The Fantasticks | Director's Note
One midnight in April of 1960, the first preview of a new Off-Broadway musical played in a dingy basement theater in New York City’s Greenwich Village. No one in the audience of friends and theater insiders, who found themselves beguiled that night by the show’s balance of worldly wit and naive grace, could have known that they were witnessing the birth of the world’s longest running musical. Not even the creative team or cast and crew might have guessed their quirky little parable about love and growing up would continue to charm audiences in that theater below Sullivan Street, and around the world, for the next forty-two years (with a record-shattering 17,162 performances in New York alone).
What the creators of The Fantasticks did know, and what they communicated so generously to that first and each subsequent audience, was the power of theater in its purest form to help lift the weight of the world off peoples’ shoulders. At a time when mega-wattage performers like Ethel Merman in Gypsy and Carol Burnett in Once Upon A Mattress commanded some Broadway theaters, while others were occupied by conventional hits like The Music Man and My Fair Lady, three college friends from Texas shared a vision of theater that was tender-hearted yet bursting with theatrical inventiveness. Their friendship emboldened them to break the rules of musicals and do what they liked.
Basing their musical on Les Romanesques, a little known satirical homage to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by the author of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, Tom Jones (lyricist and librettist) and Harvey Schmidt (composer) distilled Rostand’s story down to its essence — a boy, a girl, two fathers, and a wall — fleshing out their dialogue and songs with images of the seasons; of plants and flowers; of the cycles of the sun, moon and planets; of natural things and their inherent, or imagined, meaning. With their original director, Word Baker, they used avant-garde (for the time) rehearsal techniques that opened the windows of the imagination through experimentation and improvisation. The creation of The Fantasticks became a celebration of theater artists’ pure pleasure at finally being allowed to do and be all they had ever dreamed of doing and being.
While it may not be surprising The Fantasticks, after a few shaky months, found an ardent following in the midst of the Beat-era, Actors Studio-infused Off-Broadway scene, the fact that the musical eventually attracted a mainstream audience and continued to do so for decades provokes some wonder. The simplicity of the story and its whimsical presentation goes right to something very central and innocent in all of us: beneath The Fantasticks' over-the-top romanticism — at once self-mocking and completely earnest — theatergoers can recognize the undeniably true rhythms of real people living real life with all its joys and sorrows.
As Linda Ellerbee wrote for the 29th Anniversary of The Fantasticks:
“Will Durant said civilization is a stream with banks. He said the stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, rear children, sing songs, write poetry and whittle statues. He said historians (and journalists) are pessimists because they ignore the banks of the river. But the story of civilization, he said, is the story of what happened on the banks. Sixteen years ago, I saw The Fantasticks for the first time. This week, I will see it for the sixteenth time. Why? Because at least once a year I need to be reminded about the importance of what goes on on the banks, and how to get back to them. Deep in December, it’s nice to remember. The rest of the time, it’s necessary.”