"Welcome to the 17,162nd performance of The Fantasticks," said house manager John LaRocca at the top of the legendary musical's last exhibition at the Sullivan Street Playhouse on January 13, 2002. Then he went on to tell the audience to shut off their pagers, beepers, and cellphones, but he didn't say anything about tear ducts, which overflowed throughout the 153-seat house during the evening. There was a whole lot of eye-dabbing going on. Prolonged applause greeted each of the 13 songs--as if the audience hated to let them go--and even the two comically overacted death scenes were enthusiatically cheered. When the music finally stopped, memories began to be shared. Here are a few...
DRINKING IN THE SHOW
The Fantasticks opened on May 3, 1960, to mostly mixed-to-negative reviews and one conspicuous "unqualified rave." The latter was written by a critic (widely known but never publicly identified) who arrived late and in an advanced state of inebriation, accompanied by a loud and boisterous woman. This fellow created such a disturbance that he was ejected before intermission, trailed by the friend, who was yelling: "Don't you know who he is? Don't you know who he is?!"
"Who he is" is the infamous reviewer whose less-than-sober opinion has stood the test of time. Producer Lore Noto personally 86-ed the guy, Noto said on Sunday night--41 and a half years later, after finally closing the longest running musical in the world. "I dragged him out of the house myself," Noto recalled. "The press agent, Harvey Sabinson, said, 'That guy is a reviewer, a critic!' I said, 'I don't care who he is. Out!'" (Sabinson was one of the "cooler heads" who advised Noto to close the show on opening night; but Noto said no, and the show began a run that can only be described as Cats-Plus. The producer did everything possible to keep the show running, up to and including playing The Boy's father during particularly lean times.)
At the end of the evening, while the exit music played, Noto stepped to the stage and delivered the show's coup de grace. While documentary cameras turned, he slowly lowered one side of the trademark Fantasticks banner that stretched across two poles on the tiny stage of the theater. "It's not quite the New Year's ball coming down in Times Square," he grudgingly allowed. "We're setting the bar at 17,162, and God bless and good luck to anybody who wants to jump over that."
Peter Vallone, president of the New York City Council, then took the stage and said: "It might be 17,162 performances, Lore. But--no matter what--it will be in our hearts, it will be in our minds, it will be in our souls forever. As long as love exists, we'll remember."
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THOMAS BRUCE?
Thomas Bruce, who originated the role of The Old Actor in the show, retired from acting ten months into the run and resumed his real-life role: that of Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics for the show and went on to create many more with composer Harvey Schmidt. On closing night, Jones was asked if he was having a good time. The lyricist-librettist, a man of considerable eloquence, said: "No." He had a few more words to add, hoarsely, when he and Schmidt came to the stage. "I have laryngitis--therefore, I have prepared a long speech," he kidded. "In Greece, during Holy Week, on Good Friday, they have a ceremony where all the churches and all the cathedrals in Athens take coffins and, at exactly midnight on that Friday night, they open the coffins and there's no dead bodies. And all the people go rushing out and they yell out to the hills in the street, 'Christos ectasis!'--signifying that what they're celebrating is life, not death. Then the music begins and they open up the wine and start dancing. And, until Easter Sunday, everybody gets drunk.
"This is also a celebration not of death but of life," Jones continued. "The Fantasticks has been given life--by Harvey and me first of all, then [by director] Word Baker, then Lore Noto and the backers, then the original cast, then all the many casts and musicians and the stage managers and all the people who have worked on the show....It's alive in the memories of hundreds of thousands of people but, more than that, it's alive: Tomorrow night, it will be presented some place, and the day after that....And so we open this coffin, and there's no dead body here. I think it's time to strike up the bouzouki music, open the ouzo, and start singing and dancing and celebrate, because Fantasticks ectasis!"
Composer Schmidt began his curtain-call speech on a self-deprecating note: "I was 29 years old when Lore came up to see our show at Barnard and decided to put it here Off-Broadway, and look at me now. I'm 72 now." This prompted Jones to throw a consoling quip from the side: "But you have a good hair style."
Schmidt pressed on, unperturbed. "The whole time I lived in New York--I just moved back to Texas recently--this show [was] a part of my life. I can't imagine it not going on. If I were [still living] here, I'd probably feel very strange; since I'm going to be in Texas, it won't be quite as shocking.
"One can't help but think about the many, many people who've been a part of the show...I'm starting with Lore Noto's incredible determination to get it on. [That determination] has carried us through so many crises. But all the other people--there are just too many to mention--I hope you know that I appreciate every one of you and love every one of you. And I will remember, till the day I die, all the contributions that you have made."
A FINAL CHORD, A SOLITARY STAR, AND A MORTAR MEMORY
Jeremie Michael, the youngest musical director in the history of The Fantasticks (he's 22 and looks 12), played the piano part of the show's two-piece instrumentation (Hank Whitmire handled the harp). At intermission, Michael admitted: "I love the applause--it just keeps going. At the end of every song, I'm thinking, 'Oh, my God, how long is it going to be [before] I play this again?' And I'll never play it again here."
In the audience on closing night was Rita Gardner, who originated the role of The Girl (Luisa). Jerry Orbach, the first El Gallo, was filming his Law and Order series and Kenneth Nelson, who created the role of The Boy, died of AIDS on October 7, 1993, at age 63. Gardner, whose then-husband Herb Gardner was so inspired by The Fantasticks that he went home and wrote A Thousand Clowns, still acts; in fact, she started rehearsals on Tuesday for an Off-Broadway production of a play titled The Parker Family Circus. This summer, the York Theater Company will present her one-woman show Try to Remember: A Look Back at Off-Broadway, which flashes back not only over her life but also over a rich theatrical era that has passed. Last summer, Gardner played Miss Havisham in the musical version of Great Expectations that debuted at the Goodspeed Opera House.
"It's surreal," Gardner said of the evening. "I kept thinking of everybody that I worked with as I'm watching the show...of Kenneth and Jerry and the two fathers. It sorta all came back to me. Tonight, I keep hearing all those people. I'm not crying, I'm just remembering: 'Oh, I remember when I went over there.' Some of the blocking has changed, but a lot of it is the same."
Bill Sevra, an actor married to Gardner, once toured Vietnam as El Gallo: "We toured all over," he said. "In the most cynical of atmospheres, this romantic little show--they loved it. One night, during 'Soon It's Gonna Rain,' mortars started coming in. Nobody told us where the bunkers were. We didn't know what to do, so we just kept going, and the whole audience disappeared. Little by little, the mortars let up. The audience came back and they gave us a standing ovation at the end."
AN ERA AT AN END
Judith Blazer, who played The Girl in '80-'81, arrived for the second act of The Fantasticks's last performance fresh from the closing of Neil Simon's 45 Seconds From Broadway, in which she had been featured. "My eyes are tired from crying," she said. Nostalgia king Joe Franklin was also present, of course. "I was here on opening night, too," he volunteered. "I said, 'Doesn't stand a chance.'" (Joe still has his Dewey button.)
Ben Sprecher, theater owner (the Promenade, the Lortel, the Variety Arts) and producer (Fortune's Fool, The Unexpected Man), said he felt that more than just one show was closing. "Off-Broadway, as we knew it when you could do something like this, is over," he said wistfully. "Mark this day--what day is it? January 13, 2002, the end of Off-Broadway. It became something different."