Who says no show can run forever?
"The Fantasticks," which almost closed three years ago after a record run for a musical of 27 years, is gearing up to celebrate 30 years of playing at the same Greenwich Village theater next year.It got its 30th anniversary celebrations started recently by returning to the stage at Barnard College where the show actually premiered as an experimental work.
It was on March 21, 1959, that a hundred people gathered in a tiny Barnard College hall to see the first performance of the musical by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, hearing for the first time the show's hit song, "Try to Remember".
The audience that night included producer Lore Noto, who opened "The Fantasticks" professionally a year later to mixed reviews, spending most of his life savings to do so.
Three decades later, a crowd of more than 500 gathered at Barnard to see a 30th anniversary production of "The Fantasticks", which was transferred for the night from the play's long-standing Sullivan Street Theatre stage in Greenwich Village.
In the audience once again were Jones, Schmidt and Noto.
"It seems like five years ago," says Schmidt. "I hadn't been back up here much and yet when I walked by all these buildings, it was as if it was only a few years ago that all this started."
The play is the longest-running professional musical ever and second only to Britain's "Mousetrap" for a straight play. "Mousetrap" opened in London in 1952 and is still going strong but it switched theaters in 1974, leaving "The Fantasticks" with the record for longest-running play at the same theater.
"The Fantasticks" has played in all 50 states and 67 foreign countries, enjoying over 8,200 productions.
It has helped start the careers of such performers as Elliot Gould, Liza Minnelli, Richard Chamberlain, John Davidson, Ricardo Montalban and Jerry Orbach.
Producer Noto says he was tired of the cynical "kitchen-sink" drama of the day, and when he "saw this at Barnard, I was convinced this is where the theater should find its place."
Based on an 18th century play by Edmund Rostand, it tells a simple love story in verse with characters named Boy, Girl, Boy's Father, and Girl's Father, on a bare stage with only minimal costuming.
But the appeal, says Jones, has been universal.
"It can be taken on different levels. On a children's level, it's a fairy tale. On another level, it's a metaphor for cyclical, seasonal rebirth," the author said.
Schmidt says the piece originally wasn't about Rostand's two families, but about two warring ranches in the west, and he envisioned a huge Broadway production with men on horseback.
When this didn't happen, Jones and Schmidt were ready to give up, but got a call from a friend, director Word Baker, who was looking for a one-act musical to direct in a triple-bill at Barnard that summer.
They threw out all the material they had written except a song, "Try to Remember," and in less than three weeks dashed off a small one-act play using experimental techniques like a narrator, an onstage property man, and a crude wooden platform.
Since then, Jones and Schmidt, who met at the University of Texas as students in 1950, have taken great care with maintaining the play.
The pair tries to cast all the replacement actors for the piece and to make sure that the production stays essentially true to the original work.
"It has to be cared for and nurtured," says Jones. "The first 10 years we were good. The second 10, less so. But that last 10 years, we've done very little."
"We've depended on a very good stage manager," says Schmidt.
Noto says the play has always done well financially, and lately has tapped into the international tourist market with large numbers of Japanese visitors buying tickets.
Three years ago, Noto almost closed the play when he discovered he had cancer. But, he says, there was such an outcry from the public and the professional theater world that he relented and brought in a friend, Don Thompson, to take over production.
Jones and Schmidt, who aren't content to rest on their achievements, left the Barnard performance at intermission to go home and work on their new musical, "Grover's Corners," based on Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which starts touring this fall.