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the record grows and the legend continues. A host of now well-known stars have played in different productions, including Jerry Orbach, Rita Gardner, F. Murray Abraham, Kristin Chenoweth, David Canary, Elliott Gould, Liza Minnelli, Richard Chamberlain, John Carradine and Ed Ames.
"If you acted in a high school or community theatre production since 1960, chances are good that the play was The Fantasticks. Try to remember. And if you remember, tell your friends about The Fantasticks."
The tuner opened under the direction of Word Baker, whose name is still on the title page, along with producer Lore Noto and co-producer Donald V. Thompson (who helped save the show in 1986). The original cast included Jerry Orbach as El Gallo, Rita Gardner as The Girl and Kenneth Nelson as The Boy.
Schmidt and Jones would achieve acclaim for such future works as I Do! I Do!, 110 in the Shade and their retrospective, The Show Goes On, but The Fantasticks remains their most recognized and enduring production. The show was given a 1992 Special Tony Award. A film version starring Joel Grey was released after a long delay in 2000 to unfriendly reviews that suggested the piece is inherently theatrical. The picture is now on video and DVD.
As of early May, the Off-Broadway cast included Paul Blankenship (The Narrator), Charles Hagerty (Matt), Natasha Harper (Luisa), Bill Weeden (Hucklebee), William Tost (Bellomy), Bryan Hull (Henry), John Bundrick (Mortimer), Kim Moore (Mute), Jeremie Michael (piano), Hank Whitmire (harp).
Ed Wittstein designed the production. Associate producers are Sheldon Baron and Dorothy Olim.
Sullivan Street Playhouse is at 181 Sullivan Street. For ticket information, call (212) 674-3838.
— By David Lefkowitz
, Ken Jones and Robert Simonson