The Fantasticks, the longest-running show in the modern history of New York theatre, closes Jan. 13 after 42 years and 17,162 performances at Greenwich Village's Sullivan Street Playhouse.
You can try to remember a time when The Fantasticks wasn't part of the New York theatre scene — but you'd 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 135-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse. It would go on to create theatre history, reaching its 41st birthday May 3.
By late July 2001, however, dire warnings were already emerging from producer Lore Noto and his son, Tony Noto, who began advertising "last weeks" for the show. The closing notice wan't so much the result of low grosses or even the overall national economic slump. Producer Noto made clear that real estate was the main culprit. The Sullivan Street Playhouse is on the desirably Village-y Sullivan Street, and the building's new landlord noticed that real estate prices were escalating precipitously. As such, a flat-lining box office killed a show that four decades of television, movies, rock concerts, computers and virtual reality could not.
In a statement released Sept. 4, the elder Noto said of the landlord, "The new purchasers of the building that houses the Sullivan Street Theater, had certain plans in regards to us, and we felt that we couldn't accommodate them. We came to an amicable agreement and let them have the building for their purposes. We felt we had to be honest and fair to our cast and crew who have supported the show for these many years."
When The Fantasticks ends, the longest currently-running show Off-Broadway will be I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, which needs to play just over 15,300 more performances to surpass the Schmidt-Jones musical. *
The musical, by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, 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."
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.
Currently in the cast are David Edwards (El Gallo), Jeremy Ellison Gladstone (Matt), Natasha Harper (Luisa), William Tost (Girl's Father), Bill Weeden (Hucklebee), William Tost (Bellomy), J.C. Hoyt (Henry), John Bundrick (Mortimer). Ed Wittstein designed the production. Associate producers are Sheldon Baron and Dorothy Olim.
A few weeks ago, co-producer Lore Noto announced that when the show shutters, the costumes would be donated to the Museum of the City of New York. Reaction to that news then caused the producer to emend that decision somewhat. Although Noto will donate some duds to the Museum, others "will be placed on ebay for purchase." The change of heart is credited to "overwhelming demand from the legions of fans." Tickets for the last two weeks of the run were quickly sold out. The final performance of Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones' tuner will be the evening show Jan. 13. It was to be an "invitation-only" event, but ticket demand proved "so overwhelming," says Salidor, that that show (now sold out) was also opened to the public. The last show will be followed by a private final reception in the Sullivan Street Playhouse's upstairs gallery, with Schmidt, Jones, Lore Noto and other "surprise guests" making speeches. Production spokesperson Salidor has called The Fantasticks "a touchstone of experiences for people of all ages" and called the long-running phenomenon "one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my career." Producers Lore and Tony Noto are quoted as thanking fans for "their years of passionate support."
— By David Lefkowitz,
Ken Jones and Robert Simonson