SUPERFANS ONLY NEED APPLY: Review of THE AMAZING STORY OF THE FANTASTICKS by Donald C. Farber and Robert Viagas

When I was in high school on Long Island in the 1990s, my dream was to be on Broadway. The idea then was to be a “triple-threat”—the best at singing, dancing, and acting. I had no idea how to go about this at all. I thought I could accomplish much in my room, alone, in secret. I scoured the pages of Backstage for auditions, and sent headshot photos with my meager resume stapled to the back. One listing was for a part I’d actually played in a regional theater, the role of the young romantic lead in a small, eight-person musical called The Fantasticks.

In The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks: America’s Longest-Running Play, authors Donald C. Farber and Robert Viagas recount the history of this musical’s forty-two year run at New York’s Sullivan Street Playhouse. Farber (business consultant, adviser, and attorney for the original production) and Viagas (author of several books about Broadway) give a blow-by-blow account of the musical’s origins, its source material, its creative team, its cast, its production costs, audience and critical response (not always favorable), the tremendous difficulty in getting it produced, and speculation about its unprecedented success. (Written in 1991, the show at that time showed no signs of stopping; it closed in 2002.)

Based on a French play called Les Romanesques, the story concerns a boy and girl who grow up on opposite sides of a wall. Their fathers make a great show of their hatred of one another to keep the children apart—a ruse, as it turns out, to trick the children into falling in love. Once they do, everyone gets a happy ending, until the romance starts to fade. The fathers’ trickery is revealed, the children separate and seek out adventure and romance on their own, and are deeply burned by their experiences. Chastened, finding one another again at home, the lovers (older now and more tender with one another), and the families, are reunited.

The Fantasticks is primarily the brainchild of its two creators—Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music), who met and more or less planted its seed of inception while matriculating at the University of Texas—but two other men are instrumental to its existence, survival, and subsequent success: director Word Baker (“He functioned less as a sergeant and more as an editor, allowing his actors to improvise different approaches to the material, then exercising his authority to say which would be used”) and producer Lore Noto (who perhaps believed in the show’s success more than anyone, and who, controversially, wanted to close the show when he was ready to retire). The Amazing Story of the Fantasticks traces the connecting threads between these four men, and weaves them into a colorful tapestry of the show’s legend.

The book breaks the show’s creation into an easy-to-follow chronology, beginning in the 1950s, explaining that “Off-Broadway in the 1950s was predominantly a Greenwich Village phenomenon, taking on the spirit of that neighborhood of laborers and artists,” and identifying the “underlying pulse” of the times as “a supreme cockiness, a firm belief that the world was imperfect, but that it could be put right, and that these guys knew how.”

Personal interviews capture the mood not only of the city, but of these young men struggling as young artists in beatnik New York. Meals were had at the Automat; Schmidt notes, “‘I take great pride in the fact that my refrigerator in New York has never had any food in it. It once had a bottle of champagne that was in there like fourteen years.’”

Self-taught and unable to read or write music, Schmidt admits, “‘I didn’t understand anything about music; all I knew was that a lot of these things [I was playing] weren’t in the key of C. But one day it dawned on me that there were patterns in all this music. Suddenly I saw the whole way the piano could function in different keys. I thought this was my own invention! I had discovered Western Music.’”

“‘People growing up today can’t imagine how different the world was before television,’” Schmidt is elsewhere quoted as saying. “‘We had movies, radio and some live performances, and I loved them all because they were all separate. TV smears them all together. It makes everything real. In those days you didn’t know quite what was real and what was fantasy.’”

In many ways, The Fantasticks is highly stylized. An early version is described thusly: “A boy, a girl, a cardboard moon, a ladder—little more. On a bare wooden stage, eight actors cast a parable ‘about the funny pain of growing up.’” While the final version ditched the ladder, the show still plays with minimal props on a barebones stage. Leftover China silk from a different production was dyed and shredded and used as backdrops, and the lighting was economical. Designer Ed Wittstein notes,“ ‘I think an awful lot of theater is overlit. I’ve always loved to see shows from backstage—it’s so beautiful. You get these edges of lights, backlights, and sometimes a face is in shadow. But I believe that you don’t have to see everything all the time.’” Confetti and colored paper squares “mark festive moments;” the wordless role of the Mute, who stands holding a dowel to suggest the wall, “suggests rain by standing on the piano and sprinkling blue and green confetti over the lovers; using white confetti to suggest snow.” The production design’s few heightened touches emphasize the honesty of the feelings.

Jones, “‘big on equinoxes,’ filled the show with images of the seasons; of plants and flowers; of the cycles of the sun, moon, and planets.” (One of the set pieces is a round painted disk that flips from an image of the moon in Act I, when the children are falling in love, to the sun in Act II, when they realize they’ve been burned.) “ ‘The intention of the writing,’” Jones explains, “‘is to celebrate romanticism and to mock it at the same time…It’s a fine line to walk, to be touching one moment, and then to make fun of the thing that was just touching. It’s always turning on itself, and then back and forth again, and that’s true of each of the characters and the whole piece.’”

Certainly one reason the show ran so long was because the theater was so tiny. The authors assert that “[t]he theater’s dimensions have always been part of its appeal. At the Sullivan Street Playhouse, if you sit in the eighth row, you’re also sitting in the back row. There were one-hundred and forty-nine seats.” Schmidt suspects that audiences “‘had a sense of discovery about coming down the steps into this little space. Critics loved to describe in reviews how they walked into this dank basement and found a show.’”

Raising money to put on that show wasn’t easy. “Eventually it took twenty-seven auditions to get the fifty-seven backers, one by one, needed to raise the mere $16,500. Of the fifty-seven, forty-nine bought one percent or less…As of 1990, the show had repaid more than $45,000 for every $330 invested—more than a 13,500 percent return.”

The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks celebrates male friendship, and sometimes looks at the world through the lens of that privileged gaze. Rita Gardner, playing the role of Luisa, is described as “buxom for a girl of her petite frame” and with “a hip, feline way of moving.” The sole woman in the cast, she remembers showing up to her audition “dressed like a beatnik: black stockings and some crazy shoes,…a black sweater, and big earrings” and with her hair wet from the snow, and seeing “these crazy people running around.” Despite the obvious sexism of the era, her memories of the show are some of the fondest the book records.

While I was away at college, the producer from The Fantasticks called my family home. He had received my headshot and resume; when could I audition? “He’s away at school,” my mother said, and didn’t even take down a number for me to call back. She didn’t even tell me about the call until much later, maybe even after I’d dropped out of music school after one year. My mother was being practical. Giving up my dream, I guess I was, too—but I will always wonder what would have happened if I’d gone to that audition. The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks is a book about people who didn’t give up, best appreciated by those, like me, who did.

Donald C. Farber and Robert Viagas, The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks: America’s Longest-Running Play, A Citadel Press Book, 1991, 240 pp.