Two weeks before the 17,163rd Off-Broadway New York City performance of The Fantasticks, Tom Jones — who wrote each and every word of this tongue-in-cheek, all-time smash paean to young love, from its haunting "Try to Remember" to its final non-curtain — is asked whether he doesn't feel as if that impending 17,163rd performance (first preview of a brand new New York City staging) isn't a little like stirring up The Monster all over again.
It's only four-and-a-half years after the January 13, 2002, termination of the little unkillable musical; The Fantasticks opened on May 3, 1960, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse and ran for 42 unbroken years — come hell, high water or (at the start) empty seats. The longest-running musical in theatre history, The Fantasticks — book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by his University of Texas schoolmate Harvey Schmidt — has at this writing enjoyed more than 11,000 productions throughout the United States, more than 700 around the world.
"No," says Jones about waking The Monster, "I relish the opportunity. Harvey and I were very involved the first ten years. Still involved, but less so, the second ten years. Still less involved the third ten years, when we did other things [like coming up with Broadway's 110 in the Shade and I Do! I Do!]. But finally, when it closed, I felt I'd really let it down."
Tom Jones is, in his 70's, a genial figure of some distinction — neat white moustache, short white beard, short-cropped white hair, silver-rimmed eyeglasses. With mixed dryness and ruefulness he looks back on 1960's generally lukewarm opening-night reviews "like Dead Sea Scrolls." What saved the bacon were subsequent raves by Michael Smith in The Village Voice, Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review and Emory Lewis in Cue — and the true-believer, bulldog persistence of producer Lore Noto every day and night of those 42 years. "Lore kept the thing alive; he did, even if he became increasingly difficult - always a Sicilian, first and last." Lore Noto is gone now, and so are many among the hundreds of actors who passed through Sullivan Street, most especially Jerry Orbach, the original El Gallo, and Kenneth Nelson, the first Matt. (Rita Gardner, the original Luisa, is alive and well and starring on Broadway in The Wedding Singer.) Also alive and well — "and... put it this way... back in the show in the role of the Old Actor for the first time since 1960" — is Thomas Bruce, who, amazingly, also has cropped white hair, a white moustache and a short white beard.
The rebirth, directed this time by Jones, is at the Snapple Theater Center, a new venue on the corner of Broadway and 50th Street. Producer Richard Frankel came to Tom Jones with the idea. "I asked [Frankel], 'What made you think about it?' He said, 'We want to do it in an Off-Broadway theatre but in Times Square, so it draws not only the people who love it but tourists from the nearby hotels.'" Fantastic!