Friday, January 13, 2012

Fantastik! New York’s Longest Running Play Finally Closed

The original cast of The Fantastiks

On January 12, 2002 the Off-Broadway musical sensation The Fantastics finally closed.  Most of the cast members had not even been born when the show opened on May 3, 1960 at the small Greenwich Village theater, the Sullivan Street Playhouse.  That’s almost 42 years and 17,162 performances in its initial run.   

That makes it the longest running musical in the world, and the longest running play of any kind in the United States.  Only the London production of Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap, which has run continuously since 1952, keeps it from holding a world record.

The show’s enduring popularity was not burned out.  Annually about 240 productions of all sorts—amateur, scholastic, and professional—are mounted in the U.S. alone. 

It only was absent from the Off-Broadway stage for six years.  In 2006 a new production was mounted and continues to run to this day with no signs of closing any time soon.

Part of the shows appeal is its stark simplicity.  It is performed on a nearly bare stage with an elevated platform, cardboard cutout sun and moon disks hung from a nail on post, and some curtains hung at various times to divide the stage space.  The producers of the original show spent the grand sum of $900 on the set and less than $500 on costumes.

The show had a small eight person cast and a three person “orchestra.”  

Lyricist and librettist Tom Jones conceived of the play with composer Harvey Schmidt, whom he met at the University of Texas at Austin.  The pair was interested in experimental theater, and also in creating a production that they could mount personally.  They chose Edmond Rostand’s 19th Century French play Les Romanesques as the very loose inspiration for their highly stylized and allegorical production.

An early version, Joy Comes to Deadhorse was presented at the University of New Mexico in 1956.  It was substantially rewritten and remounted as a one-act play for a one week run at Bernard College in 1959.  That version caught the attention of producer Lore Noto who encouraged the creative team to expand it to a two act play.  Together they brought it to the Greenwich Village playhouse the next year.

It was not an immediate hit.  Critics were confused and notices mixed.  For the first few months even the tiny theater was often only partially filled.  But Noto, in love with the play’s lyricism, was convinced the show would find an audience and kept it running until word of mouth began to fill up the seats.

The story was simple.  Two neighboring fathers want their children to marry.  The boy, Matt and the girl, Louisa are already in love with each other but don’t know what to do.  Both are two rebellious to get together at the urging of their fathers.  So the men, Hucklebee and Bellomy pretend to have a feud and forbid their children to see each other, knowing that the opposition will drive them into each other’s arms.  To expedite the romance, the men hire a troupe of traveling actors to stage an abduction—rape—of Louisa which Matt can heroically rescue her from.  But after the fact the pair discovers the ruse and refuses to get together.  Matt goes out into the world alone.  Louisa falls in love with the actor, El Gato who had abducted her. After mutual disappointment and disillusion the lovers are reunited.  End of story.

The story is told by a Narrator who is also El Gato and is book-ended in its first and last scenes by the wistful song Try to Remember.

In the original production Jerry Orbach began his long and successful career as the Narrator/El Gato, Susan Gardner played Louisa, and librettist Jones, appearing as Thomas Bruce, played Henry, the Old Actor.  In the 2008 revival, which he directed, Jones reprised the role under the same stage name.

The original cast album recorded on Decca continues to sell. Two songs from the show, Try to Remember and Soon it’s Gonna Rain became standards. Ed Ames, Roger Williams and The Brothers Four all charted with Try to Remember in 1965 with Ames having the biggest hit.  Soon it’s Gonna Rain was included on Barbra Striesand’s 1963 debut album.

Over the years many performers got their starts in or appeared  in productions of The Fantastics including Liza Minnelli, Elliott Gould, F. Murray Abraham, Glenn Close, Keith Charles, Kristin Chenoweth, Bert Convy, Eileen Fulton, Dick Latessa, and Martin Vidnovic.

A 1995 film version was not released until 2000 and was not a success.  It started former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntire and Julia Louisa Kelly as the star-crossed lovers, veteran performers Joel Grey and Bernard Hughes and British actor Jonathan Morris as El Gato. 

Because some modern audiences have become offended by the use of the word rape, even though the script makes it clear it means abduction, not sexual assault, the composer and lyricist have produced an alternate song to How Much Does it Cost, Abductions and changed The Rape Ballet to the Abduction Ballet.  The current New York production uses the original songs.

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