Little did Word Baker know, when he decided to direct a tiny musical at a college in 1959, that he would be helping to create a work that would outlast any other in America -- and ultimately would outlast him.
Baker, director of "The Fantasticks," the off-Broadway musical now in the 36th year of its run, died with theatrical timing -- on Halloween -- at age 72.
Baker was a special kind of theatrical magician. Like the prestidigitator who shows you his hat is empty, then pulls a rabbit out of it, Baker delighted in showing audiences an empty stage -- then pulling passion out in copious quantities.
Baker did a landmark production of Arthur Miller''s "The Crucible" in the round with almost no scenery to get in the way of the audience''s sightlines -- or its imagination. "The Fantasticks" uses little more than a bench and a moon to conjure up a whole world of memory and love.
His late-career hit, the Nancy Ford/Gretchen Cryer musical "I''m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road," was set in a closed nightclub, and used little besides a piano and a pair of stools. Yet night after night, audiences cried.
I had the honor of spending several mornings with him in 1990, while I was working on a book about "The Fantasticks." He was already ailing, and sometimes had trouble concentrating for more than an hour or so at a time.
If I asked him "What happened next?" or "What was so-and-so like?" he''d just shake his head sadly. Such questions didn''t connect for him. At last I found the key to his memory: Personalities. I''d pull out my microcassette and play a recording of a voice from his past, and his face would light up, and out would tumble priceless details from the Neverland of Greenwich Village at the dawn of the 1960s. He remembered his delight at the timbre of Rita Gardner''s voice. The anxiety in the cramped dressing room at intermission on opening night. The paleness of the original Mute''s skin. The expression on Lore Noto''s face as he''d ride the subways with a copy of the original cast album permanently tucked under his arm -- the only advertising campaign the show could afford.
Playwrights, most notably Miller, loved Word Baker, because he placed as little folderol as possible between the script and the audience. Born Charles Baker, he adopted his mother''s maiden name -- Word -- as his first name. It was a perfect choice, because with him, the spoken word in theatre was always paramount.
Baker was a great believer in the people who made those words come alive, rather than in sets or special effects. "The Fantasticks" offers the most potent illustration of this philosophy: When El Gallo needs to dress the stage, he opens the prop box and out pop . . . two more actors.
In a time when falling chandeliers and rising helicopters are believed necessary to make a theatrical point, Word Baker''s faith in the simple magic of floating confetti -- and the even deeper wonder of a wall indicated by nothing but a man holding a stick -- continues to be vindicated.
That''s why "The Fantasticks" is Word Baker''s greatest monument. It somehow manages to coax the actors'' and the audience''s imagination out of its box every night, and uses this wondrous instrument as the show''s most spectacular special effect.
Word Baker was an arch-sorcerer in the amazingly durable magic of the human imagination. Word Baker was the ultimate Fanastick.