By STEVEN NALLEY
The longest-running musical theatre production in history was not written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan.
It was an off-Broadway production written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, performed 17,162 times at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village between May 3, 1960 and Jan. 13, 2002.
Former Starkville High School theatre instructor Paula Mabry said she remembers the play gaining notoriety when she was in college, and she remembers taking her students to the Sullivan Street Theatre in 1990 to see the play during its 30th year.
“I loved the soundtrack of the original cast, which included Jerry Orbach of ‘Law and Order’ fame,” Mabry said. “The musical never changed venues in New York City until it closed in 2002. Although I had directed the first act for a competition festival while teaching theatre at SHS, I wanted to direct the entire show. (So), the Starkville Community Theatre play reading committee chose ‘The Fantasticks’ as its main stage musical this year.”
Starkville Community Theatre’s production of “The Fantasticks” runs Feb. 7-10 and Feb. 12-16, with nightly shows at 7:30 p.m. and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Feb. 10.
“The Fantasticks” combines comedy, tragedy and romance into a twist on the “Romeo and Juliet” narrative, where two families fake a feud to trick the lead characters, Matt and Luisa, into falling in love. Mabry, director of SCT’s production of “The Fantasticks,” said audiences can expect an imaginary world full of magic, and they can also expect an experience very similar to the original production.
“The playwrights took special pains to give the director instructions and guidelines on how to stage the musical so that the play unfolds in much the same way that it did in that little theatre in Greenwich Village for 40-plus years,” Mabry said. “The Fantasticks is a story of young love, two interfering parents, a swash-buckling bandit, two old actors, and a mute. It is a tale that includes a bit of Shakespeare, a smattering of Greek theatre, a hint of Italy’s commedia dell’arte and the traditions of American musical theatre.”
SCT actor Paul Ruff said audiences can also expect the unexpected. Since joining SCT in 1992, Ruff has been in more than 20 productions, and he said “The Fantasticks” is different from every single one.
“My favorite thing about ‘The Fantasticks’ is that it is unique,” Ruff said. “Several friends have asked me about the play, and I have a hard time describing what to expect.”
Ruff said his own character, the omniscient narrator and magical bandit El Gallo, illustrates how “The Fantasticks” subverts expectations. Neither fully good nor fully evil, he said, El Gallo is a trickster who manipulates other characters to do what he believes is best for them.
Brad Moreland, musical director for “The Fantasticks,” said El Gallo also has a musical number called “Round and Round” that starts with an entrancing innocence but grows progressively faster in tempo and more unhinged in tone. This song juxtaposes the dual natures of the play as a whole, he said; it initially appears to be a typical story of love conquering all, but it becomes much more.
“In the first act, the music is very light, jolly and, of course, romantic at times. Then comes the second act, where the rose-colored glasses come off and the inhabitants of this fairy tale-like world are brought to see the darker side of life, where all that glitters is not always gold,” Moreland said. “The musical score follows suit, going from a straightforward, easy listening style to a more thorny, sinister place full of syncopation, minor chords, and near madness at times. As with most all live theatre, the timing of the musicians and the actors on stage has to be synchronized perfectly, especially in the second act. SCT is most fortunate in this production to have such a multi-talented cast who have been able to pull off such musically demanding scenes with an apparent ease.”
John Brocato, who plays Matt’s father Hucklebee, said part of the reason “The Fantasticks” does not fit into the standard Broadway template is that Jones and Schmidt created it as a rebellion against that template while still using some of its tropes. While he had heard of “The Fantasticks” for years, he knew nothing about the show until preparing to audition for SCT’s production.
“I was surprised how quirky and off-center some of the show’s elements are,” Brocato said. “This musical was groundbreaking and ahead of its time back in the early 1960s, and I’ve found that it still seems ahead of its time after more than 50 years, probably because it is just plainly and simply unique.”