Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow…
The Fantasticks: the longest-running musical in theatre history. When Tom Jones (playwright)1 and Harvey Schmidt (composer)2 first mounted this whimsical, bare-bones entertainment at Greenwich Village's Sullivan Street Playhouse in 1960, they had reason to believe that they could make a go of a low-budget show. After all, Marc Blitzstein's version of the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera had run for six years off-Broadway. But they couldn't have imagined that it would run for 42 years and feature cast members on their way to fame.
Since the original Fantasticks production closed in 2002, there have been revivals both in the US and London's West End. The play has been televised, performed in regional, community, and school theatres, and translated: it's been seen in at least 67 countries. It was performed on a tour before military troops during the Vietnam War.
The allegorical tale of boy-meets-girl-under-contrived-adverse-circumstances, boy-and-girl-fall-out-when-the-romance-turns-out-to-be-a-fake, boy-gets-girl-back-when-they-both-wise-up has something, er, timeless about it. Maybe because it teaches us to laugh at our own pretentions. Or maybe just because the tunes are so good.
We decided to break all the rules. We didn't understand them, anyway.
– Tom Jones, The Fantasticks, 30th Anniversary Edition, 1990
The plot of The Fantasticks follows closely that of an 1894 play by French playwright Edmond Rostand called Les romanesques. Rostand was a real crowd-pleaser in his day. His Cyrano de Bergerac not only made a major swash-buckling hero out of the 17th-century science fiction writer, but was translated into English and made a part of the high-brow theatre repertoire. Rostand's plays were usually written in verse, and Les romanesques is no exception. Tom Jones reworked the tale, stripped it of its Frenchness, and created a sort of every-boy-and-girl allegory that fits any setting you care to use.
Act I opens with two gardens, separated by a wall. The wall is played by an actor. Yes, this is a touch out of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and a shout-out to the ancient legend of Pyramus and Thisbe. Anyway, some productions substitute actual fake masonry.
A mysterious bandit (or possibly travelling showman) called El Gallo (=The Rooster) sings an invitation to the audience:
Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow, and oh, so mellow…
El Gallo tells the audience a scene-setting story: there are a boy, a girl, two fathers, and a wall. The boy and girl have grown up, side by side. The fathers, who are secretly best friends, are pretending to be deadly enemies. In fact, they've erected this bogus wall between their two properties in order to fool the kids into thinking that they should never be friends with the neighbours, and certainly never, ever, under any circumstances fall in love…
El Gallo makes gentle fun of the young couple. The boy and girl, Matt and Luisa, are both suffering from an almost terminal case of High Romanticism. Luisa sings:
I'd like to swim in a clear blue stream, where the water is icy cold,
Then go to town in a velvet gown and have my fortune told…
Matt is similarly afflicted. This suits the fathers admirably: they both want to spend their old age together, and they'd love to join their two properties. They have very definite ideas about growing vegetables. The only obstacle to their happiness is that they're sure that, if they know about it, the kids won't play along. The fathers sing:
Dog's got to bite, a mule's got to bray,
Soldiers must fight and preachers must pray,
And children, I guess, must get their own way
The minute that you say no…
The fathers are inordinately pleased with themselves for making their kids think of themselves as Romeo and Juliet. Now for the pièce de résistance, as Rostand would say: they need to stage an abduction. One in which conceited Matt gets to play the hero and rescue the fair Luisa. That will be the icing on the cake.
El Gallo is summoned. They haggle about the price of this performance. El Gallo is a good salesman: they order the deluxe abduction.
It is night. (Somebody holds up a cardboard moon.) The spectacular 'abduction' takes place. Matt is duly heroic. The hired abductors duly pretend to be dead, including El Gallo. It's very hammy. In the end, all is well: lovers united, fathers beaming. Everyone freezes into a tableau.
El Gallo remarks that 'it won't be easy to hold such a pretty pose.' End of Act I.
Act II begins in the same place. It is, indeed, hard to hold the pose, so the tableau breaks up. It's daytime now – the 'moon' has been turned around to reveal the 'sun' – and everyone starts bickering. The fathers disagree about how often to water vegetables. The young couple have even more basic differences. Romanticism is wearing thin.
Then true tragedy strikes: the kids find El Gallo's bill for services rendered. They are shocked, appalled, sickened, and, well, embarrassed. If their fathers wanted them to fall in love, well, it isn't romantic, and so they'll just break up. Matt stalks off to seek his fortune. Luisa retreats to sulk and be romantic all by herself. The fathers start to rebuild the wall between their properties, but regret this. Soon, they're playing cards together.
El Gallo informs the audience that he needs to fix this. He romances Luisa, who naturally falls for his charm. She wants El Gallo to 'show her the world', which he does in a song and dance. By looking through a carnival mask, Luisa sees a variety of entertaining scenes from around the globe – but she also sees Matt out there, suffering setbacks and being hurt and humiliated. Finally, El Gallo tricks Luisa into giving him her most treasured possession: her mother's rhinestone necklace, which in her mind contains rare jewels. When Luisa returns to run away with El Gallo, the bandit has disappeared.
Luisa is bereft, but has learned a lesson. Matt returns: he, too, has learned from his ordeal. They sing:
When the moon was young, when the month was May,
When the stage was hung for my holiday,
There were shining lights, but I never knew
They were you…
With the lovers finally reunited, the fathers want to tear down the wall again. El Gallo admonishes them, 'You must always leave the wall.' Then he sings the audience out of the story with a reprise of 'Try to Remember'.
Deep in December, it's nice to remember
Without a hurt the heart is hollow…
Jerry Orbach (1935-2004) was the first El Gallo. A veteran of stage, film and television, Orbach was later named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. This was largely due to the fact of his ubiquity on the streets of New York City, as cast and crew roved from location to location while shooting episodes of the police drama Law and Order.
In 1964, the television series Hallmark Hall of Fame, which was sponsored by the mammoth greeting cards company, produced a one-hour version of The Fantasticks for NBC. If you would like to watch it, there is a video on Youtube, complete with greeting-card commercials. The most remarkable thing about this short version is that El Gallo is played by Ricardo Montalban.
In the original production, playwright Tom Jones played a part called The Actor. He was later replaced by F Murray Abraham. In 17,162 performances, there was considerable turnover. For a comprehensive list of former players, see the official website.
For Further Reading
If you're interested in the original play by Edmond Rostand, there is an English-language version available at this location on archive.org.
Just want the music? The original cast album is available for listening at this location on archive.org.