The Opening Night of The Fantasticks, 50 Years Later

By Robert Viagas
01 May 2010

Noto asked his partners for their professional opinions. Ash said, why throw good money after bad? Close the show. Golden agreed: close the show that night. The actors, including the then-unknown Jerry Orbach and Rita Gardner, wouldn't have to be paid through the end of the week, and what was left of the production could be liquidated so the investors could get a few cents back on the dollar.

Hearing this, composer Harvey Schmidt was crushed. He and lyricist/librettist Tom Jones had wrangled the project since their college days in Texas when its first draft was a Western called Joy Comes To Dead Horse. Now, years later in Manhattan, Schmidt only wanted the show to run through the weekend so that friends coming up from Texas would get a chance to see it.

Others in the office began to cry, including Olim, who remembers what happened next like this: "I can still see Lore getting up and everyone getting very quiet. He said to us, 'Don't be upset. We're not going to close. I believe in this show, and I'm going to put my money where my mouth is. This show is going to run and be very successful.'"

Noto announced that he would put up his life savings of $3,300 to keep the show going. And so, the next night, The Fantasticks gave its second performance. And the night after that, another. Schmidt's Texas friends got to see it, and he was happy.

Current Fantasticks stars Erik Altemus and Kimberly Whalen
photo by Carol Rosegg
It would be nice to say that crowds immediately flocked to the show, but they didn't. The Fantasticks struggled for months, sometimes playing to a half dozen patrons who rattled around even the cozy precincts of the 153-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse where the fourth row was the back row.

That summer Noto had an offer to take the show for a brief sojourn to the John Drew Theatre in East Hampton, Long Island, summer playground of the city's tastemakers. That week-long break exposed the show to many who would not ordinarily have ventured to the raffish beatnik-era Greenwich Village. Word of mouth began to circulate, and in the weeks after the show resumed at Sullivan Street, celebrities began to pepper the audience and the seats gradually began to fill.

The Fantasticks was never a consistently sold-out blockbuster. Conservatively produced, it was able to pay its bills even at far less than capacity. And so it ran. And ran. For more than 41 years — the longest run in American history and still the longest run for a musical anywhere — it just kept not closing.

The final curtain came down at last on Jan. 6, 2002, after 17,162 performances — not because the show had stopped turning a profit, but because the new landlord wanted to convert the space. There was some talk of moving the show to another theatre, but Noto, who was dying of cancer, felt that The Fantasticks was site-specific to Sullivan Street, and that its time had come. Noto died six months later.

In 2006, a group of investors decided that New York City was not quite itself without The Fantasticks and they acquired the rights to do a revival. Mindful of the special place the Sullivan Street Playhouse had in the show's history, they refurbished the third floor of a former beauty school at Broadway and 50th so that it closely resembled the layout of the downtown theatre.

The Fantasticks is still playing there today, more than 1,400 performances into its new run. For the 50th anniversary, one of the few remaining living original cast members has rejoined the show in his original role: Thomas Bruce who is again playing the Old Actor ("Remember me…in light!"). Thomas Bruce is the stage name of librettist Tom Jones.

When El Gallo sings "Try to Remember," Jones will likely be remembering that dark night in May a half century ago when they all came this close to giving up on the seemingly indestructible little love story.

Robert Viagas is production editor of Playbill, founding editor of and author or editor of 12 books on theatre including the "Playbill Broadway Yearbook" series and "The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks" with Donald C. Farber.