David Mamet was once a stage manager. Liza Minnelli, F. Murray Abraham, Robert Goulet, Gregory Harrison, Jerry Orbach, Richard Chamberlain, and Elliott Gould have all starred in it somewhere. A theatrical confection that spun gold out of the simplest elements — a boy, a girl, a few sticks, and a wooden moon — The Fantasticks premiered on May 3, 1960. It has become the longest-running musical in history.
”We don’t really know why it’s been so big,” admits composer Harvey Schmidt, 67, who cowrote (with lyricist Tom Jones — not that one) the plucky musical about two young lovers whose fathers try in vain to keep them apart. ”If we knew, we’d write one a week.” They don’t need to: The 37-year-old original production, still playing eight times a week at New York’s Sullivan Street Playhouse, has tallied 15,324 two-hour shows (at press time) and launched two moody standards: ”Try to Remember” and ”Soon It’s Gonna Rain.” More than 12,000 stagings of the show have been performed from Tokyo to Tehran.
”It’s full of charm — nothing but charm. A tough, tough piece to do, though,” remembers Goulet, who played the narrator El Gallo in the 30th-anniversary tour. ”Honestly, I worked my bananas off. You’re on stage all the time, and the music’s not simple.”
For months after its debut, The Fantasticks limped along without much fanfare. Friends of producer Lore Noto begged him to cut his losses and close the show, but having sunk his life savings into the production’s slender $16,500 budget, Noto decided to fight. ”With a small theater, we couldn’t afford to advertise,” says Noto, 73. So he enlisted the stage’s archenemy, TV, to fan word of mouth, presenting a pared-down version on NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1964. ”People said, ‘That’s going to close your show!”’ recalls Jones, 69. ”But we started selling out.” (Original backers have now reaped more than a 10,000 percent return on their investment.)
Of late, though, The Fantasticks has simmered down somewhat. In 1986, the show flirted with closing, and Michael Ritchie’s never-released 1995 movie version, starring Joel Grey, has stumped MGM/UA’s marketing department because of its unconventional premise. ”The Fantasticks has never been a normal property,” laments Schmidt. ”We had the same problem getting it up in 1960.”
Even though they’ve made The Guinness Book of Records, Schmidt and Jones remain active. Next year, they plan to extend their nine-show career with Grover’s Corners, a musical adaptation of Our Town. ”Still, we’ve never had a splashy hit like Rent,” says Jones. Maybe not — but their best-known musical has had one fantastic run.
May 3, 1960
Moviegoers raced to see Ben-Hur, while Gunsmoke was TV’s biggest draw. Music lovers were stuck on Elvis Presley’s ”Stuck on You,” and fiction readers took a trip to James Michener’s Hawaii.