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.
On May 3, the Off-Broadway tuner by lyricist-librettist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt show celebrates its 41st anniversary in the same 135-seat, living-room-like theatre where it was born, the Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village.
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 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.
"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 May 3 performance marks No. 16,875.
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.
Later, 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."
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.
The current Off-Broadway cast includes 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 Kenneth Jones
and Robert Simonson