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If I asked you to name the world’s longest running musical you might not believe the answer. The Fantasticks opened on May 3, 1960 in a little theater in Greenwich Village in New York City and played for 42 years, with a total of 17,162 consecutive performances. Such plays are called Off-Broadway productions, because they are performed in the City, but not directly on Broadway. They generally have smaller casts, lower budgets, and often come and go without much notice. But The Fantasticks remains one of the great miracles of American musical theater, and it deserves all the attention it has received over the years.
The musical is based on Les Romanesques, by the Romantic French dramatist Edmond Rostand, best known for Cyrano de Bergerac. It tells the allegorical story of two fathers who trick their children, a young man and a girl, into falling in love. Their theory is that forbidding them to see each other will make the couple yearn for each other. They then hire a dashing rogue and two wandering players to stage a mock abduction, intended to make the boy heroic in the girl’s eyes. When the lovers learn of the deception, they part ways. The rogue, El Gallo, believes that “Without a hurt, the heart is hollow” and he plots a way to lead them from romance to reality, and finally to the true nature of love. In the end, the lovers reunite, much wiser and devoted to each other.
What sounds simple and quaint is executed in a stylized form, and the play is thrilling in its unique staging and remarkable songs. There is almost no set, just a platform, four poles to hang some banners and odd bits of stage dressing, a paper moon and sun, and a prop trunk. El Gallo also serves as narrator and commentator. There is also a mute actor on stage who, among many things, serves as the wall between the houses of the two families. He also provides all the necessary props from a seemingly bottomless trunk. Much of the action is mimed. There is no attempt to create the feeling of reality. The audience clearly knows that it is watching a play.
What the audience experiences is something very similar to the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, when wandering troupes of players would come into towns and perform Biblical stories using just a few props, masks, and simple costumes. Indeed, The Fantasticks often seems like a journey through the history of theater. The character Henry is constantly reciting Shakespeare (although he can’t seem to distinguish one play from another), and the masks and stylized mime are obvious references to the Italian form of theater called commedia dell’arte, an improvisational type of staging from the 16th to 18th century.
And then there are the songs. They are pure Broadway. There are even very brief bars of music from West Side Story, the most popular musical playing on Broadway at the time that The Fantasticks first opened. The lovers sing Soon It’s Gonna Rain, one of the loveliest duets from that period of musical theater, and El Gallo sings Try to Remember, a modern standard, and one of the most famous songs from any musical. For decades, Try to Remember was sung at many, many weddings in the United States, and still is, I’m sure.
This month, I have the honor of appearing in a production of The Fantasticks in a little theater in Berwick, Maine. Productions like the one I’m doing are called summer stock, because they run for only a few weeks in the summer, then a new production takes over. Summer stock productions play for only the months of June, July, and August, often in barns which have been converted into theaters. They have loyal patrons, many of whom plan their summer vacations around the summer stock season. The actors and backstage talent, like the directors, stage managers, costumers, musicians, and box office managers also plan their summers around the demanding work that goes into bringing theater to life in small town America for the summer months.
I am spending my summer vacation intensely learning all the lines, blocking (or stage movement), and songs for my character. I am playing Henry, the old, confused actor hired by El Gallo. It is a wonderful role. Henry would commonly be described as a ham actor, someone who overacts. The term refers to a “ham-fatter”, or low-grade performer from traveling minstrel shows of the American Old West. Interestingly, The Fantasticks was originally set in the American wild west, before the writers settled on a more universally simple setting.
We have just over two weeks to rehearse everything in a barn adjacent to the actual theater, where another play is currently entertaining crowds 5 times a week. It is hot, it is exhausting, and it is great fun. We open on August 15, and will close the show, and the summer stock season, on September 1st.
Henry has lines in which he describes the magic of theater. “Everything vanishes under light. That’s it. That’s the trick. Try to see me under light!” So, for the next few weeks, try to imagine me under light. “I assure you, it’s dazzling!”