For as long as I could remember, every year when I started a new calendar, the first thing I did was flip forward to May, circle the number "3," and write in The Fantasticks. My goal was always to attend the umpteenth anniversary performance and celebration that the show had given since 1961.
Umpteenth? Not precisely. The Schmidt and Jones classic was well out of its teens when it came to anniversaries. In fact, take your highest teen number, double it, you still didn't reach what the show achieved: it will have run 41 years, eight months, and ten days when it closes this Sunday following its 17,162nd performance. Want to put that in perspective? There are dozens of people who are grandparents today who weren't even born yet when the musical opened. M-G-M was a pretty solid record label when it recorded the show; it's now long defunct, but The Fantasticks' cast album has lived on and on, reissued first by Polydor and now available on Decca Broadway. Or to put it yet another way: In the early '80s, there was a TV miniseries called Amerika that took place in the distant future. It opened with people watching The Fantasticks.
"No show lasts forever," Michael Bennett was quoted as saying even as his masterpiece A Chorus Line broke the Broadway record mark. It was always nice to think that The Fantasticks was proving him wrong. Now it turns out that, once again, Michael Bennett was right.
I find it particularly wonderful that the show remained ensconced in the same place where it began. Had it moved to, say, the Variety Arts, it wouldn't have meant as much. There was something about seeing The Fantasticks in its original home, the exact space where Jerry Orbach, Kenneth Nelson, and Rita Gardner opened it 41 years, eight months, and one week ago. Soon, that building will not exist as we knew it. No more cute little box-office where patrons must wait outside. No more men's room without one of those universal symbols of a man or even the word "Men"--rather, its door echoed a kinder, gentler era with a sign that said "Gentlemen." No more seeing the show from third-row center, which meant that you were sitting in the extreme back of the house. No more having to walk across the stage if your seat was on the right, because that was the only way to reach it. Will they at least keep the cute little sign on the Sullivan Street signpost that identifies the concourse as "Fantasticks Lane"?
Of course, we'll still have chances to see dozens of productions of The Fantasticks here, there, and everywhere, now and forever. But what we won't have ever again is the delightful room upstairs at the Sullivan Street venue that provided the most entertaining intermission in town. If you climbed the stairs, you entered a mini-museum. You saw posters of the first college production of the show, not to mention window cards celebrating years 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 20 of the Off-Broadway run. (Some of them even listed the box office phone number as OR-4-3838.) There was the full-page Times ad for the 10th anniversary that replicated the first page of the "Try to Remember" sheet music. There was the 1961 Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award for Best Musical. There was a citation from the Guinness Book of World Records, given to producer Lore Noto for also having acted in 6,348 performances of the show. There was a magazine article about the NBC-TV version of the show that was broadcast on October 18, 1964, with John Davidson as The Boy, Susan Watson as The Girl, Ricardo Montalban as El Gallo, Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway as the fathers. And, on the sentimental side, there was a flyer advertising "Les Romanesques as presented by Madame Sarah Bernhardt and her Powerful Company," citing the play that was the musical's source material.
Alas, those who attend The Fantasticks prior to its closing this weekend won't see this gallery. "We've already removed it," director of marketing Tony Noto (son of the producer) told me on Tuesday. "We were afraid people might take something as a souvenir, so we had it removed. It's all on its way to Harvey Schmidt's house in Texas."
Tony was six years old when Jones and Schmidt used to come over his daddy's house to play the score. "I knew 'Try to Remember' before the world discovered it," he said. "The first time I saw the show, I was a little surprised to hear 'They Were You' because I'd never heard that at the house. That one went in late." The closing leaves Noto unemployed for the first time since he turned 17 in 1971. He will be working "at least on a part-time basis" for he's developing a Museum of Comedy in New York, attempting to make a theater space at Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street, and putting the finishing touches on a political comedy which he's titled Bald Eagles. But he started with The Fantasticks as a janitor, moved into the box office, then did press, then marketing--so life without the show seems unimaginable. What I find endearing is that he often attended out-of-town productions of the show, just to see how it played in various venues. Now, he'll have to do just that to get his Fantasticks fix.
It makes me sad that I will no longer need to save the date of May 3 for my annual trek down to Sullivan Street. I'll miss the cute little anniversary party that the show threw each year, consisting merely of a modest set of card tables with opened-up napkins as tablecloths on which bowls of potato chips and pretzels were placed. Nothin' elegant or swellegant; but, every May 3, there was no place else on earth that I would rather have been.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]