When I told our British babysitter we were off to see The Fantasticks, she’d of course heard of it, but was a little foggy on what it’s about: “The Jersey shore?”
As someone who’s seen the show about a half dozen times, I’m still foggy on what it’s about. But it’s no surprise an Englishwoman would be unfamiliar: The Fantasticks has been extremely popular around the world; the only civilized country that hasn’t embraced it is the United Kingdom. They find it a little hard to swallow, a bit twee. I’ve always found it magical and romantic.
Which reminds me of one of the first comments received on this blog. The subject was the poeticism of West Side Story’s lyrics:
There’s another consideration to be had in any discussion of romanticism in lyrics: the audience’s perception. Most people who make love in song come across to most people as either unschooled doe-eyed ninnies or total bullshitters. What would be your reaction if you saw a teenaged boy in real life say to his girlfriend, “Today, the world was just an address” or “Tonight there will be no morning star”? You’d think he was a bullshitter, because the falseness of those lines would convey exactly that.
The commenter is a very intelligent twenty-something composer. To him, Sondheim’s expressions of love sound hackneyed or unbelievable. To enjoy The Fantasticks, one has to buy into the idea that when people speak love, they’re apt to speak in unrealistic or flowery terms, and certain clichés can be seen as the trappings of humanity: we feel first love the way all others do, and all the generations before us.
The origins of The Fantasticks are not unlike the origins of West Side Story. The authors wanted to set Romeo and Juliet somewhere more relatable than mid-millennium Verona. Two sons-of-a-preacher-man from Texas set out to write about star-crossed teens in the Lone Star State. Discovering a French play by Edmond Rostand (author of Cyrano de Bergerac), Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt eventually abandoned the Texas setting. I didn’t have a response for that Jersey shore misapprehension, for the show is set nowhere. And everywhere.
I also didn’t have a response to the fellow who felt “Tonight there will be no morning star” rings false. To me, it doesn’t. To me, the Hallmark card lyricism of the libretto is of a piece, used with consistency, and is artful enough to cast a spell. In fact, early on, The Fantasticks asks us to check our cynicism at the door and go back to a time in which nature and the thrill of first love seemed like pure wonder. Try to remember when life was so tender that dreams were kept beside your pillow.
That opening imploration, Try to Remember became the hit song that emerged from the score. It’s fair to say most people who see The Fantasticks have heard it before. And the song is so intriguing, the listener wants to know more about the world it lives in. Put differently: many people heard Try to Remember and decided to buy a ticket to The Fantasticks, which is a major part of the reason it became the longest-running musical of all time.
The lyric not only describes a different universe, it inhabits one. It not only utilizes false rhymes (remember/tender), it sets up a pattern of using words ending in –low in the place where a rhyme would normally be (pillow/follow). When the show opened in 1960, show tunes simply didn’t do this. It was a shock to the ear.
But an even greater shock to the ear is the vocabulary of Harvey Schmidt’s music. It’s based in contemporary jazz, and what might be called smooth and quasi bluesy piano noodling. It’s scored for piano and harp. It has a harmonic palette that, like Jones’ near-rhymes, hadn’t been heard much in previous musical theatre scores. Go to a piano and play a C major seventh followed by a G minor ninth. The juxtaposition is a little odd, a little unexpected, but satisfying, like a surprising zest of lemon in a vanilla gelato.
Whew, now I’m getting poetic. This thing is contagious. Seems time I say something about the book, which is the least impressive element. When Jones and Schmidt finally got to Broadway with a Texas-set show, David Merrick teamed them up with an experienced playwright. Very few things happen in The Fantasticks. Ample time is expended on introductions, and the narrator’s odes on the emotions characters are going through. An even greater amount of time gets taken up with shtick. There’s an Old Actor who remembers his good reviews but not the most famous speeches in Shakespeare. He and his assistant, a faux-Tonto, provide comic relief with the hoariest of humor tropes. Last month we had the good fortune of seeing John Davidson in the role. He has nearly a half century of history with the show, having played the Boy in the Hallmark Hall of Fame television adaptation, opposite Liza Minnelli. There’s also vaudevillian routines for the fathers, who fulminate over gardening: one over-waters, the other over-trims. And, as has been written about endlessly, there’s a comedy song that had to be rewritten due to the public’s changing view of a now-offending word, surgically removing the funny. (Perhaps a certain senatorial candidate was on to something: there’s a distinction between “legitimate” and “staged abduction paid for by fathers to solidify their kids’ love.”)
So, we have a Romeo and Juliet, a bildungsroman, cool jazz, imagery and silly tropes as old as Commedia mixed together. And guess what: the amalgam works incredibly well. I’ll tell you the gold standard for me. If a musical’s going to be about love – and another example is Broadway’s longest runner, The Phantom of the Opera – I want to experience the emotions of love in the theatre. For me, Phantom fails on that score: Raoul and Christine and that self-pitying sunburnt fellow in the mask – I care not a whit for them. But Matt and Luisa, coming together after the petty obstacles placed in their way – that gets to me.
They Were You, in my household, is used as a lullaby. Touches me every time, as if I’m again experiencing the discovery the maturing teens from The Fantasticks do. All my wildest dreams multiplied by two: they were you.