The Fantasticks. I had never really thought about why it was called that. Long before I'd ever seen the show, I knew the songs—"Try to Remember," "Plant a Radish," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "I Can Feel It"—and when I did finally see it, a good part of me was just listening for those great numbers. Now I've gone back with a fresh set of eyes and ears—not mine; I brought my going-on-11 sister—and was further impressed with a different aspect of the show: the strangeness of this funny, self-consciously theatrical, oddly elongated love story. The unexpectedness of it. The fantastics of it.
The first half delivers an old-fashioned romance and a twist on Romeo and Juliet. The father of young Matt and the father of even-younger Luisa conspire to match their kids by pretending to feud, setting the stage for a "forbidden" romance—children being, after all, quite contrary. ("Why did the kids pour jam on the cat?…They did it 'cause we said no.") When the time is ripe the fathers seal the deal by hiring a suave cad, El Gallo, to stage an elaborate "abduction" of Luisa and allow gallant Matt to "save the day," bringing together the families and blessing the betrothal.
There's some unresolved weirdness here, such as the fact that Luisa is insane. Insane in a romantic, moon-in-June sort of way; but clearly mad, and not driven to it by tragic events like that other Shakespearean starlet, Ophelia. Nevertheless, as Act I draws to a close it's reasonable to be asking: what is the need for an Act II? The answer: The Fantasticks, based fairly closely on Rostand's play Les Romanesques, is really about what happens after the happy ending.
The lights go up on the united families, still in the lovely tableau in which they ended Act I, but growing more and more uncomfortable trying to hold it. In the light of day, Matt and Luisa no longer look so charming to one another, and the fathers' friendship is souring. Both young people want to follow their dreams and discover the world—on their own. With El Gallo's magical help they set out, separately, to do so in their own ways. All very symbolically. So symbolically it feels almost avant-garde.