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‘The Fantasticks’ at 61: Still Tuneful, Still Bittersweet, Still…Kinda Weird

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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.

One part of the weirdness is the sequence in which El Gallo, like the Ghost of Christmas Present, shows Luisa what’s happening to Matt—which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a sequence of tortures. That may be a harsh form of disillusionment, but different only in degree from what most of us undergo after the shattering of our youthful romantic dreams. Our star-crossed couple eventually gets their happy resolution, but the show begins and ends with its most famous song telling us to “Try to remember when life was so tender / That no one wept except the willow.” And it goes on: “Without a hurt the heart is hollow.”

The Fantasticks, which opened in 1950, feels in some ways extremely modern. If you’ve seen it, it’s worth returning to look at it with different eyes. Maybe you’re a lot older now? In any case another viewing could prompt you to bring a new attitude, an openness to appreciating the curious darkness and strangeness of this magical mystery show.

And if you’ve never seen this Off Broadway classic, what are you waiting for?

The Fantasticks is playing, possibly forever, at the Jerry Orbach Theater in the Snapple Theater Center, 210 West 50th Street, New York. Visit the production’s website for details and ticket information.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • http://theugliestamerican.blogspot.com Andy Marsh

    When I was a kid this used to show every day in the Village. My grandfather was the commandant of the American Legion and the Fantasticks played right next door on Sullivan St. It was one of the first shows I ever went to…

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