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Simply Fantastick

The world's most beloved musical celebrates its 40th birthday. logo
The current cast of The Fantasticks
On May 3, The Fantasticks presented its 16,562nd performance at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, completing its 40th year Off-Broadway. In addition, the musical has:

* distributed over $3 million to 44 original backers on their total investment of $16,500;

* had a box office gross, on Sullivan Street, of $22,056,177;
* chalked up worldwide profit of $6,423,407;

* been presented in 11,103 productions in the U.S. in more than 2,000 cities and towns;

* had 776 high school and college productions in California and 737 high school and college productions in New York.

(See the streaming video from the 40th anniversary performance by clicking here).

With book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, The Fantasticks is, in fact, not only the longest running show in any category in American theater history, but the world's longest running musical. It has had many more lives than Cats, set to close this summer at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater after a mere 17 years.

Since its first performance on May 3, 1960, The Fantasticks has survived some less-than-enthusiastic critical notices, an actors' strike, newspaper and subway strikes, two electrical blackouts, blizzards, a building collapse that blocked the street, one Presidential assassination, another Presidential resignation--and some weekday performances when the eight-member cast nearly outnumbered those in the audience. So what has made this simple love story between a teenage boy and girl such a musical phenomenon?

"The Fantasticks was one of the early Off-Broadway musicals that had such a 'right feeling' to it," says Aaron Frankel, a retired theater arts professor at Columbia University and author of the book Writing the Broadway Musical. "The Fantasticks is about a fairy tale coming true, which is part of its charm. But it's also enormously skillful and very heartfelt on the part of the writers. And the music is outstanding!"

In addition to its charm and music, the show's so-called "run-of-the-play contract" at its home in a former horse stable at 181 Sullivan Street--coupled with widespread sales of music rights and revenue from professional and amateur productions around the world--has helped keep it running Off-Broadway all these years. (A run-of-the-play contract permits producers to keep a show at its original theater as long as the theater isn't razed. And often, as with The Fantasticks, rent increases aren't as steep in an original playhouse as they would be if the show moved to a new venue.)
Fathers definitely know best
in The Fantasticks
The lion's share of the credit for the longevity of the show belongs to iron-willed lead producer Lore Noto, who sunk his life savings into the musical and kept it going when colleagues urged him to close it after just one performance. "Sometimes it's not a lot of fun to keep the show running," admits Noto, who first saw a performance of The Fantasticks at New York's Barnard College in 1959 and asked its creators to expand it for Off-Broadway. In 1986, and again in 1994, the show was on the verge of closing.

"I just got a call from Actors' Equity saying someone had called them complaining there was no hot water in the theater," Noto says. "What do they want me to do? Take the subway from Brooklyn and fix the pipe myself? The reality of the show is that I just got the [financial] statement for January, February, and March, and we're showing a profit of only $400. That's typical."

All in all, however, Noto says that the effort has been worth it: "The appreciation of the work by audiences is very satisfying. And it's fascinating that a show turning 40 still maintains a very high professional level. I'm grateful for all the people who've kept the show running, like our stage manager Jim Cook, who has been with it almost since the beginning."

When The Fantasticks opened on May 3, 1960, composer Schmidt recalls, "The reviews were generally good but not raves or what are considered 'money reviews.' I just wanted the show to run a second night because, at the opening night party, some top professional people from the Broadway arena were advising Lore to close it. They said, 'If you close the show tonight, you can save money for the rest of the week. You won't have to pay the actors.' But I had friends who I wanted to see it, so I said, 'I wish we could run a second night.' And Lore said, 'I'm certainly going to run it through the weekend.' I said to myself, 'Well, now I can breathe easy.' I never thought past the weekend.

"We ran a week," Schmidt continues. "Then, lo and behold, we ran a month, and it slowly started creeping up. That was largely due to Lore having put aside his life savings. I didn't know it at the time, but that's the money that carried us through the first weeks. We thought Lore was an eccentric millionaire. He had come out of nowhere with his lawyer, and he was very dapperly dressed in a white linen suit and straw hat. We just thought he had a lot of money, but it turned out he had money that he had very carefully saved."

Actress Rita Gardner, the first performer to play the role of "The Girl," recently came home to the Sullivan Street Playhouse in a one-woman revue called Try to Remember: A Look Back at Off-Broadway, which has been playing there on Saturdays at 10pm. Despite the lackluster reception The Fantasticks received from some critics in 1960, Gardner recalls, "The cast [including Jerry Orbach as El Gallo] all adored the show and wanted to stay with it. I was in it for nine months. Then I went to do a musical out of town, and then I got a Broadway show. It was the beginning of everything."

Big-name performers who have appeared in productions of The Fantasticks include Richard Chamberlain, Ricardo Montalban, Liza Minnelli, Glenn Close, John Davidson, Eileen Fulton, Elliot Gould, Susan Watson, and Robert Goulet, to name but a few.

And the show goes on at 181 Sullivan Street. "We sell tickets 10 weeks at a time, but we have a 10-year plan," says Tony Noto, the show's marketing director and Lore Noto's son. The younger Noto has penned the first authorized book about The Fantasticks, a coffee table book with lots of pictures, which will be published this spring. "Everyone associated with the show is getting older," he says. "But we're planning to make it to our 50th anniversary!"

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