STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Fantasticks Field Trip

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Fantasticks Field Trip Every year when I start a new calendar, I always flip forward to May, circle the number 3, and write in The Fantasticks. For the goal is to attend the umpteenth anniversary performance that the show has annually celebrated since 1961.

Every year when I start a new calendar, I always flip forward to May, circle the number 3, and write in The Fantasticks. For the goal is to attend the umpteenth anniversary performance that the show has annually celebrated since 1961.

Umpteenth? No -- The Schmidt-and-Jones classic is well out of its teens when it comes to anniversaries. In fact, take your highest teen number, double it, and that's what the show has achieved: 38 years and counting. Want to put that in perspective? There are people who are grandparents today who weren't even alive when the musical opened.

Or to put it another way: In the early '80s, there was a TV mini- series called "Amerika" that took place in the distant future. It opened with people watching The Fantasticks.

M-G-M was a pretty good record label when it recorded the show. Who would have guessed that that powerful recording company name would be defunct, but that The Fantasticks would live on (and on Polydor)?

But my intentions to make my annual trek on May 3 reached a snag when I received an invitation to attend two friends' wedding on that date. I'd have to attend a non-anniversary performance. April 29 it would be. And I was glad, really. Sure, the cute little party that the show throws each May 3 is always fun to attend, and the performance crackles with significance. But what's The Fantasticks like on an ordinary night's performance?

As I approached Sullivan Street, I spotted the "Fantasticks Lane" sign that's been placed above the usual street sign. Nice free advertising courtesy of the city, no?

Then, as I neared the theater, I saw that famous The Fantasticks sign in Harvey Schmidt's purple lettering is suspended from a bar. But the chain that holds it has rusted, and some stains have flowed down, marring both the purple and the white background. Was this going to be a metaphor for a production that's now in shabby shape? (And to think I hadn't yet learned that I'd see three understudies, too.)

I was charmed, though, that there's a box-office where patrons must wait outside. Even the men's room doesn't have one of those universal symbols of a man, nor does it even say "Men." This door echoes a kinder, gentler era with its sign that says "Gentlemen."

I went in and joined 32 people, which isn't good, to be sure, but it isn't as bad as it sounds. Capacity in the Sullivan Street Playhouse is, after all, only 150. If you're sitting third-row center, then you're at the extreme back of the house.

Today, then, The Fantasticks would be considered an Off-Off-Broadway show. It's an artifact of an off-Broadway that no longer exists, with scores of little theaters (Pocket, Jan Hus) that yielded little musicals (Ernest in Love, Fly Blackbird).

If your seat is on the right, you have to walk on stage to get to it. En route, I noticed that in contrast to that outside sign, the onstage sheet that sports that purple logo-lettering looked freshly painted. I think they plan to be here for a while.

Its plot -- based on Edmond (Cyrano de Bergerac) Rostand's Les Romanesques -- sure has. It could be summarized as Boy meets Girl, Boy wants to lose Girl after marriage, Boy gets Girl and re-adjusts. Here, Boy and Girl are meant literally, for the characters are known as The Boy and The Girl, though they do have names, Matt and Luisa.

What's wonderful, of course, is that the show is still ensconced in the same place where it began. Had it moved, say, to the Variety Arts, it wouldn't mean as much. But there is something about seeing the show in its original home, the exact space where Jerry Orbach, Kenneth Nelson, and Rita Gardner opened it.

Now the nation knows Orbach as a tough guy. Older theater fans remember that Kenneth Nelson evolved from The Boy in the show to The Boys in the Band. Rita Gardner? I may be forgetting a performance or two, but I don't believe I've seen her since December 31, 1970, when I saw her go on for Constance Towers in Ari in Washington. Towers had what was then one of the nation's most prestigious gigs -- appearing with Guy Lombardo on New Year's Eve -- and she wasn't going to give that up. She's appeared in Steel Magnolias Off-Broadway, and sang the title character on the Varese Sarabande recording of Jones & Schmidt's Colette Collage.

Anyway, the years have given the show a subtext it didn't always have. What fun to hear one of the fathers say, "I sent him to college, and you know what that cost?" (In 1960? Ten grand would have swung all four years at Harvard.)

Better still: The Old Actor says, "I've been dying for 40 years." Now it's almost true. So is his line, "There's usually an audience somewhere." There sure has been for this show.

The production is 100 percent 1960. Jones modified the rape concept years ago, changing it to "an abduction." But the word "rape" is still in the script. Otherwise, a time machine has taken you to Off-Broadway in the Eisenhower era. Where else can you find, when a character is not performing, that he'll sit at the piano and turn pages for the pianist?

The Fantasticks also offers the most entertaining intermission in town. Climb the set of stairs, and you'll come to mini-museum. See posters of the first college production, not to mention those celebrating years 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 20 are up there, too. Some list the phone number as OR-4-3838.

There's the full-page Times ad for the 10th anniversary, which replicated the first page of the "Try to Remember" sheet music. There's The 1961 Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award for Best Musical. There's a citation from the Guinness Book of World Records -- no, not about the show's run, but that (producer) Lore Noto did 6,348 performances.

Then there's a magazine article about the NBC Broadcast on Oct. 18, 1964 with John Davidson as The Boy, Susan Watson as the Girl, Ricardo Montalban as Narrator/El Gallo, Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway as the fathers. (Anyone got a tape?)

And, on the sentimental side, there's a flyer advertising "Les Romaneques as presented by Madame Sarah Bernhardt and her Powerful Company." (By the way, can't someone do a production of Les Romanesques? I sure would like to see one, for comparison's sake.)

This gallery alone is a reason why The Fantasticks should never close. But if the unthinkable happened, would another production book itself in Sullivan Street? Would the space become something else entirely?

We can't let it happen. Every musical theater fan owes it to himself to see The Fantasticks in its original home. And the actors need you there. For here's the thing: The show started at 8 p.m. sharp, and the cast, with a decided let's-take-care-of-business-as-usual feeling, wrapped it up by 9:58 p.m. That's the worst you can say for them, for they're a nifty and accomplished lot.

My theory is that they're feeling a little unloved. I remember the first time I heard that agents hated to go to The Fantasticks because they'd seen it so much. That was in 1977, 17 years after its opening. What does 21 more years mean? Maybe that's why the cast doesn't even wait for audience applause on "This Plum Is To Ripe" or "They Were You." They don't expect it.

Go. Give 'em a hand. All of them. Joel Bernstein, Paul Blankenship, Jay Douglas, J.C. Hoyt, Gordon G. Jones, Richard Roland, Gina Schuh-Turner, William Tost, pianist Kim Steiner, and harpist Hank Whitmire. Why try to remember The Fantasticks while it's still around in what is, technically, the original production?

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com