Remember Me - in Light: At the Final Performance of The Fantasticks

News   Remember Me - in Light: At the Final Performance of The Fantasticks
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On January 14, 2002, The Fantasticks will be playing in at least three theatres author Tom Jones knows of. The one place it won't be playing is the Sullivan Street Playhouse in New York's Greenwich Village, where it has been running without interruption since May 3, 1960.

The world's longest-running musical closed there Jan. 13 after 17,162 performances and, as producer Lore Noto said in his curtain speech, "God bless and good luck to anyone who wants to try to run longer."

Fans, family and former actors packed Sullivan Street on a blustery night to squeeze into the landmark musical about a boy and a girl and the wall their fathers build to keep them apart. Most of the throng had one of the 153 available tickets for seats in the main theatre, and a few diehards implored those going in for any spares. Several were invited in to watch the show on a closed-circuit TV in a gallery on the theatre's second floor.

Composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist-librettist Tom Jones greeted the closing-night crowd, with Jones telling those who offered condolences, "You can't be sad for a show that has run 42 years." Standing on the tiny stage of the Sullivan Street Playhouse, with multicolored confetti from the show still unswept around his feet, Jones told of a Good Friday ceremony in Athens, Greece, in which coffins are opened in churches at midnight, and people celebrate the fact that they are empty. He said he wanted to celebrate, not the fact that the show was closing, but the fact that it had had such a bountiful life, when so many other projects close quickly. "It's been given a real life. It will live on in the minds of hundreds of thousands of people. All of you," he said, gesturing to the crowd, "breathed life into it."

Also among the attendees: original "Girl" Rita Gardner, original Mortimer George Curley, Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (one of many El Gallos throughout the run) and set/costume designer Ed Wittstein.

Outgoing New York City Council President Peter Vallone told the crowd, "It will never end. It will be in our hearts, be in our minds, be in our souls, as long as love exists. It's the greatest play ever."

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Act I of the show is full of moon imagery; Act II of sun imagery. Perhaps it was an omen that the final performance came after dark on a moonless night.

Another omen for the superstitious: a huge shroudlike tarp covering construction work on the adjacent building flapped so hard on the windy Sunday night that it pulled loose and nearly fell on several earlybirds who had gathered in front of the Playhouse.

The performance started nearly a half hour late as the show’s alumni who hadn’t seen each other in years made tearful reunions and ignored ushers’ attempts to get them to settle down. Lighting technician John LaRocca began the event saying, "Welcome to the 17,162nd performance of The Fantasticks."

Bill Tost, who played Bellomy (the Girl’s Father) at the final performance, has been with the show since its very first incarnation, as a one-act musical presented in summer 1959 at Barnard College on a triple-bill with The Mall and The Gay Apprentice. He played The Man Who Dies in that production, which was seen by producer Lore Noto after watching a scene being performed in an acting class at HB Studio (by Gerome Ragni, later to co-write Hair). Noto agreed to invest – his entire life savings, as it turned out -- but only if they expanded it to two acts.

The show cost $13,500 to mount in 1960, the amount that some more recent shows spend on shoes. After mixed reviews on opening night, Noto was advised to close the show. Composer Harvey Schmidt remembers being downcast by the news because he had friends coming in to see the show from his native Texas the next weekend and had hoped it would run at least that long.

At the final performance,. Schmidt recalled that he was 29 when the show debuted at Barnard, and is now 72. "It’s always been a part of my life," he said. "I love every one of you and will remember until I die all the contributions all of you made."

Earlier in the evening, during intermission, Schmidt was looking to the future. He and Jones debuted their latest show, Roadside, in fall 2001 under the auspices of York Theatre, and Schmidt said Britain’s JAY records is interested in recording it.

The show’s signature tune, "Try To Remember," is full of imagery about May and December. But it was January that proved to be the show’s downfall. January and February had been difficult months for the show since at least the 1970s. Sometimes the show played to only a handful of people during that time. Lusher crowds had always compensated the rest of the year.

The production was always helped by the fact that the Playhouse’s longtime landlord had signed a run-of-the-play rent contract with Noto. Good-faith increases were negotiated starting in the 1970s, but The Fantasticks always benefitted from a special relationship with the theatre owner – until the building, a former townhouse and speakeasy – was sold in the late 1990s.

This was not the first time the show had announced its closing. As early as 1986, producer Lore Noto had planned to take down the plywood moon for the last time. But business picked up so dramatically that the little show decided to continue. The announcement came at least two more times in ensuing years, but these going out of business sales proved so consistently successful that the final closing notice, announced in fall 2001, at first got the "boy who cried wolf" treatment, and was not believed. However, as the weeks went on and stories emerged of a conflict with the new owner of the Sullivan Street Playhouse, it became clear that this one was for real.

There was some talk of moving the production, which continued to be marginally profitable. But Jones and Schmidt reportedly vetoed the idea. If ever a commercial show was site-specific, The Fantasticks was. The Sullivan Street Playhouse enjoys an off-kilter seat arrangement. The stage is on the left middle of a long, narrow space, with the audience in a few long rows around it. As a result, there are more seats on the sides than in the middle, and there are only three rows directly in front of the stage.

In the scene where the Boy is carried out by the two old actors, they exit up the aisle to the main access door. Audiences could hear the old floorboards creak, hear the rustle of the costumes, smell the sweat as they sang, "Beyond the road likes an episode, and episode, and episode…," as they disappeared en route to India, Venice and the lobby.

Though largely gentrified in the last few decades, the neighborhood, in the heart of Greenwich Village, retains its proud eccentricity. And it was all this that led the authors to veto suggestions that the show move and continue its run. Jones and Schmidt had two minor hits on Broadway, 110 in the Shade and I Do! I Do!, but never again enjoyed anything approaching the success of The Fantasticks. Their musicals Collette, aka Collette Collage and Grover’s Corners (based on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town) were long in development but never got the major New York productions their creators sought. Another musical, Mirette, debuted at Goodspeed Opera House in the 1990s. The pair was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1999.

Final performances are odd things especially on long-running shows. The final performance of Cats was a celebration, with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber using the final performance to debut a song that had been cut from the show, and thus making the closing also a premiere of sorts.

The final performance of A Chorus Line was a family affair. Sitting among the original cast members in that final audience, as Joe Papp said farewell, it was remarkable to notice how, without prompting, they were all either holding hands, squeezing each others' shoulders, rubbing knees, etc., creating a kind of physical circuit.

The final performance of The Fantasticks had a great age range. Many of the original creators, cast and investors (who had been able to purchase one-sixth of a percent of the show for a grand $55) were elderly. The theatre was a forest of gray heads, full of memories. But many also had brought their children or grandchildren. As the final music was being played, some of the children left their seats and walked forward to touch the china silk curtain that hangs across the stage. Touching that same curtain at intermission, you could feel the thickness of paint where composer Harvey Schmidt (also a graphic artist) had hand-lettered the words "The Fantasticks" in his peculiar spiky handwriting.

That handwriting could also be seen on the sign that swung in the wind over the marquee of the Sullivan Street Playhouse. It was a Greenwich Village landmark for nearly three generations. Soon, it will come down.

—Robert Viagas

Robert Viagas Program Director of Playbill Broadcast and author of the book "The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks.