Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Fantasticks turns 50!

It began with a one-week run at Barnard College. The people who saw it fell in love with the songs, and some of them gave money, as little as $25 or a lot more. A two-act show followed the next year and found a home at the tiny Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, and over the years unknown performers who would one day go on to be A-list actors took the stage to sing of young love tested by suffering.

Those people who had given money were rewarded for their vision, receiving 24,000 percent back on their investment. And now, The Fantasticks, the sweet little Off-Broadway show that grew out of that long ago one-week run, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The songs, as performed by members of the current cast Tuesday afternoon at the National Arts Club, are just as charming as ever.

Lyricist Tom Jones spoke to our Dutch Treat Club luncheon group about creating the show with Harvey Schmidt, who wrote the music.

“We thought we’d let Rodgers and Hammerstein do the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals,” he said with a smile.

In his early 80s, Jones sounded as excited about the show as he must have been a half century ago. And just as he did then, he is once again playing The Old Actor. He brought along three other cast members, Scott Willis, who plays the Narrator, Erik Altemus and Kimberly Whalen (in photo), who play the Boy and the Girl, to sing songs from the show, including that most famous and beloved number, “Try to Remember.” Music director Robert Felstein accompanied them on piano. No wonder this show has lasted so long. What a delight those songs are!

And they have been part of so many show business veterans' bios. This 50th anniversary cast will one day be able to count itself as members of an impressive groups of alums, with such former participants as Liza Minnelli, F. Murray Abraham, Glenn Close, Keith Charles, Kristin Chenoweth, Bert Convy, Eileen Fulton, Lore Noto (the show's longtime producer), Dick Latessa and Martin Vidnovic.

The Fantasticks has become a star itself, a showbiz legend as the world’s longest-running musical. It opened on May 3, 1960 at the Sullivan Street Theatre and didn’t close for 42 years, until Jan. 13, 2002, a record-shattering 17,162 performances later. But that final curtain wouldn’t stay down for long. The current Off-Broadway revival opened in 2006 and is still rolling along at a spot renamed for one of the original cast members, the Jerry Orbach Theater.

I was fortunate enough to have seen the original -- although long after Orbach had left the cast -- and the revival. The first time I saw it I received a pleasant jolt back in time. I had to laugh when the Girl says at the beginning during her “Much More” number, “Please, God, please. Don’t let me be normal.” I remembered how fervently I used to pray those exact words. I hadn’t thought about that since I was the young girl praying them myself. The Fantasticks is a show that understands what it is to be young.

Jones said he based the show loosely on Edmond Rostand’s Les Romanesques, with a bit of Romeo and Juliet mixed in as well. It has been seen in 67 countries, from Afghanistan to Iran to Zimbabwe, to Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Saudi Arabia and to Israel, and been translated into many languages, including Pashto, Dari, French, German, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Czech, Slovak, Persian, Irish, Italian, Magyar, Thai, and Mandarin. Next month a revival begins previews in London’s West End and opens there June 9.

Reflecting for the Dutch Treat Club on how that original one-week production inspired the seed money to grow such a phenomenon, Jones said simply, “Sometimes you’re rewarded for taking a chance.”

And isn’t that fantastic?

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