The wall is a stick and the moon is made of paper, two of the characters are mutes, and “The Fantasticks” was written in just three weeks- Despite these sparse particulars, it has become the longest running musical in the world. Performed in 80 foreign countries and over 5,000 U.S. cities, this enchanting musical will come to the stage at Western Carolina on Feb. 26 and will be directed by Dennis Jackson.
Jackson will be making his directorial debut as director of this well-known musical, taking his cast from Western’s own University Players. Jackson is Western’s new Carolyn Plemmons Phillips & Ben R. Phillips Distinguished Professor in musical theatre. He arrived last August from the University of Colorado where, as the head of the Opera Program, he accepted a “Program for Excellence” award by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Jackson has directed more than 30 plays and taken part in even more productions.
“I’m not sure of the plays written nowadays – whether they will have worth and be performed 200 years from now. Who knows?” Jackson said. “‘The Fantasticks’ has the potential to be performed in 200 years. It is not topical. It has intrinsic value.” The musical has withstood the test of time thus far. “The Fantasticks” is the most frequently produced musical in the world, as well as the longest running show. The Vietnam War, man’s first step on the moon, the civil rights movement – this play was being performed during all these events.
“The Fantasticks” was written as a collaborative effort by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt who met in college at Texas University. Neither of them planned on writing for a living at the time they met. Instead, Jones studied performing arts and Schmidt was an art major. Their first collaboration was a play called “Hipsy-Boo” and was directed by mutual friend Word Baker who would go on to be the catalyst for what would become “The Fantasticks.”
The plot involves two fathers who pretend to be feuding in order to make their children fall in love – spoofing Romeo & Juliet. They do fall in love. When a pretend abductor is brought into the action and the lovers realize that the feud was contrived in the second act, the plot takes a turn towards the unexpected. The play examines love as it evolves from naÃ¯ve first-love to maturity, taking many dramatic and distressing turns along the way.
After college, the two moved to New York together where Schmidt became the first graphic artist for NBC. They continued to pursue playwriting in their spare time and wanted to use “Le Romanesques,” a play by Edmond Rostand, to be the framework of their next play. They were thinking in grandiose measures and the play was becoming very extravagant. Then, Baker stepped in and told them if they’d write a two act musical in three weeks, then he would give them a production of it three weeks later. That musical turned out to be “The Fantasticks.”
The writers wanted to experiment with the play because they knew that they were no longer writing for Broadway. They kept the setting simple- it never visibly changes onstage aside from a hanging moon that is replaced in the second act by a sun. They still used “Le Romanesques” as the framework but scaled down their original desire for flamboyance to a bare minimum.
Working alongside Richard Beam and Ginger Poole from the theatre and choreography departments, Jackson does not plan to greatly alter the original staging of this musical.
“If a show is good, you don’t have to fool with it. I am concerned about any director who would want to fix a masterpiece. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
However, a few changes will be seen. Two mutes will act instead of the originally scripted use of one. The mutes act as the stage hands and are visibly present on stage for the duration of the play. Also, instead of a male dancer, Jackson uses these two females for the part.
“Everybody has their own ideas of how the play should be done, but the world would be dull if we all drove yellow fords,” Jackson said.
A song lyric that hints at the twists to come in the second act says, “Who understands why spring is born of winter’s pain or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?”
The play gained so much attention after its first performance at Barnard’s College (1960) that the authors got to choose between off-Broadway playhouses. The Sullivan Street playhouse, owned by Noto, got the bid. Lore Noto liked the play so much that he quit his job as a graphic artist to produce and act in the play. When he tried to close the play after 26 years (1986) since its inception, people petitioned. They got their way and the play was performed for 15 more years there.
Now, the American classic has made its way to our college. Jackson will be holding a brown-bag preview at 12:00 in the Coulter recital hall on February 25th. Here, people will have a chance to meet the actors and watch them perform selected songs from the musical. The brown-bag lunch is a tradition that Jackson started at the University of Colorado. He hopes it will thrive here as it did there – sometimes drawing hundreds of people from the university and surrounding areas.
“Come see it. It’s a wonderful show. [The youth] can relate; it’s about youthful people and the fight and dilemma about ‘what is love?'” The play will be performed in Hoey Auditorium in its entirety at 7:30 P. M. between February 26th and March 1st and then at 2:00 P. M. on March 1st and 2nd. For ticket information call 227-7491.