The Fantasticks is a 1960 musical comedy with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones. It is loosely based on the story "The Romancers" ("Les Romanesques") by Edmond Rostand . The play's first iteration in 1956 was as "Joy Comes to Deadhorse" at the University of New Mexico; after substantial rewriting it appeared on a bill of new one-act plays at Barnard College in August, 1959.
It premiered in the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a small New York City off-Broadway theater, on May 3, 1960, with Jerry Orbach in the role of the narrator. The spare set and semicircular stage made the show very intimate and immediate for theatregoers. The play is highly stylized, and combines aspects of old-fashioned '40s Broadway styles with a more modernist, "fantastical" style. Accompaniment is by a piano and harp, and a mime character represents various set pieces and silent characters, such as the wall between the two houses.
The show closed on January 13, 2002 after 17,162 performances. It is the world's longest-running musical, and the longest-running show of any kind in the United States. An unsuccessful film of the musical was released in 2000.
An off-Broadway revival of The Fantasticks will open in New York City in August 2006.
The musical takes place in a small town. A boy (Matt Hucklebee) and a girl (Luisa Bellomy) who live next door to each other fall in love, but their fairy-tale romance must be kept secret from their feuding fathers (known simply as "Hucklebee" and "Bellomy"). Later, it is revealed that the "feud" was manufactured by their fathers, as a way to bring their two children together by making them believe that their love was "forbidden fruit" ("They did it 'cause we said 'no'!").
Seeking to end the charade, the fathers hire the services of a rogue (El Gallo, who is also the play's narrator) and a roving actor and his sidekicks (the "Old Actor" and "Mortimer") to stage a phony "abduction" (or "literary rape") of Luisa so that Matt can "rescue" her and win the approval of Luisa's father. The plan succeeds, and the two families are united.
Act II follows the young lovers into temptation and through the loss of innocence, which is a necessary condition for real love.
With their love no longer forbidden, Matt and Luisa begin to grow restless, and the fathers begin quarreling for real. Matt leaves angrily, to find out what lies "Beyond that Road", while Luisa allows herself to be seduced by the mature and dashing rogue, El Gallo. After various Huckleberry Finn-like adventures with the rogue, the "Old Actor" and Mortimer, both Matt and Luisa, having been burned by their respective experiences, rediscover their love for each other and try to develop a more mature relationship.
In addition to being the longest running theatrical show in U.S. history, The Fantasticks has become a staple of regional, community, and high school productions virtually since its premiere, despite a deceptively simple plot line and several politically incorrect themes. It is one of the few musicals to have been made available to smaller theaters before its original production closed. Its popularity in these spaces may be due to its budget-friendly minimalist set design, as well as public familiarity with its signature song, "Try to Remember", a theme in waltz time.
A big-screen version of The Fantasticks failed to generate significant interest despite boasting an impressive roster of film talent that included Joel Grey, Joe McIntyre, Jean Louisa Kelly, and director Michael Ritchie. A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times in September 2000, "Unfortunately, what looks like magic on stage can seem manic by the light of the screen. Live theater can tolerate outsize gestures, rickety sets and willful illusionism more easily than film, which is a stubbornly literal-minded medium.... The musical numbers are bizarrely edited.... The haphazard cutting wrecks the moment with self-consciousness. "The Fantasticks" is, at bottom, a tribute to the transformative power of theater, and the theater is where it should have been allowed to remain...."
F. Murray Abraham, David Canary, Bert Lahr, Ricardo Montalban, Elliot Gould and Liza Minnelli have also been associated with productions of The Fantasticks.
On August 17, 2006, a revival of The Fantasticks will open at the off-Broadway Snapple Theater Center in New York City. The revival will be directed by Tom Jones, who wrote the show's lyrics, and produced by Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel and Thomas Viertel.
Despite its success, The Fantasticks has become somewhat controversial due to its use of the word "rape". When El Gallo offers to stage the phony kidnapping of Luisa, he describes the kidnapping as a "rape". His song, "It Depends On What You Pay" describes different kidnapping scenarios that are referred to as "rape". El Gallo explains the word's etymology, which supports his interpretation of "rape" as a "literary" abduction, like "The Rape of the Lock" and not forcible sexual intercourse. However, as sexual assault became a major issue during the running of the play, the word has come to bear too strong a connection to forcible rape. So, while El Gallo's usage is correct, today it is puzzling and can be offensive to some audiences.
To deal with changing audience perceptions, the book was edited to reduce the number of usages of the word rape and to replace them with other words, usually "abduction". In addition, the authors wrote a replacement piece called "Abduction", but this piece did not replace "It Depends on What You Pay" at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. It is generally agreed that this song is not as clever as the original, nor is it musically as compelling as it seems only to be new lyrics put atop the music of the abduction scene. It does allow producers of the musical a way to avoid the controversy recently raised by the original song, but with the edits made in the book, audiences at the Sullivan Street Playhouse did not seem to have much difficulty in accepting the word. In order to conserve the quality of the original song "It Depends on What You Pay", some directors choose to simply substitute the word "raid" for "rape", evoking the "Indian raid" which El Gallo stages.