It’s amazing that this tiny little Musical-Comedy trifle is both the longest-running and most widely-performed show in the whole history of the Musical-Theater genre, but it isn’t really all that surprising given its quality. The show works best in small theaters and features extremely minimal sets and props, and it suggests far more than it actually portrays, but it has one of the richest and most evocative atmospheres of any stage production in existence.
The tricky thing about these tiny, ‘intimate’ musicals with minimal scenery and a cast of less than ten is that they require a much higher level of quality in the writing, since anything that might bolster or distract from the composition has essentially been stripped away. Do these shows right, with an extremely high level of invention and artistry, and you can get a Next to Normal, or at the very least a <Title of Show>. But there are hundreds of dreary failures that serve as cautionary examples of what happens when you do them wrong. Without something really special in the writing, a show this small, even one that might have seemed moderately pleasant with a bigger production budget, will inevitably come across as underwhelming, even amateurish. There are markets where you can pass this off, as many of the low-budget ‘spoof’ musicals now cluttering up off-Broadway theaters attest, but in any serious Musical-Theater setting, be it Broadway or elsewhere, shows like that get would eaten alive.
The Fantasticks was basically the progenitor of a new subgenre of Musical Comedy, one that presumably came into existence because there will always be a market for happy-ending romantic comedies in the musical world, and when this show first appeared, shows of that sort were in need of a new genre niche to occupy. In the twenties and thirties, they were the province of the lighter, more fanciful Operetta titles such as The Desert Song and New Moon. In the forties and early Fifties, they had migrated to the more mature and sensible form of the Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical play, as can be seen in such works as Brigadoon or The Most Happy Fella. But after My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and Gypsy all came along within a few years of each other, the musical play was becoming increasingly dense and intellectual, and had no time left for such simple little love stories.
So the happy-ending musical love story found its place in an emerging field of musical romantic comedies, more serious and sensible than traditional musical comedy but less heavy and intellectually complex than the new breed of musical plays. Those of them that played Broadway were, surprisingly, usually failures; there were a few big hits, but most of them couldn’t compete with the splashier, brassier brand of musical comedy that was being popularized around the same time, so they mostly wound up as flops remembered mostly for their cast albums. But this show, by far the most successful to come out of that subgenre, opened off-Broadway, in a totally different market from the Hello Dollys and Funny Girls of the world; it didn’t really have to compete with “big Broadway”, because it was a fundamentally different thing.
Based on a play by Edmund Rostand called La Romanesques (a title which roughly translates as The Romantics), the musical was by all accounts originally intended as a huge expansion of Rostand’s delicate play, a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romantic epic that sounds something like West Side Story with a happy ending. But in what might be the ultimate blessing in disguise, they couldn’t raise enough money for this proposed project, so they stripped down their idea to its essentials; an intimate, low-budget theatre piece about two young lovers and their fathers that, interestingly, much more closely resembled Rostand’s original play. And thanks to its extremely low running costs, the show was able to hold out for a few losing months until word of mouth got out and it end up becoming an outright craze. The original New York run wound up lasting forty-one years.
The show’s book is almost bizarrely brilliant, swinging between quirky comedy and rich, beautifully written poetry (including several spoken set pieces underscored by rich music that are almost songs in their own right) that really is reminiscent of Rostand. The characters are limited to the lovers, their fathers (two secret friends who are savvy enough to know that the only way to get their kids together is to pretend they disapprove of the union), the agent-of-change romantic bandit El Gallo (who doubles as a narrator), two comic-relief Shakespearean clowns, and an eighth actor who never speaks and is mostly there to embody the majority of the props and sets.
Some scenes are bathed in moonlit, intoxicating romance, such as the lovers’ secret meeting in the first act. But in the first scene of Act Two, the show captures the burning glare of unromantic daylight and the reality that comes with it, as the characters are forced to face not only the truth behind their fanciful ‘happy ending’ in Act One, but also the fact that life always goes on. By the final curtain, the lovers have grown into a far deeper and more real love for each other, one that can actually survive the realities of day-to-day life. Watching over all this is El Gallo, who reluctantly does some pretty cruel things to both of the kids because, in his partly-outside-the-story role, he knows this is what they need in order to find that mature love. This “first-act-fanciful, second-act-realistic” structure would prove to be quite influential…to cite one example, the two acts of Sondheim’s Into the Woods feature almost exactly the same device.
The score is the central key to all this atmosphere and emotional development. The bulk of the score is pure romantic melody, almost impossibly lush in feeling despite its spare piano accompaniment and the surprising simplicity of the melodies. Out of context the songs, lovely as they are, might sound generic, because by and large they emphasize the universality of the story and characters. A few of them follow the strangeness of the book, such as the outrageous and often controversial “It Depends On What You Pay” or the disturbing “Round and Round”. But generally, they focus on a beautiful simplicity, as in the show’s haunting introduction with the legendary “Try To Remember”, or the yearning, ultra-romantic ballad for the female lead, “Much More”, or the shimmering love duets “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “They Were You”. Likewise, the lyrics on such songs as “Metaphor” would probably be dismissed as cliches if they did not capture such penetrating universal truths about love and life.
The more cynical numbers, like the brassy, almost stringent “This Plum Is Too Ripe” and “I Can See It”, or the two comic duets in which the lovers’ fathers philosophize on the trials of parenting, “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish”, utilize an even more simplistic (though irresistibly catchy) sound, something of a predecessor to Annie’s “It’s the Hard Knock Life”, but with more bite to it. Throughout, the melodies are tuneful and timeless, with a unique sound that was only heard elsewhere in the later scores by this team, and even then never with quite the same degree of purity.
This is truly one of the greatest musicals ever written, which I suppose it would have to be to have attained its special status. Unfortunately, the film adaptation this classic show received is an abomination, roughly on the same level of quality as the infamous film version of A Chorus Line. It tells you something that in a decade that produced such garbage as Glitter, From Justin to Kelly, The Country Bears, and the Nine movie, this is still the worst musical movie of the 2000s (it was actually filmed in 1995, but sat on the shelf for five years while its creators desperately tried to edit it into something watchable). Its rock-bottom incompetence is all the more unforgivable given what it’s based on, but absolutely nothing of the source play’s glories survives to redeem this z-grade cinematic nothing (after five years on the shelf, it wound up getting what basically amounted to a direct-to-video release, which was still frankly more than it deserved).
To begin with, the score is absolutely butchered. I understand why “It Depends On What You Pay” (also known as “The Rape Song”) wouldn’t fly in a film version, but the cuts don’t stop there. “Plant A Radish” is lost altogether, “Metaphor” has been given a truly embarrassing re-write, and almost every song has had verses sliced out of it. Strangest of all, the show’s most instantly recognizable hit, “Try To Remember”, has been cut, save for a brief fragment at the end, in what is probably the most blatantly illogical of the film’s bad decisions.
Joel Gray and Brad Sullivan play the two fathers: their sullen, gritty, artificial performances are completely out of style with the material, but at least they can act. The same cannot be said of Jean Louisa Kelly, who plays the role like she thinks she’s in a Disney TV special, or former boy-band member Joey McIntyre, who cannot deliver a single line of dialogue without embarrassing himself.
In the key role of El Gallo, which requires charisma, a sense of mystery, and a gorgeous, mellow singing voice, Jonathan Morris lacks all of these qualities to an astonishing degree: the writer who described him as ‘an ineffectual bore’ wasn’t far off the mark. The visuals are built around a cheap carnival setting used to literalize the show’s fantasy elements: these look consistently bargain-basement, almost deliberately so, and murder any sense of enchantment.
Granted, The Fantasticks was going to be pretty resistant to the screen treatment no matter what was done with it, but just like the A Chorus Line movie, the result was far worse than it had to be. In the admittedly unlikely event that any of you have seen the movie without prior knowledge of the show, don’t hold that butchered debacle’s quality against the real musical. But while the film version is best avoided, if you ever have a chance to see the show on stage, you should absolutely take it. It has more than earned all the records it’s set.