On January 13, 2002 at New York’s tiny Sullivan Street Playhouse, the world’s longest-running musical finally came to a close. After a 42-year run, “The Fantasticks” by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt tallied its 17,162nd and final performance.
“Try To Remember: The Fantasticks” is a pleasant new documentary that traces the unlikely and extraordinary history of “The Fantasticks” from its humble beginnings as a one-act summer entertainment staged by a college theater company to its rise as one of the most performed musicals in the history of theater. With more than 11,000 productions staged in the U.S. and more than 700 productions staged in 67 different countries (including 25 foreign language versions), “The Fantasticks” has been a force of nature without rival.
In many ways, it is easy to understand the popularity of this show. For starters, the content of the production makes it a sure-fire commercial offering: a lilting score that includes many soft pop standards (most notably “Try to Remember”), a sweetly comic plot that mixes forbidden love with youthful rebellion and a touch of hard-won wisdom, and a minimalist simplicity that does not require elaborate sets or production values. The timeless quality of “The Fantasticks” can actually be attributed in large part to its often under-recognized source, a minor play by Edmond Rostand (better known for his “Cyrano de Bergerac”).
Yet from a marketing standpoint, it is hard to comprehend why “The Fantasticks” had such a freakishly long run in New York. The initial reviews were mixed and the promotion of the show came primarily from word-of-mouth, which is especially tricky for a New York theatrical production. There was also competition from a popular 1965 NBC television version with Ricardo Montalban and Bert Lahr (which is not included in this film) and the glut of productions from around the U.S. normally should have canceled any chance of attracting from tourists coming to New York, who make up a high quantity of the city’s theater audiences. Even changes in societal attitudes, especially in the rebellion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, would have made the property seem anachronistic. A film version made by Michael Ritchie in 1995 was a conspicuous flop, though its failure could be blamed on the filmmaker’s poor decision to “open” the work with elaborate sets and wide locations and on MGM’s decision to shelve the film for five years before dumping it without warning in a few theaters.
Yet the New York run of “The Fantasticks” survived and prospered, until it finally began to show its age in playing to three-quarter-empty houses; the disastrous effects of the post-9/11 economy in New York clearly had a major impact, but no one mentions that here. When the show’s closing was announced, the audiences returned in full. But it was too late to save the show and the theater, which has since been shut down and remains vacant.
“Try To Remember: The Fantasticks” provides a tapestry interviews with Jones and Schmidt and a host of people with a wide variety of connections to the work including Jerry Orbach (the star of the original 1960 version), F. Murray Abraham (who played in the New York run during the late 1960s), gossip columnist Liz Smith (who was a classmate of Jones and Schmidt at the University of Texas in the 1950s), and talk show host Joe Franklin (the only audience member present at both the opening night and closing night productions). Also included are clips from Russian and Japanese stage versions, a community theater version from Utica, N.Y., and a rare promotional film of Jones and Schmidt in the 1960s singing “Try to Remember” (and not doing a great job). It is a shame that no footage could be found of a production starring Robert Goulet as El Gallo, as the publicity photos of that particular show have the star mugging with an eye-popping excess that must have been too unintentionally funny to endure.
Strangely, “Try To Remember: The Fantasticks” makes no mention of Jones and Schmidt’s subsequent works (none of which ever achieved the level of popularity as this production). And for the record, it never acknowledges that “The Fantasticks” is not the longest running theatrical production in the world; that honor goes to the Agatha Christie mystery “The Mousetrap” in London (which, truth be told, is much more deserving of having a documentary tribute).
But for anyone loves “The Fantasticks,” this one-hour documentary is a fine reminder of why this musical is so beloved.