So was it the script? The pretty tunes? Smart producers? Pure luck? Or a special kind of theatrical miracle?
Everyone has a theory about how and why The Fantasticks not only became the longest-running musical in world history, but hit the unprecedented milestone of 20,000 non-continuous Off-Broadway performances Sept. 15.
Yes, even though the show is playing at the Jerry Orbach Theatre just a few blocks from Times Square, many theatre folks aren’t even aware that the little “Try to Remember” musical about a girl, a boy, two plotting fathers and a wall is still puttering along, 53 years after its debut at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. But every week has added another eight performances, and this past Sunday night some of the surviving creators and their friends gathered to lift a glass at the startling total, nearly twice the run of Broadway’s record-holder, The Phantom of the Opera.
In a curtain speech before the landmark performance, Fantasticks lyricist (and original cast member) Tom Jones, 85 this year, credited the extraordinary quality of the people who have maintained the show, both onstage and off and said, "I am in awe of what they do." As so many characters in his script do, Jones quoted Shakespeare, specifically the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V, saying, "For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother," and called all those who have worked on the show, "my brothers, my sisters — they are my family."
Afterward, Jones also singled out associate director Kim Moore as the one who makes sure the current show stays fresh.
Rita Gardner, who created the role of Luisa, "The Girl" in the original 1960 company, was on hand to applaud the new cast. She said the long run is “a tribute to Tom and Harvey,” that is the writing team of Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music). “So much is happening in that little space.”
Though Schmidt has retired to Texas, Jones is still writing and working hard, preparing his new musical, La Tempesta (based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest), for a private reading in November.
Jones allowed several small changes in the Fantasticks script to mark the passage of time. The Old Actor used to say that Mortimer (“The Man Who Dies”) has been with him for 40 years, but now says, “He’s been with me for 53 years,” the length of time since the show’s opening. And when Mortimer did his famous death scene Sunday night, he claimed to have done it 20,000 times.
In reality, actor Michael Nostrand, who plays Mortimer, said he has done the role more than 3,000 times himself, first during the latter part of the original run, then again in the revival. In any other show he’d been the old-timer, but with Jones and Gardner in the house sunday, he was one of the “new guys.”
Nostrand, who has played the show before all kinds of audience said the secret is “the script is so universal. You never get sick of it. Sometimes people roll their eyes at it, and you have to work harder to win them over, but more often they really connect, and you can feel the warmth in the house.”
He also saluted his fellow actors, notably MacIntyre Dixon, who plays Henry ("The Old Actor"). “He never does the show the same way twice, which means you always get a fresh performance. He keeps me on my toes.”
For his part, Dixon, who has given 1,350 performances as Henry, said he tries to keep in mind that “somebody in the audience is seeing the show for the first time,” and he tries to play to that person. He said that in his entire 60-year career, “I’ve never been in a show that people appreciate so much. Afterward people come up to me on the street and say, ‘Thank you,’ and tell me how much they loved it and laughed at it.”
Accompanying Rita Gardner was her husband, Bob Sevra, an actor who said he played the lead role of El Gallo in a production that toured military camps in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He said he fell in love with Gardner when he heard her voice on the original cast album of The Fantasticks, and when they happened to work together on a show in later years, they clicked. So, in a sense, Luisa finally got her bandit. As Luisa would say, "Happy ending."
Robert Viagas is executive editor of PlaybillEDU™ and co-author of “The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks.