News that The Fantasticks will close on May 3, exactly 55 years after the musical first opened at the now-vanished Sullivan Street Playhouse, has inspired an appropriate outpouring of gentle rue in the New York theater world. Thanks in part to its pretty score (including the aching “Try to Remember”) and in larger part to its record-breaking longevity, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s scrappy tuner has a special place in the hearts of many show-tune lovers. The end of its run is like the death of a great-aunt—considered very pretty in her day!—for whom you have an abiding fondness, even though, to be honest, you haven’t visited her in ages.
The closing of a long-running show is never cause for celebration. The truth, however, is that the version of The Fantasticks playing today is not quite the worthy object of nostalgia it seems. The original production shuttered in 2002, having run on the fumes of reputation for some time; when the current one opened four years later, in a charmless Times Square complex, it seemed less a continuation than an attenuation, a zombie Fantasticks aimed mainly at audiences for whom the show’s name still resonated. In my 2006 review, I wrote: “The whole enterprise seems to have been lifted from a musty old trunk and plunked down in an equally musty new one (the shabby Snapple Theater Center, with its low ceilings and terrible sight lines). Those who enjoyed the original should try to remember it as it was, instead of falling into this tourist trap.”
Over the years, The Fantasticks’ marketing has targeted underinformed audiences. Its website, for example, is fantasticksonbroadway.com—whose misleading name implies that the show is a Broadway production (with the budget and prestige that connotes), rather than what it actually is: an Off Broadway production playing at a venue that has an entrance on Broadway (the street). And the show’s longtime misuse of a quote by New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley was outrageously deceptive. As I reported back in 2009:
Like most reviewers, including this one, Brantley didn’t care much for the mothball-scented revival of The Fantasticks, which opened in 2006. He did, however, find space to praise the performance of one actor, Tom Jones (who is also the show’s librettist). “Unlike much of the rest of this production, he feels like the real thing,” wrote Brantley, later adding that Jones “gives a perfectly pitched, disarmingly sincere performance that captures why The Fantasticks became the enduring favorite it did.” Brantley also recalled having seen the original production many years ago, when he was a child, and generously allowed the following: “And who knows? There may be a few 9-year-olds out there…who will conclude that The Fantasticks is the last word in theatrical sophistication.” On the doorway to the Snapple Theater Center, those sentiments have become the following: “A perfectly pitched performance that captures why The Fantasticks became the enduring favorite it did. The Fantasticks is the last word in theatrical sophistication.” I’m sorry, but we must call shenanigans on this.
Even with such efforts, though, The Fantasticks has struggled for years to fill its house; only about a third of the seats to this weekend’s performances have been sold, mostly in the small area of the audience with proper views of the action. (This is a basic problem with the space; fewer than 30 percent of seats at the venue are in front of the stage.) Visitors to New York could do worse than this sleepy retread, but they could also do a lot better.
There are certainly things about The Fantasticks that will be missed. The revival has provided employment for many actors, including several major talents on the rise. (“Newcomer Santino Fontana brings a resonant voice and surprising shadings to his role as the Boy,” I wrote in 2006.) And the collection of Fantasticks memorabilia in the lobby of the venue—christened the Jerry Orbach Theater, after the musical’s original star—offer a sweet tribute to the show's storied past. Nine years, however, is long enough. It is time now to let The Fantasticks take its rightful place: in history.