Try to remember a time before 'The Fantasticks'

The Fantasticks" has survived lackluster reviews, an actors' strike, newspaper and subway strikes, two New York electrical blackouts, a building collapse next door, and eight US presidents. It has also run 23 years longer than the Broadway musical "Cats," which is closing this summer after a mere 17-plus years on the Great White Way.

On May 3, "The Fantasticks" - the world's longest-running musical - will stage its 16,562nd performance and complete its 40th year at off-Broadway's Sullivan Street Playhouse. With a book and lyrics by Tom Jones (no relation to the pop singer) and music by Harvey Schmidt (see interview below), "The Fantasticks" has produced such classic songs as "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain."

The show opened at 181 Greenwich Street, a former horse stable in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, in 1960. In an era when many musicals do well to run a few months, and the backers of some lose every penny of their investment, "The Fantasticks" is an extraordinary exception. The show has returned more than $3 million (as of Jan. 2) on its 44 backers' original investment of $16,500.

The play has become a staple of professional and amateur theater groups around the world. More than 11,103 productions have been staged in the United States alone, in more than 2,000 cities and towns in all 50 states. Productions include more than 700 in 67 other countries, including 220 in Canada and 24 in Japan.

What is it about the show, which centers on a simple love story between a boy and a girl, that has turned it into a musical phenomenon?

" 'The Fantasticks' is about a fairy tale coming true, which is part of its charm," says Aaron Frankel, a retired theater arts professor at New York's Columbia University and author of the book "Writing the Broadway Musical."

"But it's also enormously skillful and heartfelt on the part of the writers. And the music is outstanding," Mr. Frankel says.

In addition to its charm and music, the show's low-cost "run-of-the-play contract" at its New York theater home, coupled with widespread sales of music rights and professional and amateur productions worldwide, have helped keep "The Fantasticks" lit up on Sullivan Street all these years.

"Run of the play" means that the producers have a contract to keep the show at the theater as long as the show remains open and the theater is standing. In many cases, as with "The Fantasticks," rent increases aren't as steep as they would be if a show had to move to a new venue.

Despite these pluses, keeping "The Fantasticks" going all these years hasn't been easy - it almost closed in 1986, and again in 1994, because of dwindling ticket sales.

"Sometimes it's not a lot of fun to keep the show running," says Lore Noto, its producer, who first saw a performance of the show at New York's Barnard College in 1959 and asked the show's creators to expand it for off-Broadway.

For example, "I just got a call from Actors Equity [the actors' union] saying someone had called them complaining there was no hot water in the theater," Mr. Noto says.

"The reality of the show [financially] is, I just got the statement for January, February, and March 2000, and we're showing a profit of $400. That's been typical some winter months."

On the other hand, Noto, who used his life savings to keep the show running after it got less-than-rave reviews from some critics, says "the appreciation of the work by audiences is very satisfying.

"Another thing that's fascinating is that something that's about to turn 40 still maintains a very high professional level. I'm also grateful for all the people who've kept the show running, like our stage manager, Jim Cook, who has been with it almost since the beginning."

Veteran Broadway and off-Broadway actress Rita Gardner, who was the first performer to play the role of The Girl in "The Fantasticks," has been back at the Sullivan Street Playhouse recently doing a one-woman musical review called "Try to Remember: A Look Back at off-Broadway."

She told the Monitor that "The Fantasticks" is "a special show." Despite the lackluster reception it received from some critics in 1960, "The cast all adored the show and wanted to stay with it," she says.

"I was in it nine months when I went to do a musical out of town, and then I got a Broadway show.... It's the beginning of everything."

Paul Blankenship, who plays The Narrator in the current production, says "the Germans know this play, people in South America know this play, because it's so simple.... I got recognized by several Japanese people on the subway the other night. They said, 'Oh, we've seen it, and we love it!' "

Some of the big-name performers who have appeared in productions of "The Fantasticks" include Richard Chamberlain, Ricardo Montalban, Liza Minnelli, Glenn Close, John Davidson, Elliott Gould, and Robert Goulet.

"Everyone associated with the show is getting older, but we're planning to make it to our 50th!" says Tony Noto, the show's marketing director and Noto's son. The younger Noto has also penned the first authorized book about "The Fantasticks," a large coffee-table-type volume loaded with pictures, to be published this spring.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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