The Fantasticks (2010)
As the mysterious Mute begins to set the stage for what is to follow, El Gallo, the play’s narrator, invites us t to think of a time when life was simple (“Try to Remember”) and introduces the central characters: a boy (Matt), a girl (Luisa) and their parents (Hucklebee, Matt’s mother and Bellomy, Luisa’s father). The children are in love. Luisa just turned sixteen, lives in a fantasy world where she is a princess and dances all night (“Much More”). Matt, nearly twenty, is well educated, but so mesmerized by Luisa’s beauty that he forgets all that he has learned.
The parents have built a Wall (one of many elements provided by the Mute) to keep their children apart. As Matt and Luisa manage to express their love (“Metaphor”), they are interrupted by their parents. We then learn that the parents are not enemies, but are conspiring to bring their children together through a pretense of animosity. Their basic philosophy of parenthood is: If you want your children to do something, just tell them they can’t (“Never Say ‘No’”).
The fake hostility has achieved its aim, and now the feud must end so the children can wed. The parents arrange an abduction in which Matt, bringing the two families together, saves Luisa. They hire El Gallo to perform the abduction (“It Depends on What You Pay”). El Gallo introduces two actors who will assist him: Henry Albertson, an ancient actor who struggles to remember the most famous of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, and Mortimer, a specialist in dramatic death scenes.
Luisa and Matt meet at night (“Soon It’s Gonna Rain”). A battle ensues which culminates in the fake deaths of Henry, Mortimer and El Gallo. Matt is victorious! It appears that the play has found its happy ending and the families join in a frozen tableau (“Happy Ending”). Mute reminds El Gallo to tell the audience that Act One is over.
As the families struggle to hold the tableau, El Gallo indicates that the play may not end as happily as the end of Act One seemed to suggest. What appeared beautiful in the moonlight has lost its luster in the glare of the sun. Luisa thinks Matt looks different. Matt says he is not ready to get married. The parents realize that if their children get married they will become in-laws. No one is happy (“This Plum Is Too Ripe”).
Irritated by each other and their children, the parents gleefully reveal the subterfuge that brought Matt and Luisa together. The lovers are furious and, as the parents rebuild the wall, the lovers have a huge argument. Matt heads off to see the world (“I Can See It”) while Luisa pouts. El Gallo sends the actors along to abduct Matt and “teach” him a lesson about life.
As Matt is out in the world, learning from the hard knocks that Mortimer and Henry inflict, Luisa too has some lessons to learn. El Gallo begins a flirtation with her, and takes her on a tour of the world (“Round and Round”). She sees Matt being tortured and abused, but El Gallo tells her to look through the mask he has given her, and the world looks, falsely, sweet again. At the end of their journey, he tells her to pack her things so they can run away together but abandons her, leaving her heartbroken.
Matt returns from his own journey in time to try and stop El Gallo from hurting Luisa, but doesn’t succeed. Both lovers are deeply disappointed in the happy-ever-after they’d thought was theirs. El Gallo lets us know that he has hurt the children in order to help them grow. He believes that we must all die a little before we can truly live. Luisa and Matt reconcile (“They Were You”), and the parents, thrilled, start to tear down the wall again. El Gallo stops them, saying there must always be a wall, and reminds us that we must endure the pain of December if we are fully to appreciate the beauty of September (“Try To Remember” reprise).
WHY ALL THE WORLD LOVES THE FANTASTICKS
By Nathan Stith
We often speak of a play or musical having universal appeal, but what makes it speak to audiences across generations and beyond our borders? In the case of The Fantasticks, the answer may lie in the global influences upon the writers, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Schmidt and Jones attended the University of Texas at Austin, where they were introduced to a short play by Edmond Rostand (most famous for writing Cyrano de Bergerac) called Les Romanesques. This play, translated into English in 1900 by Constance Fletcher under the pen name George Fleming and titled The Fantasticks, turns Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on its head, with the fathers conspiring to create a false feud in order to bring their children together. Much of the first act of The Fantasticksis taken directly from Fletcher’s translation. Jones and Schmidt fill their story with allusions to Shakespeare’s works—for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s thematic use of moonlight and the many Shakespearean quotes spoken (or misspoken) by the old actor, Henry. The influence of European drama does not end here. Schmidt and Jones saw their characters as a traveling band of performers similar to those of the 16th-century commedia dell’arte. El Gallo represents the stock commedia character Harlequin, and Matt and Luisa are the young lovers, or innamorati. Commedia is invoked directly in the script when Hucklebee protests, “I’m no pantaloon!” referring to the commedia fool. Beyond Europe, we see Asian influences as well. The idea for the Mute was borrowed directly from Japanese theatre, and other Asian theatre conventions can be seen throughout the play. Tom Jones was also greatly influenced by the works of Thornton Wilder, particularly Our Town. El Gallo serves as our narrator, stopping the action and speaking directly to the audience, reminiscent of Wilder’s Stage Manager. Our Town’s minimalistic use of scenery also shaped The Fantasticks, an influence this summer’s CSF audiences can see for themselves.
The Fantasticks appeals to audiences across the world. Productions have appeared in more than 60 nations, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Chile. Japan has done a production annually since 1980, and it was the first American musical to be performed in the People’s Republic of China since the revolution of 1949. The most famous production remains the original, which opened on May 3, 1960 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in New York. It closed on January 13, 2002, after 17,162 performances, the longest-running musical in history. To put this number in perspective, the current longest-running musical on Broadway, Phantom of the Opera, played its 9,000th performance in September of 2009, still over 8,000 performances short of The Fantasticks’ record. It is clear that this simple little musical reaches beyond generations and borders with a truly nuniversal appeal.
The Fantasticks is often described as “sweet and innocent,” but in the original version of the script there are two aspects that prove problematic for modern producers. In the original, El Gallo and the parents of the young lovers stage a “rape” in an attempt to trick the couple into falling in love. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt used the term rape in the literary sense, from the Latin rapere, meaning “to seize and carry off by force.” Because of the obvious negative connotations of the term, a new song was added for the 1990 Thirtieth Anniversary tour to replace the original “Rape Ballet.” The other difficult issue in the play, which has not been updated or adjusted by the authors, is the negative depiction of a Native American. El Gallo hires two vaudevillian actors to assist him with the abduction, Henry and his sidekick, Mortimer. Mortimer enters the stage dressed in stereotypical Native American costume. While Henry acknowledges that Mortimer is “not a real Indian,” it is important that we acknowledge this negative depiction and contextualize itspresence.
In their original attempt at updating Rostand’s Les Romanesques (see dramaturg’s note), Jones and Schmidt were working on a lavish musical titled Joy Comes to Dead Horse. Joy was filled with stereotypical Western characters, and many, like the “dirty sombrero-wearing bandit,” were depicted negatively. Jones and Schmidt were raised in Texas in the 1930s, and it is likely that they often played the seemingly innocent game of “cowboys and Indians,” and that the negative depictions of Native Americans they grew up with made their way into the final script. It is also worth noting that Henry and Mortimer come from the world of vaudevillian theatre. The unfortunate reality of traditional American vaudeville is that much of its comedy is rooted in racial stereotypes.