The Fantasticks, the Longest Running Production in American Theater

Share:

 

“My daughter is fantastic”– Bellomy, the girl’s father

“My son is fantastic too” — Hucklebee, the boy’s father

What more can you say about a musical that has been running some 50 something years in New York City, leading to the claim that it is the longest running production in American Theater? Not too shabby!  If it weren’t for London’s “The Mousetrap” still in play, “The Fantasticks” would be able to claim the distinction of being the longest running show on Earth. Who knows, perhaps one day this bold statement may indeed come to pass.

If I knew the secret of this phenomenal creation, made even more special by its unprecedented longevity, I would stage my own musical employing this magical formula. Yet therein lays the rub in this riddle.  This is an anomaly – an elusive, timeless, allegorical story that lies somewhere between appearance and reality tempered at key points with lively comic relief.  It’s a two act fable – sans animals – performed as a play within a musical in the bare bones, broad thematic style of commedia dell’ arte. Yet the rallying cry of “let’s put on a show!” is far more complex despite this apparent simplicity.  Less is more… and then some.

Recall the infamous quote from “The Velveteen Rabbit” – “what is real is invisible to the eye?”  Well, take this thought to another level, and then add perfume mixed with sawdust… you just might touch on some of the emotional elements contributing to the beauty of “The Fantasticks.”  Yet ultimately, the charm of this show defies description.  Perhaps that’s how it SHOULD be… good theater SHOULD produce magic; it SHOULD be something you can’t quite explain in words.

Eight players, including the quite literal “Wall” who never speaks – thus ensuring that much is said – are all that’s needed to tell this fairy tale.  The set consists of a fragile metaphorical curtain as scenery alongside a large important looking theatrical traveling trunk sitting on a tiny stage in a theater that seats less then 200 people. In keeping with this telling minimalist approach, the costumes are bare bones black or white, while several costumes deliberately employ mismatched patterns and colors which cleverly allude to the plot twists in this delicate story.

Despite this show’s tonal and visual simplicity, it manages to rain quite an array of rainbow hued confetti – literally and figuratively – alongside a range of colorful emotions.  The musical accompaniment consists solely of a harp and piano in keeping with the intimate nature of this production.

 

 

The plot is deceivingly simple.  We are immediately introduced to all the players while the iconic opening song “Try to Remember” asks that we look back and recall that prelude in time which inevitably leads youth into adulthood… the space  before innocence is tempered by experience,  illusion turns to disillusion and soft moonlight has yet to be surpassed by the garish sun.  Take it from there.

Just as there are two sides to a story, there are two acts to this musical.  If I say more, I’ll spoil the mystery and delights awaiting an audience in this sparkling gem of a show. The musical score is sheer enchantment, pure ear honey, thanks to composer Harvey Schmidt.  A fine tuned, thoughtfully balanced book and lyric by Tom Jones perfectly complements yet heightens this gloriously tuneful music, all the right chords are struck.

“The Fantasticks” opened in May of 1960 at the now legendary Sullivan Street Playhouse down in the heart of Greenwich Village. It ran some 40 plus years in this off-Broadway theater, yet it remained on so many back burners. Perhaps because it was so consistent and steady in its run, people believed it would always be on Sullivan Street and they would one day get to it…. yet never did.  We all took it for granted.

When its closing was announced in 2002, everyone ran down to catch this lighting in a bottle, but the theater was so small, it couldn’t keep up with the demand. Subsequently and luckily for us, it  reopened in August of 2006 at the Snapple Theater Center in the aptly renamed  Jerry Orbach Theater (he played the landmark principal role of “El Gallo” long before we knew him from “Law & Order” ) on the third floor. You can take the elevator or add to the flavor of the experience by using the stairs. Don’t miss this show, it’s an essential part of American musical theater, and does not come with a hefty ticket charge.  Check the TKTS booth, it’s almost always posted.  There’s always a recognizable celebrity in one or more of the eight roles.  Currently pop singer Aaron Carter plays Matt, the boy, and John Davison most notably of TV game show fame is Bellomy, the father.

This is a tender, unique story saved from sentimentality because you not only know these players well, you’ve been there, done that. You only have to “Try to Remember.” As Matt, the boy, and Luisa, the girl, musically inform us… “They were you.”

And so they are.

With all the juggernauts dominating Broadway these days, it’s a joy to have a David to enjoy alongside the numerous Goliaths.

Guest Post By: Joanne Theodorou