Having recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, The Fantasticks is the longest running show in the United States. Written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, it first opened in 1960 with a cast inclding Jerry Orbach (Law & Order) and Rita Gardner. It has since played to seven U.S. Presidents and spawned productions in 68 countries around the world. Because of its simple set and its spare orchestrations (only a piano and harp are used Off Broadway) it is also the most frequently produced show by amateur theater groups and schools around the nation.

The success of the show can be attributed to the universal appeal of its story. While it follows a relatively simple plot the themes at the center of the piece are what enable it to touch so many people. The plot follows the love story between a boy, Matt, and a girl, Luisa. Aided by the presence of a narrator, who also serves as a character in the show, the theatrical devices of the show are familiar and move the story along without calling attention to themselves. Throughout the first act we see the love relationship between the two young leads develop in a naive, almost gullible manner as their marriage is, unwittingly, pre-arranged by their respective fathers. In the second act the illusory love created in the first is challenged and each character goes their separate ways to learn about life for themselves. Their equally narcissistic love turns to one of true depth and honesty; making the simple conclusion all the more effective.

The magic of the show lies in its attitude toward the audience. It is romantic without reeking of sentimentality and intelligent without seeming pretentious or didactic. Ultimately, the show is about balance: between idealization and realism, and between naivety and innocence. I think the message is best captured in a line from the opening song: "Without a hurt the heart is hollow." Whatever the reason for its success, The Fantasticks is an amazing show which has rightfully earned its tremendous run and will hopefully entertain and enlighten audiences for years to come.

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       Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks is a fabulously well-written musical, and it’s easy to see why it ran for a record number of years. In order to fully appreciate the play, the best thing to do is see a production, even if it's your local high school or community theatre group. If that's not an option, you should read it as well as listen to the soundtrack. The music isn’t fantastic in the grandiose, epic, sweeping sense; rather, it’s small, and there are no big flashy chorus numbers. There is also a very small cast, which gives the show an intimate feeling. However, I think the most significant part of the play is what may be termed the “vegetative myth.” This refers to the timeless theme of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and moon, the natural cycle of growth and death and rebirth that progresses endlessly in an unbroken circle. Jones and Schmidt clearly knew what they were doing when they centered their story around the vegetative myth. The play follows the cycle of seasons, and the story of two young lovers progresses along the same path, budding like spring, blossoming like summer, withering like autumn, dying like winter, and being reborn once more like spring.

       The lovers are Luisa and Matt, who live next to each other, but can only communicate with each other through a high wall that stands between their houses. Their fathers have built the wall to separate their homes, because they do not get along, and they forbid their children to be friends with one another. However, it is soon revealed that the dads have been cleverly fooling their kids. They are actually good friends, and keep up the pretense of a feud because they know it will get their children interested in each other, and they hope to marry them off to each other. It follows a reverse psychology parenting belief that if you tell your children “no” about something, they’ll go right ahead and do it, and vice versa. In fact, to further their ploy, the fathers orchestrate the staged abduction of Luisa by a bandit, El Gallo (el guy-oh), specifically so that Matt can save her.

       One of the smallest, yet most poignant aspects of this show is actually just a tiny lyric change that occurs between Act I and Act II. In the beginning of the show, Matt and Luisa sing a duet, “You Are Love.” And every time Matt sings “Love, you are love,” to Luisa, she responds with “I am love.” It is worth noting that at the end of the play, they reprise the song, and this time they both sing “Love, you are love/ you are love,” to each other, showing that they have grown into their love together and are no longer self-centered children. However, this is only one of many changes, both subtle and dramatic, that occur in the course of the play. Both of the young lovers grow up a bit, and are more mature, older, a bit less “loud” by the end. They have both lost some of their innocence and youthful naivete, in exchange for maturity and wisdom, for true love instead of just fancy.

subtle and dramatic As a theatre professor of mine once said, “Growing up means having the shit kicked out of your innocence.” That sounds cynical, and maybe even a bit harsh, but it’s basically the truth. Matt and Luisa start out bright-eyed and convinced they are in love. But when that love sours, they go their separate ways, and the world pretty much kicks the shit out of them. Eventually they find their way back to each other, and their love is reborn more strongly and permanently than before. The death and rebirth theme is truly beautiful in the context of this play, and the authors work the book and music flawlessly to weave a story of uncompromising beauty, pain, and love.

       El Gallo explains why he had to hurt the young lovers -- so that they could grow up.


EL GALLO:
There is a curious paradox
That no one can explain.
Who understands the secret
Of the reaping of the grain?

Who understands why Spring is born
Out of Winter’s laboring pain?
Or why we all must die a bit
Before we grow again.

I do not know the answer.
I merely know it’s true.
I hurt them for that reason;
And myself a little bit, too.

-- "There is a curious paradox" from The Fantasticks, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.

       If you enjoyed The Fantasticks or would like to learn more about the vegetative myth (or better yet, the "dying god motif"), I suggest you read Celebration, another musical by Jones and Schmidt.

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