When you think of shows that have had long runs in New York City, you probably think of “Cats” , “Phantom of the Opera” or “Les Miserables”. As magnificent as those shows have been on Broadway, their runs can’t compare to a little show that started in the 1960’s and never stopped running until January of 2002. That’s right this show ran for more than forty years and touched the hearts of millions, but it never showed in the great theaters of Broadway. The top off Broadway hit of all time was a musical called “The Fantasticks”.
A Fantastick Fluke “The Fantasticks” was not a success because it flew off the pens of established musicians or script writers. In fact the original production of the Fantasticks was put together by two friends who had met at the University of Texas, got involved in a little college theater, went to the Korean War and then came back home to try their luck in a variety of pursuits in New York.
Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt would go on to work on many Broadway and Off Broadway productions with considerable success. But at the beginning there were no guarantees. They got the first production of “The Fantasticks” off the ground for a summer theater performance at Barnard College in New York. It took them about three weeks to put together something that lasted a record 40 plus years .
“The Fantasticks” was so well received at the summer theater venue that Jones and Schmidt were approached by several potential producers to take the show to an Off Broadway theater. The rights eventually were turned over to Producer Lorenzo Noto. It was his constant faith in the show and its potential that got this show up and running. The initial reviews of “The Fantasticks” were mixed at best but Noto held on to his production and his faith was rewarded.
Words and Music The draw of “The Fantasticks” was both in its words and music. The plot is a simple one with universal themes reinforced by a brilliant musical score. The story is of two young people in love. Their fathers approve of the match but want to seal the deal by creating some tension that will eventually make the two see the value and the depth of their love. In a very convoluted way their plan works and a happy ending is enjoyed by all.
Along the way the audience is treated to creative staging including the use of a mime who plays the part of a dividing wall and a narrator who keeps everyone connected to the progress of the story line. The story itself is captivating for its sweetness but the whole production is enhanced by the insertion of music with lyrics both comical and sublime. Two songs, “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Going to Rain” have been recorded by countless artists and have stood the test of time.
Other tunes such as “The Vegetable Song” and “Rape” are memorable to those who have ever seen even one performance of “The Fantasticks”. The words, that is the script, and the music created around the story have together succeeded in making “The Fantasticks” the top off Broadway hit of all times”.
Playing the Part Tonight Will Be Throughout the years, as “The Fantasticks” made its incredible run at the Sullivan St. Playhouse in Greenwich Village, it went through frequent changes of cast. The original group of thespians included Richard Stauffer, Rita Gardner and Kenneth Nelson.. But most recognizable today among those first players was a young man named Jerry Orbach who played the exciting part of El Gallo. Orbach went on to do a variety of other Broadway roles and is most known today for his long run in “Law and Order” where he worked until his recent extended illness and death.
The fascination people felt about this simple little piece of theater helped to take it from its Off Broadway success to performances all over the country in community and college theaters and even at the high school level of production. “The Fantastics” has been performed at the White House and at Ford’s Theater. The play requires little scenery, a relatively small cast, a few creative bits of costuming , a piano and a harp and some excellent direction.
Plenty of talented people have taken the opportunity to play in “The Fantasticks” in New York and in other local performances. Big names like Ricardo Montalban, Elliott Gould, Liza Minelli and Glen Close have felt and delivered the magic of this story. Today it continues to be performed throughout the U. S. but also abroad both in English and in foreign languages. A world wide audience is unlikely to be wrong. “The Fantasticks” is the top off Broadway hit of all times.
How You Know You’ve Done Your Job For actors, directors, writers and producers there is one tried and true indication of success. More than the applause of crowds or the notice of critics, professional theater people rely on the response of other professionals.
For Jones and Schmidt and their productive collaborators, proof that “The Fantasticks was the top off Broadway show of all time came in 1992 when the writers received a “Special Tony” for their work in “The Fantasticks”.
If you never had a chance to see “The Fantasticks” when it played in New York, you missed a great bit of theater history, but never fear. Right now somewhere in America there is likely to be a group of people organizing the next local performance of “The Fantasticks” the top off Broadway show of all time. Get a preview or enjoy your memories by seeing the website at www.thefantasticks.com .