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FAREWELL TO 'THE FANTASTICKS' : For a Cutesy Musical, It Piled Up Some Impressive Stats

May 25, 1986|DAVID FOX

Try to remember

The kind of September

When life was slow

And oh so mellow

Since 1960, those lyrics from the opening song of "The Fantasticks" were meant to beckon us back to days of lost innocence. It worked for a lot of people. . . .

Not for me. I never much cared for the musical. To me, it was merely a cutesy boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-get-together-again kind of show. A minor work.

So when I read the other day that "The Fantasticks" is finally going to close, I felt smug . . . pleased, finally, to be "vindicated." In a small way, it was similar to my feeling when an inconsequential show by the name of "Grease" was surpassed by the well-written "A Chorus Line" as the longest-running musical on Broadway. Sanity prevailed again.

It hasn't been easy. How does a die-hard musical theater fan live down the fact that what he considered a minor work has been playing continuously for 26 years? A lot of people didn't share my lack of enthusiasm (or my taste). I'd remind myself that for all those years the musical was performed in the tiny 153-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. When you get down to it, not that many people really saw the show.

Wrong. I was shocked to learn from the closing announcement that as of January, "The Fantasticks" had been performed in 8,913 different productions across these United States. Incredible.

Well, they were probably also little-theater productions. And what's so fantastic about 26 years anyway?

For as long as I've been interested in musical theater, I've regarded "The Fantasticks" as a nuisance--not good enough to include among the musicals I love. Back in the '60s, if someone gave me a chance to see "Funny Girl," "Cabaret" or even the small-scale "Dames at Sea," I'd jump.

But "The Fantasticks"? You may as well have dragged me to see one more high school production of "Brigadoon"--in fact I'd rather have seen "Brigadoon." (For the record, I squirmed through two professional productions of "The Fantasticks" at San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square. The second time wasn't planned by me--it was my birthday and some friends said they were taking me to see a--surprise!)

A colleague reminded me that "The Fantasticks" has given us lovely songs like "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain." True, but I countered that it also gave us songs like "Plant a Radish" and "Never Say No," which has that memorable lyric, "Why do the kids put beans in their ears?"

It doesn't matter, I added. For soon it's gonna close.

Vindication day arrives June 8--more than 10,800 performances after the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical opened. June 8 is also exactly one week after this year's Tony Awards are handed out; I may be stretching things a bit, but it seems to me that there's some symbolic connection.

This year's nominees for best musical are, as several critics have already suggested, yet again among the weakest ever--"Tango Argentino," "Song and Dance," "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and "Big Deal"--and each year the selection seems to diminish.

There's a trend here--to understate: Musicals aren't what they used to be. Maybe it's nostalgia, but even the weak shows of the past seem good by comparison with many of today's. Yes, even "The Fantasticks."

The high price of tickets and huge production costs probably are the chief villains for the declining state of this art--not necessarily the lack of writers. As rare as it is these days to hear about the producers of a new major musical raising enough capital to go into production, it's even rarer to hear about one that turns a profit.

That wasn't the case in the early years of "The Fantasticks." Many musicals were profitable; many, of course, were not. But at least there were many.

Yet none ran the distance like "The Fantasticks." According to one report, it's paid back its original 1960 investment of $16,500, by 8,242%! (I may not have liked the show, but I sure wish I could have invested.)

Funny what thoughts the posting of a closing notice can prompt. I felt genuine sorrow when worthwhile shows like "Company" and "See-Saw" bit the dust, when long-running "Dolly" walked down the Harmonia Garden stairs for the last time at the St. James Theatre, when the truly great Broadway tunesmiths have died.

So, much as I dismiss "The Fantasticks," lately I've come to appreciate how its longevity has provided a subtle link to the past--soon to be severed. It's the only musical that opened in the midst of the musical theater's long since faded "golden era" that is still running. In the ever-changing art of theater, there, in the tiny Sullivan St. Playhouse, was comfortable continuity.

When it closes soon, I will try to remember.

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