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I am sadly out of practice at writing raves. As any critic knows, it is far easier to pick out a production’s faults than its virtues, and I am hard pressed to explain The Fantasticks. With this in mind, I did something for the first time last week. Having seen the show for free on Tuesday, its opening night, I bought tickets and went back on Thursday. . .
The most elaborate and sophisticated art is employed to catch the audience in its simplicity. There is a breathtaking balance between worldly wit and commitment to naiveté. . . The Fantasticks is not the dregs of an uptown backers’ audition, nor an under-produced Broadway musical. What are usually limitations off Broadway become advantages. I just might go see it again.
– Michael Smith, The Village Voice
Author Tom Jones responds to this review in a foreword to the published script of The Fantasticks: "Yes, that’s it. That’s what we wanted: to celebrate romanticism and mock it at the same time. To touch people, and then to make them laugh at the very thing that touched them. To make people laugh, and then to turn the laugh around, find the other side of it. To put two emotions side by side, as close together as possible, like a chord in music." Yes, this was a musical born of one of the most fascinating periods in American history, the 1950s, when traditional domesticity was being challenged, when organized religion was being challenged, when the unquestioned authority of parents and other "experts" was being questioned, and when young Americans were becoming obsessed with individuality, with rebellion, with freedom, with art as a means to criticize social and political structures, and most disconcerting of all, with Modern Jazz. All this would find full bloom in the sixties, but the seeds were here in the 1950s with the Beat writers, when composer Harvey Schmidt and writer Tom Jones, two young, turtle-necked bohemians in 1950s Manhattan, were creating their masterpiece.
At the time, off Broadway was not yet a full decade old, but it was becoming an incubator for exciting, unusual musicals that would never work on Broadway. The Threepenny Opera had been the first really popular off Broadway musical, opening in 1954 for an unexpectedly long run of 2,611 performances. But it was The Fantasticks, this rhapsodic musical fable, this jazz symphony of human experience, that made world theatre history. An outgrowth of the Beat Generation – along with the quirky jazz musical The Nervous Set – the story of The Fantasticks began with Edmond Rostand’s 1894 French play Les Romanesques, a kind of bemused, cynical, reverse-Romeo and Juliet, in which two fathers and best friends (the "establishment") concoct a fake feud in order to get their rebellious kids to meet behind their backs, fall in love, and marry.
Significantly, Les Romanesques was based on a thirteenth-century musical fable, Aucassin and Nicolette, that was just as ground-breaking and quirky as its descendant The Fantasticks would eventually be. Aucassin was something entirely new when it was written, part poetry, part prose (just like The Fantasticks), part spoken, part sung (like The Fantasticks). Les Romanesques was a big hit at the Comédie Française in 1894 and was translated into English in 1900 by a woman writing under the name George Fleming. This cynical though clear-eyed view of love and marriage was right in sync with the mood of America’s youth in 1959, and even though their source material was sixty-five years old, the positioning of the classic star-crossed lovers story as a sham was right in tune with the Beats. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the other Beat writers had earned a reputation for not caring about anything, for being completely nihilistic, but that wasn’t really accurate – if that had been the case, why bother writing? – the truth was that that they didn't care about that which was shallow and less than authentic. They wanted to connect to the Greater Truths.
Which is exactly the mindset of The Fantasticks.
From 1954 to 1956, writer Tom Jones (not the pop singer) had worked on a musical version of Les Romanesques, not with his regular partner Harvey Schmidt (still in the army for the Korean War), but with composer J. Donald Robb, creating a kind of Rodgers and Hammerstein rip-off called Joy Comes to Dead Horse. ("That’s what musicals were at that point," Jones later said.) They reset the story with two Texan families and a Mexican co-conspirator named El Gallo (pronounced GUY-o). An uneasy mix of Our Town, Finian’s Rainbow, Zorro, and various Shakespearean comedies, it was produced at the University of New Mexico in 1956, but the collaborators decided it was an unsalvageable mess and they parted company. With composer Schmidt now back home, Jones asked him to work on the project, and they hunkered down, still intending it to be a major, large-scale, Rodgers and Hammerstein-style Broadway musical. It still didn’t work.
In June 1959, actress Mildred Dunnock offered director Word Baker the opportunity to present an evening of three one-act plays at the Minor Latham Theatre, way uptown in Manhattan, with a combined budget of one hundred dollars. Baker called Schmidt and Jones and told them if they’d condense Joy Comes to Dead Horse into a one-act, he’d include it in his show. They’d have to do the show very minimalistically and they’d have to have the new version done in four weeks. The budget dictated the physical style, and it forced the authors to focus on the essence of the story, minus all the trappings of a "usual" Broadway musical, in the process "celebrating the restrictions of the theatre rather than trying to disguise it in any way," as Jones later put it. They discarded all the Rodgers and Hammerstein baggage and the show’s Texas setting, and allowed into the piece their joint sense of Beat poetry and intellectual whimsy, which had been struggling to get into the show all along. Like the Beats, they now rejected mindless conformity (the ubiquitous Rodgers and Hammerstein model), they rejected convention for convention’s sake (like the "fourth wall" and realistic sets), and they broke through to something more pure, more primal, more truthful.
The horses were now gone and a hipster commedia dell’arte was now the governing style. They returned to their source material and also took inspiration directly from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. (Not incidentally, the central love story of Dead Horse had been a bit too much like that of West Side Story – also based on Romeo and Juliet – which had opened in 1957, during the Dead Horse writing process.)
Like Shakespeare often did, Jones found two overriding images he wanted to use to tell his story in its newest form – vegetation and the changing of the seasons – and these images would inform everything in the show, giving it a sense of unity and, in following Shakespeare’s lead, also a kind of ancient timelessness. Also like Shakespeare, Jones used rhymed verse and blank verse, the occasional use of prose, and plenty of soliloquies. El Gallo became in part like Shakespeare’s Chorus, directly addressing the audience, offering us not just important information, but also commentary, philosophy, and foreshadowing. But El Gallo also became the descendant of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s iconic American play Our Town. The ubiquitous images of moon and sun, now as conflicting metaphors for romantic fantasy and cold reality, came from a production of The Winter’s Tale Jones had seen. And going even further into Bard-land, there are striking parallels between The Fantasticks and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including a God-like controlling figure (El Gallo and Oberon), his handyman and assistant (The Mute and Puck), foolish lovers, and their escape from the "normal" world into a world of adventure where the lovers can learn about themselves and each other, and then return older, wiser, and ready for marriage.
The show’s rhyming, intellectual, Beat-style dialogue and Schmidt’s dissonant, polytonal jazz vocabulary came to the forefront, especially with their new orchestration, scored for just piano and harp. They took their new title from Fleming’s translation of Les Romanesques, called The Fantasticks, complete with quirky spelling. The original French title had implied not just people who were romantic, but more than that, adventurous, a hallmark of the Beats most famously described in Jack Kerouac’s bohemian odyssey, the genre-busting 1957 novel On the Road, which would eventually serve (comically) as a model for Matt’s adventure around the world in Act II of The Fantasticks. There was no direct English translation of that idea of romantic adventurousness, but Fleming’s consciously whimsical misspelling of an approximate English equivalent seemed to convey exactly that sense of rebelliousness the musical’s authors were looking for, a hint of outrageousness, subversiveness. And as a successful graphic artist, Schmidt also thought the title looked better that way.
But even though the story was no longer set in Texas, the narrator/bandit was still called El Gallo (which is Spanish for The Cock), named for a famous gypsy bullfighter. Some of the Latin musical influences from the Dead Horse score remained in the new songs, particularly in the flamenco rhythms of "It Depends on What You Pay" and the tango of "Never Say No." Henry Fenwick, a Medicine Show con man in Dead Horse, was refashioned into a charming, fading Shakespearean actor for the new show, based quite explicitly on B. Iden Payne, Jones’ college theatre professor. The villain of Dead Horse, a half-breed Apache, became the much gentler, more benign cockney Mortimer, The Man Who Dies (and whose name comes from the Latin word for death, of course), now based loosely on Ronald Coleman in the 1947 film A Double Life. Several of the unnamed extras in Dead Horse were consolidated into The Mute, now more consciously based on Japanese theatre devices.
The one-act version of The Fantasticks – essentially what we know today as Act One – opened in August 1959 at Barnard College’s Minor Latham Theatre. It was billed as a story of "the funny pain of growing up." Baker said of the creative team’s fondness for artistic rebellion, "There was a certain affinity and belief in a theatre that was considered heresy: open stage, direct to the audience." (The now iconic, minimalist set design was actually a design Schmidt had done for another show they had never gotten produced.) This was a radical approach for a musical, a kind of musical theatre as Greenwich Village coffeehouse poetry reading, small, intimate, personal.
But the show didn’t entirely work. Baker later said, "It was, quote unquote, darling. . . it almost made you puke. Lots of things were changed. It was our trial run. We made all our mistakes at Barnard."
You Wonder How These Things Begin
Lorenzo "Lore" (pronounced Lorry) Noto saw The Fantasticks in its one-act version and quickly offered to produce it off Broadway. Now charged with re-expanding the show into a full-length musical, Schmidt and Jones went back to work. Schmidt created an overture to accompany Jones’ new idea of starting the show with the hustle and bustle of a commedia troupe arriving and preparing to present a play, an idea Jones got from a production he had seen of The Servant of Two Masters by the Italian company Piccolo Teatro di Milano. They cut a few songs – "Have You Ever Been to China?", "I Have Been a Fool" – and began writing new songs, including "It Depends on What You Pay" and all of Act II. The two "actors," Henry and Mortimer, returned in Act II as Lodevigo and Socrates, loosely based on the amoral cat and fox in Disney’s Pinocchio.
Schmidt and Jones dubbed the romantic Act One "In the Moonlight" and they went to work on Act Two, "In the Sun," exploring what happens to the two families and the new marriage in the cold, hard light of day. As El Gallo says:
Their moon was cardboard, fragile.
It was very apt to fray,
And what was last night scenic
May seem cynic by today.
The play’s not done.
Oh no – not quite,
For life never ends in the moonlit night;
And despite what pretty poets say,
The night is only half the day.
So we would like to finish
What was foolishly begun.
For the story is not ended
And the play is never done
Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit
And burnished by the sun!
Notice that El Gallo (and Jones) consciously distances himself from the "pretty poets," the traditional, flowery romantics. Notice, too, that in order to learn what we must learn, we must be "burned" – hurt, destroyed consumed – but also "burnished" – polished, smoothed, brightened. And let’s not forget that burning does more than destroy; it also provides light and heat, both necessary to life. This lesson these kids will learn will destroy them and it is necessary to their lives.
Act Two was the Beat’s answer to the traditional romantic Broadway musical, a kind of gentler companion piece to much darker Nervous Set, also commenting (though more urbanely) on the increasingly unhealthy isolationism and insularity of suburban America during the Eisenhower years. In Act One of The Fantasticks, Matt and Luisa find a traditional Broadway musical Happily Ever After. But it’s tainted – predicated on a deception – like much of mainstream American life at the time (and still today). And like Kerouac, Matt believes he can only find answers Out There in the World; but though Kerouac only crossed America, Matt goes literally around the world.
One could argue that Act One was in form like the old-fashioned musical comedies of yesteryear that portrayed shallow, cardboard love, and that Act Two was more like the concept musicals to come in the 60s and 70s. In Act Two, the disillusionment sinks in and the young lovers find that love cannot be built on false romanticism. The Happily Ever After they have been promised all their lives runs smack up against the reality of Life. As many young people did in post-war America, they find that Marriage is Hard. All the lovely lies of the American establishment, the Happily Ever After that the end of World War II had promised, that mythical American Dream that only a few Americans actually get to enjoy, is revealed to be a fake. Like the musicals that would be written in the years to come, Act Two of The Fantasticks tells us that life is complicated, difficult, confusing, but that it is possible for clear-eyed realists to navigate this decidedly un-musical-comedy terrain. This was a show at least a decade ahead of its time.
The Fantasticks was the beginning of the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, and it paved the way for unconventional shows like Anyone Can Whistle, Cabaret, Company, Celebration, Promises, Promises, and others.
Accelerando con Molto
Jerry Orbach, who had been wowing audiences in The Threepenny Opera, was hired to play El Gallo, along with up-and-comers Rita Gardner, Kenneth Nelson, William Larson, Hugh Thomas, and Thomas Bruce (a stage name concocted for Tom Jones) as Henry. Noto rented the tiny Sullivan Street Playhouse, a theatre so small the audience had to literally walk over the stage to get to their seats.
The show began previews on April 23, 1960, and opened May 3. Unfortunately, audiences and critics did not immediately embrace the odd, unconventional show. Brooks Atkinson’s review in the New York Times was mixed, but he said, "Harvey Schmidt’s simple melodies with uncomplicated orchestrations are captivating, and the acting is charming." But Ward Morehouse wrote in The New York Post, "Certainly one of the best musicals within my entire playgoing experience… some of the best songs ever sung on any American musical stage." Cue magazine understood the sophisticated Beat sensibility that many of the more mainstream critics missed: "The mood is martini-dry, uncommitted, upper-Bohemian, with the main enemy the cliché. I suggest you head to Sullivan Street to catch the brightest young talents on display." Walter Kerr wrote in the Herald-Tribune, "The jazz figures that composer Schmidt has insinuated beneath tunes that have the essential flavor of tea roses climbing a trellis help mightily to give the proceedings a contemporary wink."
Still, the reviews were mixed enough and the raves were few enough that the investors urged Noto to close the show after opening night to minimize losses. Noto refused. Instead he used the last of his life savings to save The Fantasticks. Soon, a few celebrities started showing up at performances and word of mouth began to spread, even though some nights the cast of eight still outnumbered the audience. Then another happy accident occurred. Producer Conrad Thibault, who ran a theatre in East Hampton, New York, a popular summer retreat, asked Noto to produce a show there. Instead of a new show, Noto closed the Sullivan Street Playhouse and moved The Fantasticks to East Hampton for a week. All the rich and famous of Manhattan – folks who’d never go to an off Broadway theatre in 1960 – were more than happy to see the same show while on vacation in the Hamptons. Then when the show returned to New York, Actors Equity went on strike, briefly closing most Broadway shows, leaving off Broadway as one of the only alternatives for the theatre-going public. Finally, all the "right people" started to show up at The Fantasticks. During one week, the show was seen by Bob Fosse, Anne Bancroft, Elia Kazan, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille, and others. Anne Bancroft and producer Cheryl Crawford loved the show so much, they began a campaign of calling all their friends to go see it. By now the cast album was out as well. Years later, Noto said, "By the time we returned to Sullivan Street we were transformed from an endangered artistic success with an uncertain future to a commercial enterprise which has since endured."
The Fantasticks won the Obie for best off Broadway musical, and a London production opened in September 1961, running less than a week. Soon after, the Shubert Organization offered to move the show to Broadway, but the creators wisely decided against it. In October 1964, NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast an abbreviated, fifty-minute Fantasticks, minus Henry, Mortimer, The Mute, and some of the songs, but starring Ricardo Montalban, John Davidson, Susan Watson (the very first Louisa from the one-act version), Bert Lahr, and Stanley Holloway. To the surprise of many who thought such broad exposure would kill business, the television presentation boosted the off Broadway ticket sales hugely, and soon "Try to Remember" would become a pop hit, helping the show even more.
In October 1980, the original production sold its millionth ticket. In 1988, with Schmidt on piano and Jones back in the role of the Old Actor, an American company of The Fantasticks went to Japan with an English language production and toured to nine cities. In 1987, the Beijing Opera produced the show. The Americans went back in 1990 and again in 1992 for an even bigger tour. One Japanese company ran the show for eighteen years. A (less-than-stellar) thirtieth anniversary American tour went out with Robert Goulet as El Gallo, with a full orchestra overwhelming the show’s special simplicity, and a new song, "A Perfect Time to Be In Love." The song "It Depends on What You Pay," based directly on a passage from the Fleming translation, was replaced in the interest of political correctness for this production, but not at the Sullivan Street. A closing notice was announced for the off Broadway production in 1986, and the response from audiences was so overwhelming, complete with petitions and public protests, that they decided to keep it running.
In the thirty-second year of its run, the show won a special Tony Award in 1992, and Schmidt and Jones won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award in 1993. Another closing notice was posted in 1994, but again the public rallied round and kept the show open. The team was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1999. To date there have been more than four hundred foreign productions in sixty-nine countries, and more than twelve thousand productions in the U.S., in more than two thousand cities and all fifty states, as well as fifteen national tours. One production played in San Francisco for six years, one in Los Angeles ran four years, and one in Denver ran five years. The Fantasticks eventually ran 17,162 performances at the Sullivan Street Playhouse before closing in January 2002, after an almost forty-two year run (more than twice as long as Cats), becoming the longest running show in American history, and the longest running musical in the world.
Baker summed up the secret of the show this way: "It has to be real. It has to happen every night with nothing faked. The magic has to be real."
This Plum Is Too Ripe
Nothing influenced the eventual form and tone of The Fantasticks more than the Beat writers of the 1950s, most famously represented by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg – their ironic humor, their intellectualism, their search for Greater Truths, their literary background, their mistrust of authority figures, their rejection of shallow emotion, and most of all, their love of jazz and of free-form "performed" poetry (what we today call Slam Poetry or Def Poetry) – complete with invented words, alliteration, literary references, and a real sense of music in spoken language.
The Beats were first dubbed (publicly) in 1952 in John Clellon Holmes’ New York Times Magazine article called "This is the Beat Generation." But Kerouac and Ginsberg had been using the word since 1945, when they had picked it up from Herbert Huncke, a Times Square thief and male prostitute, who had picked up the word from his show business friends in Chicago. The word beat (in this sense) originally came from circus and carnival people describing their wearying, rootless, nomadic lives – lives like those of El Gallo, Henry, and Mortimer, lives like those of a traveling commedia troupe. In the drug world, beat meant robbed or cheated. In this 1952 article, John Clellon Holmes, one of the Beat writers himself, wrote this:
Any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding, and yet the generation which went through the last war, or at least could get a drink easily once it was over, seems to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective. The origins of the word 'beat' are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.
This is certainly the way both Luisa and Matt feel in The Fantasticks when they return from their "adventures" near the end of the show. Both of them feel used and raw. Both of them have hit rock bottom, but both have also learned something important. Matt’s Act II round-the-world journey comically parallels Jack Kerouac’s cross-country odyssey in On the Road (published in 1957), as he learns from his mishaps and acquaintances important truths about human nature – all hilariously exaggerated in The Fantasticks, of course. Holmes goes on:
Its members have an instinctive individuality, needing no bohemianism or imposed eccentricity to express it. Brought up during the collective bad circumstances of a dreary depression, weaned during the collective uprooting of a global war, they distrust collectivity. But they have never been able to keep the world out of their dreams. The fancies of their childhood inhabited the half-light of Munich, the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the eventual blackout. Their adolescence was spent in a topsy-turvy world of war bonds, swing shifts, and troop movements. They grew to independent mind on beachheads, in gin mills and USOs, in past-midnight arrivals and pre-dawn departures. Their brothers, husbands, fathers or boy friends turned up dead one day at the other end of a telegram. At the four trembling corners of the world, or in the home town invaded by factories or lonely servicemen, they had intimate experience with the nadir and the zenith of human conduct, and little time for much that came between. The peace they inherited was only as secure as the next headline. It was a cold peace. Their own lust for freedom, and the ability to live at a pace that kills (to which the war had adjusted them), led to black markets, bebop, narcotics, sexual promiscuity, hucksterism, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The beatness set in later.
It’s clear that this was the mindset out of which came The Fantasticks, with the Lovers’ search for Truth, their (sometimes mindless) rejection of authority, and their insistence on uniqueness. At the beginning, Matt and Luisa both focus exclusively on their (to them) sacred individuality, on how different they are from everyone else, how no one else could ever understand the depth and complexity of their feelings. Both of them have apparently experienced the death of their mothers (though this is left unsaid in the show). They have lived dreary, pre-programmed lives (though Matt at least was able to escape temporarily to college). They’re uniquely literary for teenagers, and they believe only they have all the answers. They reject everything about their fathers’ world. They think they see the world through new eyes, seeing things, understanding things that no one who came before could understand. In Matt’s poetic monologue "I’ll Marry When I Marry," he rejects conventional wisdom, he rejects traditional rituals (a wedding), he rejects religion ("without benefit of book"), he even rejects the rest of the human race ("without benefit of neighbor"), preferring non-human Nature as both priest and witness to his and Luisa’s love. Matt is a Deist, who believes God is in nature, not the creator of nature, a belief system shared by most of America’s Founding Fathers, but also gaining ground again in the 1950s and 60s, as America’s youth more and more rejected Christianity (which would later lead to the New Age beliefs that surfaced in the hippie movement). Matt wants Luisa and him to be "joined by the joy of life" – by nature – not by God or the Bible. And he tells us all this in the form of a Beat poem – poetry that is meant to be performed not read – just like Ginsberg's work.
Kerouac and Ginsberg called their writing style "spontaneous bop prosody," referring to the newest style of improvisational jazz, known as bop. Kerouac would later inscribe his novel Mexico City Blues with, "I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday." The same could be said of Tom Jones’ lyric flights of fancy in The Fantasticks, his delirious excesses of language, his sly winks at both the form and content of classic romantic literature, the restless narcissism of the lovers and the bemused riffs of hipster wisdom from El Gallo. As an example, hear the music in this speech of El Gallo’s:
You wonder how these things begin.
Well, this begins with a glen.
It begins with a season which,
For want of a better word,
We might as well call – September.
It begins with a forest where the woodchucks woo
And leaves wax green,
And vines entwine like lovers, try to see it.
Not with your eyes, for they are wise,
But see it with your ears:
And hear it with the inside of your hand:
There is such music in these words. This is a Beat poem. The Beats had a reputation for not caring about anything, but that’s not true; they cared about what mattered. They didn’t care about traditional values, ideals, rituals, beliefs, conventions, but they cared deeply about understanding the Great Truths (a pursuit later taken up by the hippies), about connection to the deep, long forgotten core of what it means to be human. Their famous indifference was not toward all things, but merely to all things shallow.
Though none of the central Beat writers wrote about The Fantasticks, we can assume they would have approved of its upending of classical romance, its reversal and subversion of Romeo and Juliet – because it doesn’t just reject Shakespeare’s view of romantic love, it goes even further in suggesting that we never really know, ourselves, when love is real or not, that our obsessive falling in love with love gets in the way of the real thing. Like Company in 1970, which got all the credit for the innovation, The Fantasticks presented love as it really is, difficult, complicated, messy, even annoying sometimes, but ultimately very much worth it. Its final moments leave us not with a clear Happy Ending but instead with some murky gray area in which we see great truth: Marriage is hell, it tells us, but it’s better than being alone. The Fantasticks was a real Beat musical, a Beat jazz fable. Matt and Luisa have reconnected, but what comes next? Will they be okay? We don’t really know? All we know is that they are both a little wiser.
Matt and Luisa, whether they knew it or not, were Children of the Beats. Writing about the 1950s in his introduction to the collected issues of the Beat literary magazine Neurotica, John Clellon Holmes wrote:
The times, if not out of joint, were still in the plaster-cast of post-war recuperation. Within a year or two of V-J Day ["Victory in Japan Day"], it became apparent that peace wasn’t going to break out, and that a more or less permanent state of anxiety was going to sour our morning coffee and our evening drink for the foreseeable future. The social and intellectual assumptions of wartime – One World, Freedom versus Tyranny, a sort of United Nations ethical egalitarianism – seemed at once hollow and anachronistic if one remembered the blinding technological light of Hiroshima and the appalling human darkness of Auschwitz. Yet most of the young men and women who returned from the war experienced a sudden release of energy, curiosity and impatience-with-the-past that belied these dismal facts, these recent nightmares. They were intent on questioning everything.
The torture and violence perpetrated on Matt during "Round and Round" paralleled the horrors of war that many of the Beat writers experienced. The Beats were surely a product of their times, reacting to the hyper-materialism and conspicuous consumption of their parents in post-war America. The fifties were a time marked by the Civil Rights movement, the invention of rock and roll, the first publication of Playboy, the explosion of television, the creation of the suburbs, the development of the birth control pill, the beginning of the Cold War, the publication of the Kinsey reports on American sexuality, the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Brown vs. the Board of Education and desegregation, the beginning of the feminist movement, and so many other social revolutions. America was changing so fast and so radically that it was hard to keep up – and hard to understand. The Fantasticks reminded us that the basic, elemental truths were still there, even if they were sometimes hidden behind materialism and social angst.
At the same time that Kerouac was changing the course of the American novel and Ginsberg was doing the same with poetry, other revolutions were also taking place. Jackson Pollock was changing American painting with his wild visceral new abstract style. Charlie Parker was changing jazz, with the invention of "bop," a fierce, aggressive, manic new kind of jazz improvisation. Lenny Bruce was changing comedy, turning it not only political but dangerous. Marlon Brando was changing the American theatre, with an entirely new style of aggressive, emotionally raw acting. Off Broadway was being born and The Living Theater was starting the American experimental theatre movement. Sid Caesar was changing the face of the newborn television, inventing live sketch comedy with Your Show of Shows. Charles Schulz was changing the nature of comic strips, bringing the disillusionment and disenfranchisement of the Beats to the funny papers with Peanuts, his now world famous comic strip that debuted in October 1950. Schulz’ contemplative children commented on literature, art, classical music, theology, medicine, psychiatry, sports, law, and the until then taboo themes of faith, intolerance, depression, loneliness, cruelty, and despair. Garry Trudeau, creator of the politically charged comic strip Doonesbury, grew up with Peanuts and has called it "the first Beat strip." He has said that Peanuts "vibrated with 1950s alienation. Everything about it was different." It was no accident that when the time came later to animate Peanuts for television the obvious choice for music was the 1950s jazz stylings of Vince Guaraldi. Also in 1950, Aldous Huxley, who had written the revolutionary Brave New World years earlier, was taking mescaline for the first time, and he wrote The Doors of Perception, starting (or re-starting, more accurately) America’s drug culture. America, the bland land of conformity was being turned upside-down. A decade later, then-novice playwright Sam Shepard would openly admit that his strongest influences came from Ginsberg and the Beat poets. And Schmidt and Jones were at the heart of it all, in New York City.
Interestingly, in the late 1980s and into the early years of the new millennium, a new Beat movement emerged, among American and British teens, apparently morphed out of the punk movement. They called themselves "emo kids," short for "emotional." As UrbanDictionary.com defines it, an "emo kid" is "one who rejects pop culture and joins the counter-culture realm. Usually has ideas contrary to popular opinion and seeks to gain a better understanding of life through artistic venues. May appear depressed, have black or red hair, and dress in a way that is contrary to what is popular. Thrift stores, art, coffee shops, underground music, and poetry are usually of great interest. Contrary to popular opinion, though an emo kid may seem depressed, within their own group there is an element of deep understanding and friendship. Emo kids see the world as beautiful, but its inhabitants as lost and depressing." The passage could be describing Matt and Louisa in The Fantasticks.
Try to Remember
The Fantasticks opens with one of the most perfect of all opening numbers, the simple, almost folk-like waltz, "Try to Remember," childlike in its simplicity and wise beyond its authors’ years. And it’s evidence both that The Fantasticks is "old-fashioned" in certain ways and also that it’s experimental and unusual. The song asks its audience to put their cynicism aside, to return to a "pre-cynical" state, to remember what it’s like to still believe in magic and love at first sight, to remember what it’s like to be young and open to all possibilities. It asks the audience to become childlike themselves and to accept this stylish fable for what it is, without judging it by cynical, adult standards. The lyric from Jones’ first opening lyric, "Come On Along With Me" shows where he was heading:
Let’s go back beyond the smart of you
Back to the special childlike part of you
Back where your dreams are fancy free…
The ideas are there in the earlier version but less refined, too explicit, too precious.
The lyric takes us not just back through time – perhaps to a time and place we know not from personal experience but only through the mythology of American film and television – but also through the elemental changing of the seasons, as a metaphor for growing up and entering adulthood, for passing from one age to another, the death of childhood and the birth of a marriage. The final verse about December tells us up front that this story will veer into darkness, that it will not be all about happiness and romance and moonlight. And it delivers its central theme right out loud, telling us exactly what this story is about: "Without a hurt, the heart is hollow." In other words, real love is mature, complex, honest love, love that has been earned.
The easy waltz style of the song is both old-fashioned and radical. Its old-fashioned quality tells us we’ll be seeing a classic, romantic tale. After all, despite the show’s obvious innovations, it was still basically as Boy Meets Girl, Boy Gets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl story, not entirely unlike the frothy musicals of the 1930s. But here the obstacles are not mistaken identities, secret inheritances, or British (gay?) financés; this time, the obstacles are the complexities, ambiguities, and chaos of the Real World. Even the show’s physical production harkened back hundreds of years to the most primitive theatre. Tom Jones wrote, "This musical was intended for an open stage, a simple space surrounded on three sides by audience. It should be played as closely to the audience as possible." Telling stories around a campfire, acting out ancient myths about ancient truths – what could be more old-fashioned? And the opening song establishes that mood. The Mute is essentially a very old convention of Asian theatre. And the central characters are all old commedia dell’arte types. Matt and Luisa are the innamorati, the lovers. The fathers are both Gerontius, the classic father figure. Hucklebee even says at one point, "I’m no pantaloon!" referring to the classic commedia fool. El Gallo is a modern day Harlequin, as well as a version of Shakespeare’s Chorus and Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager.
But "Try to Remember" was also somewhat reactionary as an opening in 1960, a simple, warm, nineteenth-century waltz in a brassy, flashy Broadway era, in a world of jazz, bop, and the disconnected dissatisfaction of the New York Beats. Even other more experimental pieces, like its immediate predecessor The Threepenny Opera, had opened with the dissonant, driving, dangerous warnings of "Mack the Knife." Most musicals of the time opened with big, brassy, funny, company numbers. The Fantasticks announced from its very first notes that it was something entirely, radically, beautifully different.
There is This Girl.
At the heart of The Fantasticks lies Luisa, The Girl. Luisa’s tragic flaw is that of many teenage girls – she simply feels too much. Her emotions are so extreme, so extraordinary that they can neither be contained or adequately expressed. Instead they just build and build, and come pouring forth whether she likes it or not. It’s not that she’s foolish or simple or young (or at least not just that); it’s that she feels too much, and has not yet figured out what to do about that. And because of this, Luisa is the ultimate musical theatre character. Like Laurey in Oklahoma!, Sweeney in Sweeney Todd, or Eliza in My Fair Lady, only through music can Louisa’s emotions be fully expressed; she has to be a character in a musical. Martin Gottfried wrote in his book Broadway Musicals, "Ultimately, the Broadway musical is a metaphor for the ecstasy we are capable of creating and experiencing; it offers us an emotional orgasm. The Broadway musical is not a passive theater. Its audiences are transformed as they are being made love to." Louisa’s repeated swoons throughout the show are vaguely orgasmic and are the eruptions of extreme emotion that only a musical can wholly express.
The best musicals have everything the best plays have – great words, great characters, great emotions, great drama, great comedy, timeless themes, great, universal truths. But musicals also have music. And no matter how you slice it, words alone can never have the dramatic power or the intensity of emotion that music possesses. The great director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavski said that music is the only direct way to the human heart. And in this modern world where emotions – particularly big emotions – are often considered inappropriate, inconvenient, even impolite, where the expression of full-bodied emotion has been "civilized" out of most of us, the extreme, unapologetic emotionalism of musical theatre offers audiences – and Luisa – a much needed release. Of course, it’s also this very emotionalism that makes some people, inculcated with a fear of emotion, so uncomfortable with musicals. And it’s the parallel cynicism of The Fantasticks that tempers that emotionalism.
And just as The Fantasticks is no ordinary musical, so too Luisa is no ordinary heroine. She’s presented as a preening, shallow child, more in love with herself and with Love than with Matt, more concerned with being a princess than with sharing her life, more interested in her hair than in caring for someone and being cared for in return. But aren’t we all like that at some point in our youth? Luisa’s saving grace is that she will grow out of this. As we meet her, she is not someone you’d want to spend a lot of time with. In her introduction song, "Much More," we find that she’d rather live in her romantic novels than in the real world; she wants experiences she doesn’t really know anything about. Her ignorance of the world, graphically laid out in "Round and Round," is comic but also tragic. Everything is bigger than life in Luisa’s world, and despite the fact that she’s unlike most musical comedy ingénues in a lot of ways, that bigger-than-life view of the world is really more at home in a musical than in the real world.
But as The Fantasticks explicitly shows us, no one can really live in a romance novel or in a musical…
More than any other character, Luisa is the victim of The Fantasticks. She wants more and, arguably, loses more. She bares her soul to us in the opening moments of the show, and her dreams and desires are then exploited by El Gallo for the rest of the story. She sees herself as the Romantic Suffering Lover, with (in her own prophetic words) "lots of grief in store." Like the novels and stories of the 1700s and 1800s, death and suffering are somehow romantic and admirable in her mind. El Gallo will exploit that as well. She fantasizes that her hair turns vivid colors when she brushes it, including "blue when the sun hits it." Later in Act II, El Gallo compliments her in "Round and Round" that "the air makes your hair billow blue in the moon." To Luisa, this is all the confirmation she needs that she is indeed special, magic even – and that’s exactly what El Gallo intends. It’s part of his seduction. She also tells us about her dead mother’s glue paste necklace: "I found it in the attic with my mother’s name inside. It is my favorite possession." Yet in Act II, knowing what it means to her, El Gallo will steal it from her. In her song "Much More," she tells us she wants to be "the kind of girl designed to be kissed upon the eyes." Later in Act II, El Gallo kisses her on the eyes to seal the seduction. But he only knows these things because he’s the narrator and happens to control and watch over every moment in the show; he learns this information while "outside" the story, then uses that information after he has stepped "inside" the story. Likewise, Luisa tells Matt about her dream in which an older man abducts her, only to have Matt rescue her. As narrator, El Gallo hears this story, and it serves as a blueprint for the actual abduction later in Act I, which will unfold exactly as Luisa dreamed it. Again, her dreams and desires are used against her.
When El Gallo takes Luisa on a round-the-world adventure to Venice, Athens, and India, he teaches her to see the ugliness of the world and to ignore it. Instead of helping Luisa mature, instead of opening her eyes to the reality that is at odds with her fantasy world, El Gallo does exactly the opposite. Up to now, Luisa has been obsessed with imagining beauty, imposing beauty on the bland landscape of the real world. But now El Gallo is showing her that the world isn’t really bland; it’s ugly and dangerous and destructive. And yet, he’s also showing her how to ignore that side of the world, still retreating from reality, a position just as unhealthy as her earlier perspective. To underline this darkness – and absurdity – The Fantasticks places Matt in all these exotic locales. Thus, Luisa isn’t just ignoring the suffering of the world; she’s also ignoring the suffering of the man she professes to love. She’s still selfish and El Gallo encourages that. But there’s also a moment in each city in which Luisa begins to see this darkness and is horrified by it – there is a compassionate adult in Luisa trying to get out, but not while El Gallo is there. In each case, he offers her a magical mask, a kind of freaky, unsettling incarnation of the classic "rose colored glasses." This mask allows her to see only what she wants, to experience the world only so far as what it offers her. But we see that this mask is dangerous. It possesses her like a gaudy Mardi Gras demon. The stage directions in the script tell us that she struggles against it. Looking back to 1960, it’s not hard to see Luisa’s mask as the façade of 1950s mainstream American domesticity, the mask of respectability and calm and propriety that hid rampant institutionalized racism; stifling sexism; the deep despair among married women that led many of them to the overuse of tranquilizers; the spiritual bankruptcy of America’s youth; the terrorism of Communist Hunters like Senator Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. The horrors Luisa sees can be read as the thinly veiled horrors of "traditional American values," those values to which many conservatives today wish to return.
Tom Jones says about this song, "Those last aahs in the song are not pretty vocalize – they are screams of horror." Are these the screams of horror from the Beat writers and those who would become hippies a few years later, who saw America getting scarier by the year? Perhaps, but they are more personal than that. Luisa is at war with herself, and we see here that war, violence, even torture as a metaphorical rite of passage she must withstand in order to come out whole on the other side. The old Luisa, the selfish, shallow, blind child must die in order for Luisa the adult woman to be born.
A Beardless, Callow College Boy
Matt is just as shallow when we meet him, and even more pretentious. He has just returned from agricultural college, presumably (in this odd fable world) to continue his father’s love of gardening. The idea of taking over the family business, a long cherished tradition in America throughout much of its history, was becoming more and more rare in the 1950s, and Matt’s various rebellions reflect that fact of mid-century America. Like Luisa, Matt seems to be rebellious for the sake of rebellion, seeing himself as utterly unique and therefore worthy of great praise and respect. He doesn’t yet know that every boy his age thinks he’s unique.
Even though he rebels against his father, he still shares his father’s focus on nature and growing things. He tries to elevate that world to the realm of romantic poetry, but it comes off as comic more than profound. The gushy, extravagant language of his song "Metaphor" may be pure Matt, but it’s still grounded in nature. The truly funny part is that this outrageously silly lyric came from actual love letters Tom Jones had written to a girlfriend, back in his gushier, more adolescent days. He describes his younger self this way – notice the similarities to Matt’s opening monologue:
I fell in love. Blindly. Wildly. Stupidly. I experienced again all those terrible sweet agonies of romantic passion. But I wasn’t really that young anymore, and I couldn’t help but laugh at myself even as I felt the rapture and the pain. I wrote in a letter to the girl, "You are Polaris, the one true star!" And I meant it. But I saw that it was funny too.
The girl had given him a book of botanical artwork, and had written in it, "If you would be happy for a night, take a wife. If you would be happy for a week, kill a pig. If you would be happy for all your life, plant a garden." That became the genesis for the song "Plant a Radish."
It is significant that Matt tries one last time to save Luisa late in Act II, after he has returned from The World, beaten and battered. He sees El Gallo about to abandon Luisa, breaking her heart and stealing her necklace, and Matt tries to stop him. But Matt still has some growing to do and he doesn’t understand that (especially in this world of fable) Luisa has to be hurt – burned and burnished – in order to grow.
When El Gallo has shattered both their lives, hurt them both deeply, when the audience starts to wonder ho this monster is, he stops to explain himself to the audience:
There is a curious paradox
That no one can explain.
Who understands the secret
Of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why Spring is born
Out of winter’s laboring pain?
Or why we all must die a bit
Before we grow again.
I do not know the answer.
I merely know it’s true.
I hurt them for that reason
And myself a little bit too.
El Gallo means The Cock. His Spanish name is a holdover from Joy Comes to Dead Horse, but the name is still organic to the show, with its Latin-flavored songs, tapping into America’s still robust love affair with the archetypal "Latin Lover." In fact, El Gallo’s persona may well have become a subtle form of satire directed at America’s condescending love of Latin culture, personified here by Luisa’s shallow view of romance. When she imagines her perfect stranger-lover, of course he’d be Latino. And yet significantly, he’s almost never really Latino; only his name (with the exception of Ricardo Montalban in 1964 on NBC).
Back in the late 1930s, America’s so-called "Good Neighbor Policy" had often inspired the stunt casting of Latinos on Broadway and on film. Carmen Miranda made her first Broadway appearance in 1939 in a revue called The Street of Paris. Desi Arnaz’ big break came with Rodgers and Hart’s musical Too Many Girls, also in 1939, singing several fake-Lain numbers, including "All Dressed Up (Spic and Spanish)" (no kidding…), "She Could Shake the Maracas," "Babalú," and the now painful "Give It Back to the Indians." Arnaz then headed straight for Hollywood to recreate his role for the film version in 1940. One critic, Gustavo Péres Firmat, said of the film years later, "To be sure, Too Many Girls is a modern multiculturalist’s nightmare." Then, just a few years before The Fantasticks opened, another Latin show opened, West Side Story. That its creators, all rich, white, Jewish, gay men, at least recognized the racial prejudice in America (and especially New York) against Latinos may excuse the awkwardness and unintentional racism in their final product. But that racism is clear now with twenty-twenty hindsight, particularly in the collective characters of the two gangs, the "cool," rational Jets and the "hot-blooded," stomping, yelling Sharks. Everybody knows Latinos dance and stomp and yell and snap their fingers, right? – well, at least on Broadway in the 50s, they did. Some might argue that, like The Fantasticks, West Side Story was a fable, not a documentary; and in 1957 it was still a huge leap forward from the embarrassing Latin musicals MGM had turned out in the 1930s and 40s. Still, in West Side Story, was Anita really all that different from the cartoon character Chiquita Banana? And wasn’t Bernardo everything "regular" Americans most feared? The creation of El Gallo subtly satirized all this – danger, romance, exoticism – and he uses it all to win Luisa’s heart. But like everything else, it isn’t real.
Jones named this guy The Cock for a reason – he's a rooster, an alpha male, a strutter, a sexually confident man. But he’s not all he appears to be. Jones imagines that El Gallo once went off into the world seeking adventure too, just like Matt; but El Gallo never returned home. El Gallo did not learn the important lessons until it was too late. We get a hint of that backstory when El Gallo sings to Matt, "Don’t listen close or maybe you’ll never return." Now he’s helping these kids learn what he was too slow to understand, to salvage the lives he did not salvage for himself. It’s not hard to imagine a younger El Gallo years ago, full of piss and vinegar, full of dreams of adventures, but soon screwed over by the world, his heart broken, humiliated, just as he was figuring out who he is and how he fits in the world. As a defense mechanism, he remakes himself into the ultimate rogue, the one who hurts instead of the one who is hurt, with this implacable facade, all swagger and pose, determined to be in control of his love/sex life forever more. And it all makes the "cock" label ironic – which makes him all the more fascinating.
So on the surface, he watches Luisa and Matt (particularly in Act I) with bemused detachment, a bit condescending. Clearly he would never be that silly, that easily duped, he’d like us to believe. And it’s all to hide the fact that he, too, was "a beardless, callow boy" once upon a time, that he was just as duped by some other user. The world gets us all. Jones writes about El Gallo’s mood before the song "Soon It’s Gonna Rain": "I always felt that El Gallo had a love story that didn’t work out, and that this was the place in his own life where his opportunity was lost." So he’s here to make sure Matt and Luisa don’t follow him down the path he chose. But he can’t let us know he’s being so charitable, so kind to these silly kids. So he offers up to us his confident, swaggering, theatrical, and infinitely charming facade to hide the darker, more vulnerable, more deeply feeling, "real" El Gallo. After all, when Matt asks him if he is El Gallo, he answers, "Sometimes." It’s only in the "Curious Paradox" monologue near the end of the show that he gives us just the tiniest hint that there really is great depth and compassion – and regret and lost innocence – underneath it all.
What makes The Fantasticks so universal, so timeless, is that we each take from it whatever we need at this moment. Like classic fairy tales, it provides different things to different people. When we’re younger, we see ourselves as Matt and Louisa; when we’re older, Bellomy and Hucklebee. Maybe the actors among us even identify with Henry and Mortimer. But whoever and whenever we are, El Gallo is our guide, our shaman, and if he does his job right, we come out on the other end a little wiser than before, a little changed.
The book The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks quotes journalist Linda Ellerbee about the show:
Will Durant said civilization is a stream with banks. He said the stream is sometimes filled with blood from people’s 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 statures. 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.
Theatre is here precisely to tell that story. Tom Jones once wrote, after seeing the famed Bread and Puppet Theatre, about what he wants theatre to be:
Tears without laughter
Is like laughter without tears.
Either one is essentially shallow.
Put the two together:
Not the mask of comedy
The mask of tragedy,
But as one face,
Irrevocably joined together.
And then we have made some progress.
And that’s what The Fantasticks is all about…
Copyright 2005. Excerpt from Scott Miller's upcoming, untitled book on musical theatre. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.