The Opening Night of The Fantasticks, 50 Years Later

By Robert Viagas
01 May 2010

Creator Tom Jones as Henry (The Old Actor) in the current Off-Broadway revival of The Fantasticks.
Creator Tom Jones as Henry (The Old Actor) in the current Off-Broadway revival of The Fantasticks.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Playbill looks back at the uncertain 1960 opening night of The Fantasticks, which would become a classic American musical.

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It was after midnight on May 3, 1960, the opening night of The Fantasticks, and producer Lore Noto had a tough decision to make.

His peculiar little musical about a Boy and Girl, two fathers and a Wall had gotten mixed reviews. Not the raves he'd hoped for, but not the outright pans that legend would later claim. The best ones were pleasant, but not what you'd call "money" reviews that made people line up to buy tickets.

Example: New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, in part, "Throughout the first act, The Fantasticks is sweet and fresh in a civilized manner." He was less enchanted with Act Two.

The show had no stars and no advertising budget. So now it was Noto's call: Close it? Or gamble on a run?



Earlier that night, at the cast party in the East 82nd Street apartment of designer Ed Wittstein, the cast and investors dined on Tex-Mex food in honor of the fact that the creative team Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt and Word Baker all hailed from the Lone Star State. When the reviews came in at 11 PM, Baker had read them aloud in a sepulchral voice, which cast a pall. Kenneth Nelson, who originated the part of The Boy, had burst into tears and had walked home drunk, shouting at random people on the street for being "philistines."

After the party broke up Schmidt, Jones and Baker taxied to the office of advertising manager Blaine Thompson's office above Sardi's restaurant for the traditional opening-night strategy meeting. Also among those present that night were associate producers Dorothy Olim and S. Miles Baron, ad managers Fred Golden and Ingram Ash, publicists David Powers and Harvey Sabinson, attorney Don Farber and his wife Ann, and, most important of all, Noto.

Thompson had a magnum of champagne waiting for them. But this was a bad omen: it was the traditional blow-softener for shows that were about to go belly-up.

Noto had everything he owned on the line. His last show had been a one-performance failure, appropriately titled The Failures. It was his only other producing credit. The Fantasticks was capitalized in its entirety at $13,000, less than some modern shows spend on shoes alone. The initial partnership was designed to sell shares for $330, but when takers proved few, Noto had been reduced to offering one-sixth shares for $55 apiece.

All the pro's looked at the reviews to see if there were enough great quotes for a newspaper ad. There weren't. So now, it was time for Noto to decide. Close the show and cut his losses? Or struggle on, hoping the show would miraculously find its audience? Continued...