Back in 1960, the musical The Fantasticks opened off-Broadway. Written by the team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, it ran for an astounding 42 years and 17,162 performances, finally closing in 2002. (That closing has always been a bit of a question mark -- because only four years later, in 2006, the same producers re-opened the show and it has been playing since.)
Starring in that original production is the role of El Gallo, the sort of narrator who participates in the story as a charmingly mysterious thief and roué -- and sings its iconic song, "Try t o Remember" -- was a young actor, Jerry Orbach. He later, of course, went on to one of the most legendary Broadway careers, starring in Carnival, Promises, Promises, 42nd Street and more -- and then appeared in Woody Allen movies, did the voice of Lumiere in the animated film, Beauty and the Beast, and of course starred for ages in the series, Law & Order.
(A writer friend of mine, John Boni, had also played El Gallo in this off-Broadway production, during his acting days. He later went on to write for such shows as The Electric Company, was head writer on Fernwood 2-Nite --the Norman Lear-produced fake talk show -- and co-created with Mel Brooks the Robin Hood series, When Things Were Rotten.)
For many years, although The Fanstasticks was still running off-Broadway very successfully, but enough time had seemingly passed, Hollywood tried to make a feature film of the show, but kept coming up with hurdles, since the musical is so barebones and theatrical in its staging. (The original off-Broadway set cost...$900! This is in 1960 dollars, of course, though even taking inflation into consideration, that would only be about $8,000 today. That would likely only cover doughnuts and coffee for a week now...) A movie was finally made in 1995, but wasn't considered satisfying enough, and sat on the shelf for five years. Eventually, a proper format was come up with, the movie was re-edited, and released in 2000. It didn't have much acclaim, and had less success, though I thought the film was well-done, even if it was larger in scope than the small, focused story demanded.
But lost in all the attention on the movie was a bit of history
Very early into its 42-year run -- just four years in, back in 1964 -- The Fantasticks had done something unprecedented. It was staged on television, for the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
Other shows have subsequently done this, but it's usually come at the end of their run, generally even on the last night, not four years in during the height of its success. Rather than stopping audiences from coming to see the show live, however, which is always the concern, it was a huge boost, bringing national attention, and ran for another 38 years. Now, of course, the show might have kept running a long time, perhaps even as long, even without the TV production, but the larger point is that it certainly didn't hurt. In fairness, the Sullivan Street Playhouse where it ran was tiny, so it didn't need much of a crowd to sell out -- and importantly, the TV production was just a cut-down hour-long version, so anyone who still wanted to see the show had to go to the theater. But the TV production was none-the-less a big deal.
And here it is.
It's an absolutely wonderful cast. No Jerry Orbach, alas -- he wasn't a big star then -- but in the role of El Gallo is Ricardo Montalban. He acquits himself very well -- he doesn't have a strong singing voice, but handles that fine. (Montalban actually had previously appeared in a Broadway musical, Jamaica, that had a score by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, who wrote The Wizard of Oz, that had a successful run of 558 performances.) As for the acting, though, not surprisingly he does an absolutely terrific job. The only quibble is that he's bit too old for the role. He's 44 here, and when Jerry Orbach created the part, he was 25. It works, just isn't ideal.
And the other starring roles are even more of a treat.
The two fathers were joyously played by Bert Lahr (another offbeat connection to The Wizard of Oz) and Stanley Holloway (just a few years past his legendary performance as Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady.) Their two duet numbers in the production, for "Never Say No" and "Plant a Radish" are absolute highlights.
For the two ingenue roles, the young girl is played by Susan Watson (who a few years earlier had starred as the original Kim in the Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie), and John Davidson, in the early stages of his career as a successful pop star.
Needless to say, the quality here is quite dated, but to some degree that adds to the charm and innocence of the show's intentional simplicity. It's highly worth watching the whole thing, but at the very least, if you don't want to put in the time, stick around for Montalban to sing a shortened version at the start of "Try to Remember" (it's repeated at the end) and then jump to the 17:30 mark to see Lahr and Holloway perform "Never Say No."
But hopefully you'll stick around for the whole thing. It's a tremendous bit of history. And in its own way -- yes -- fantastic..