The Fantasticks: The Little Musical That Could

The Fantasticks: The Little Musical That Could The first 15,000 shows are the hardest. Just ask Lore Noto. "I look at it this way," says the irrepressible stoic who has been the producer of The Fantasticks from Day One May 3, 1960 until now. "If The Mousetrap closed in London tonight, we'd still have to run eight more years just to catch up."
Writers Harvey Schmidt (top) and Tom Jones (bottom), circa 1965
Writers Harvey Schmidt (top) and Tom Jones (bottom), circa 1965

The first 15,000 shows are the hardest. Just ask Lore Noto. "I look at it this way," says the irrepressible stoic who has been the producer of The Fantasticks from Day One May 3, 1960 until now. "If The Mousetrap closed in London tonight, we'd still have to run eight more years just to catch up."

The Mousetrap, that Agatha Christie perpetual-motion machine, premiered in 1952 at one London theatre, and in 1974 moved to another. On July 24, 1996, two months and three weeks into its 37th year, The Fantasticks the longest-running musical in world theatrical history, longest-running theatre piece of any kind in U. S. history marks its 15,000th performance at the one and only Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. There have been 8,300 other productions of it in this country, 500-plus abroad.

"Am I surprised by that?" asked Noto, peering out from under a battered felt hat bristling with buttons and badges. "I'm stoned, stunned, awed by that. No one could have foreseen it. Out of the question.

"One of the goals I had in the beginning was to beat Threepenny Opera" the Brecht-Weill-Lenya-Blitzstein classic that ran seven years in the 1950's and 60's at the old Theatre De Lys (now the Lortel) on Christopher Street. "MGM Records gave us a big party when we did that. Near-death experiences? I can think of a few noteworthy ones.

"We lost money 11 of the first 12 weeks, just for a starter. And here's this guy with three kids who's put all his life savings into it." He means himself, 36 years ago. The gross when they went into the black at the 150-seat Sullivan Street "one seat with such unbelievable sightlines, we don't sell it" was $2,800 a week. "My share was one percent of the gross. I took home $28 a week."

Sounds funnier now than it did then, right?

"It was funny then, too," said Lore Noto.

The scrappy little guy hit 73 this summer and has been having his own survival struggles for quite a few of those years. "That chemo's pretty brutal stuff, but it does save your life," he said. "I've outlived so many doctors."

The actors in 1960 were getting $45 a week, Off-Broadway Equity minimum. They were Jerry Orbach, Kenny Nelson, Rita Gardner, William Larson, Hugh Thomas, George Curley, Blair Stauffer and a chap named "Thomas Bruce" who, in fact, was Tom Jones, author of the book and lyrics to which his University of Texas pal Harvey Schmidt had written the music. The director who welded the whole thing together was the late Word Baker.

"In 1970 the Equity rules changed. They wanted $100 a week an actor. Regrettably," said Noto, "I had to lay off three understudies. We were the only book musical surviving Off-Broadway; we were struggling desperately, and we've been on thin ice ever since."

Brooklyn-born Noto, who'd been acting in what was called "Little Theatre" (the prelude to Off-Broadway) since 1939, had in 1960 auditioned unsuccessfully for a role in his own Fantasticks. By 1971 he had appeared in it only once, filling in for one matinee, in the part of the Boy's Father. Now, with every penny counting, Noto finally got his wish; he went into that role and stayed in it for 17 years (at $100 a week), with a brief gap in 1980 after he'd passed out onstage, thanks to what would one day compel the chemo.

In 1986, though he'd been keeping in shape with tennis, Noto found himself unable to remember his lines. "Did I say that or didn't I? Too dangerous. I decided the show would close unless there was a public response. And, of course, the phones went off the hook. We kept running two years after that."

He also decided to turn the day-to-day guardianship of the show over to his son Tony and to Don Thompson, a fellow producer and fellow habitue of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. One of the most crucial steps Thompson has taken as co-producer of The Fantasticks is to shore up 181 Sullivan Street, which had started out in another century as a blacksmith's shop and stable, proceeding in the 1920's to attain fame as Jimmy Kelly's speakeasy and night club. The funeral parlor two doors away on the far side of Fiorello LaGuardia's birthplace was to collapse in a cloud of smoke five years ago.

Though things are getting tight again this summer, Don Thompson says: "We're going to be in good shape. As far as I'm concerned, this show will run no matter what, indefinitely. And then we'll pass it on to someone else. You're looking at eternity."

-- By Jerry Tallmer