The "Curious Paradox" of Long-Run Champ The Fantasticks

By Robert Viagas
October 31, 2006

What's the secret to the success of The Fantasticks? A touch of magic, among other ingredients.

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For many years, anyone who sat down to write about The Fantasticks invariably attempted to account for its 41-plus-year original run. A look back at their theories hints at what's in store for the new Off-Broadway revival, which opened at the Snapple Theatre Center in August, less than five years after the original's closing.

Variety's late theatre critic Richard Hummler once told Newsday, "It's famous for being famous, for having a long-running mystique about it."

Doubtless that was true. In its four-plus decades at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, The Fantasticks became almost as much of a sightseeing destination for New York tourists as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.

It even was touted as such by the New York Visitors and Conventions Bureau. Doubtless the revival is hoping to recapture that bit of commercial magic.

But surely, if people hadn't been enjoying the show, the hollowness would have sunk it years earlier.

Fred Golden, who made his living advertising theatre, acknowledged that what kept The Fantasticks open was not the one-column-by-two-inch ads that ran periodically in The New York Times' the ABC theatre listings, or the brief TV commercials that ran twice a week on "CBS This Morning."

No, it was "word of mouth, purely word-of-mouth," Golden said.

But word of mouth doesn't generate itself. Was it the reviews? All the energies (and prayers) of a show are directed toward getting good reviews. The Fantasticks got a few at its opening back on May 3, 1960, but the memory of them faded not long after. The original reviews were neither great (as you might expect) or terrible (as legend had it). They were mixed to gently positive — much like the reviews for the revival.

As composer Harvey Schmidt pointed out, it became almost impossible to get publicity for the show after the first decade. Lisa Anderson in the Chicago Tribune wrote that the little musical "fades in and out of public consciousness like a theatrical Brigadoon. It surfaces most visibly on its anniversaries…"

Which was true. But it means that good press isn't what kept The Fantasticks running.

Maybe it was just dumb luck. The chemistry was right and never will be duplicated. Without the contributions of lyricist/librettist Tom Jones, the show wouldn't have its verbal delight, its mystical connection with a literary tradition stretching back through the Renaissance to the Romans and the Greeks and even to ancestral nights around the campfire.

Of course, without Schmidt, there wouldn't be those melodies that everyone remembers. Almost anyone can whistle "Try to Remember" all the way through, but how many can remember past the second lyric line?

Without Word Baker, what would the words in the word of mouth be about? People may hum Schmidt's tunes, but they describe Baker's staging: the stoic Mute whisking props on and off the tiny wooden platform, the dashing El Gallo stamping his heels, the whirling rainbow mist of confetti. All were recreated with tiny changes for the revival by Jones, replacing Baker, who had passed away.

Well, heck, maybe The Fantasticks ran nearly 42 years on pure magic. After all, the show has an undeniable and consistent ability to delight. As associate producer S. Miles Baron said, "There is something very beautiful and very pure about it. It was so simple and so simply done that it goes right to something very central and very innocent in all of us. And that's where I think it stays. That's why people come back over and over again and bring their kids. There's something very universal about it. It's a classic story: two fathers putting something over on their kids, and then it goes all wrong. There's a certain kind of innocence it requires."

That sounds very lovely, and probably is true. But there have been other simple, pure, colorful love stories, and none have come close to running so many years. We're not there yet.

Let's be cynical. Perhaps the show perpetuates an artistic cop-out: perhaps it panders to its audience and reaffirms what it already believes. That may be true about the idealistic first act, but the whole point of the show and its source material is to puncture that sort of nonsense. Many of the show's critics confuse it with the thing it is satirizing. Reduced to a sentence, the "message" of the show—as far as a commedia allows itself to have a message—is not "Don't worry, be happy," but, "This is going to hurt, but you may learn something."

But do audiences buy tickets to learn lessons? Maybe the show seduced them on a different level. Maybe it managed to reflect the spirit of the various times through which it passed. Though the song, "It Depends on What You Pay," dated poorly and was rewritten for the revival, the rest of the show has exhibited a chameleon-like timeliness as it has moved through some sharply different epochs.

In the late 1950s, its Beat-ish poetry was, like, infra-dig, man. Its fervent idealism thrilled the New Frontier generation in the early 1960s. Its kaleidoscopic staging and floral imagery spoke to the flower children of the late 1960s, when original producer Lore Noto asserted to the Associated Press, "It created today's youth life-style."

But it didn't stop there. The nostalgia boom of the 1970s could find no better anthem than "Try to Remember." Luisa captured the watchcry of the "Me" generation when she chanted, "I am special/I am special," and when she and Matt broke up and went separate directions to discover themselves.

By the early 1980s, the show had run long enough to be part of the cherished cultural matrix of the newly adult baby boomers. In the profit-worshipping mid-1980s, what could be more fascinating than an investment that had returned more than 10,000 percent? Never mind the content—think of the box office!

The 1990s was a hangover decade in which newly sober society faced up to some of its responsibilities and gained a little wisdom from hard experience. The whole and true point of The Fantasticks—"without a hurt the heart is hollow"—was waiting.

However cynical the 21st century was, when the show finally closed on a windy and moonlit night in January 2002, the records show that it was still turning a profit. The owner of the Sullivan Street Playhouse had asked them to move so the building could be renovated, and the dying Noto (he passed away six months later) simply decided that enough was enough.

But do ticket-buying audiences really think about those things when poring over newspaper and online listings? Is that really what enabled Noto to meet payroll every week for so many years?

Think of it in the purest commercial terms. For a product to last this long, it must have been consistent. That makes sense—Jones and Schmidt personally did all casting and rehearsals for the first 10 years, treating the show as their cottage industry. Some of those tasks were handed over to production stage manager James Cook, but the two writers still often took part. They knew precisely what they wanted from the show, and even after an actor has been in part for a year or more, the two authors will hold rehearsals to calibrate the show and keep it toned and focused.

That kind of tender loving care has returned with the revival. Jones personally oversaw casting of the revival and has recreated the role of the Old Actor, which he originated (under the stage name Thomas Bruce) in 1960.

And when you peel away all the sentiment and cynicism from speculation about The Fantasticks, that's what you find: TLC you couldn't pay for.

When The Fantasticks opened, then-theatre-owner Jules Field signed a run-of-the-play contract for peanuts. The contract may have been updated in the late 1970s, but the rent was $600 at a time when most Off-Broadway theatres of 149- to 199-seats were paying $5,000. Field didn't mind. It warmed his heart to foster the show. But that little cardiac incandescence kept bills low for many years.

Ed Wittstein designed sets that would last forever and several costumes that looked better as they wear out. Big savings there. He also designed the revival.

What if Jones and Schmidt billed the production for all the hours they spent rehearsing and casting it with just the right people? What if they had insisted on all the cowboys they envisioned for the show when it was conceived as a big-time Western musical (titled Joy Comes to Dead Horse, by the way)? What if they hadn't agreed to royalty cuts when the box office was low. What if they hadn't dug into their own pockets to buy a new air conditioner for the Sullivan Street Playhouse when the original broke back in 1960?

It might have wound up where Ernest in Love is today. What is Ernest in Love? It's the musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest that opened just before The Fantasticks and got all the raves The Fantasticks was hoping for.

"It has run a long time because that's what we designed it to do," Word Baker once said.

And yet. . . .

It can't all be money. Even one-person shows with no set don't run forever.

"People can take it on many different levels," composer Harvey Schmidt said. "Children love it. To them, it's just like a fairy tale. But there are so many different levels for many different people. For very sophisticated people, there are a lot of witty inside references, both theatrical and literary, that they can appreciate."

Maybe audiences are like Schmidt. Until he retired to his native Texas after 2004, he often found himself drawn to the theatre on Sullivan Street. "I [used to] stand just where I did opening night," he said. "If it's not working, it can be drudgery. But if the show works at all, it's a very pleasant experience. Funny—it doesn't seem old. Sometimes someone will do a fresh line-reading that's never been done before, and it's like you're hearing the show for the first time. I still can be surprised by performance and bits of business. And I sometimes will even laugh out loud."

People loved and took care of The Fantasticks. And they were convinced that somehow The Fantasticks loved them back.

Adapted from the book "The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks" by Don Farber and Robert Viagas (Limelight Editions).