Jason Cochran

Stuff you never knew you never knew

Its Playbill in the 1990s, when I worked there.

Its Playbill in the 1990s, when I worked there.

The Fantasticks is closing in New York City. For good this time.

It’s not hard to have a personal relationship with a show that has been playing more or less consistently for 55 years—a lot of people were involved in presenting it over these nearly six decades. In the 1990s, I was one of them. I served as a sub assistant stage manager when it was playing at its original theatre, the Sullivan Street Playhouse.

I manually ran the lights using a slider control board that would have been considered low-tech even for a junior high prom. Every night, I preformed a ballet with the cast using only my fingers. I was hidden up in a booth and could only see through a tiny window, but my hands played a role in the pace of the show and the way I flicked my cues colored to the evening’s mood. I felt like one of the performers. My fingers still know many of the cues whenever I hear the music, and I still get a little misty when I hear its closing chords.

The toilets stank, the theatre had the mildewy atmosphere of the horse barn it used to be, but the show was cheap to produce—a stick, a sheet, a paper moon, a trick trunk, some colored confetti that it was my job to sweep up—so there were weekday nights that the cast outnumbered the audience. It did better with tourists over the weekends, and that way it plodded along like a zombie until it found itself deep into its AARP years.

While I was subbing there, a fresh-off-the-bus Oklahoma actress named Kristin Chenoweth was cast as the lead ingenue of Luisa. It was her first New York show, and her offbeat comic timing blew everyone away—or almost everyone. Although her memoir tells a different tale, the rumor around the Playhouse was that she was sacked by one of the authors for being too weird. I won’t say which writer did it since I got the story second-hand, but it’s not hard to imagine that her quirkiness might have taken some old-fashioned types aback at first.

This was Kristin Chenoweth then (with her Matt, Richard Roland).

This was Kristin Chenoweth then (with her Matt, Richard Roland).

“He said she was the worst Luisa he have ever seen,” went the grapevine gossip. She was gone before some of us could say goodbye. I came in one night and asked why a new girl was on and Jim, the stage manager, told me the story while my mouth fell open.

Everyone in the cast and crew was appalled because we loved her and she was a joy to work with. She wasn’t terrible. She was a revelation beyond her years, hilarious, and the lyrical power of her voice could make the equipment tremble, or maybe it was the rickety lumber that held everything together. We were depressed that anyone would have the poor judgment to fire a talent so singular. Her book doesn’t mention the story as I heard it, but it doesn’t matter much now: She did just fine in the end, which makes me happy. I’m happy how she was too generous to drag her old boss through the mud in her memoir over a blip in her ascendance—she allows other people to tell the tales. And it’s inspiring how she didn’t allow the letdown of her first big New York job to deter her from trying again. She kept going.

So did the show. The press generally pretends that the current production at the Snapple Theatre Center is the original, but it isn’t. The original one closed in 2002 after nearly 42 years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, which was subsequently torn down, and four years later an identical production re-opened at the Snapple. At nine years, even the run of the revival was impressive, made possible in part by its no-budget production costs.

(In between, a horrible 1995 film version was shot, then wisely shelved for five years, then released with far less embarrassment than it deserved; it was execrable and contained none of the charm that made the stage show work.

The show closes on May 3rd, its 55th anniversary on the dot. It will have racked up 20,672 performances—enough to make its original investors—or at this point, more likely their descendants—enough profit to buy second homes.

You could write a book about the long history of The Fantasticks, and in fact, several people have. I covered its history for the back page of Entertainment Weekly in 1997 (I got to ask Robert Goulet about his experiences in it, and he issued one of my favorite quotes of all time: “Honestly, I worked my bananas off!”). You can read that article here.

A few years ago, upon the show’s half-century mark, I interviewed a few of these lucky investors on the stage of The Fantasticks for Aol. Donald C. Farber, whom you’ll meet, was a close friend of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr—and his literary agent. I had to restrain myself from asking about the writer.Now around 90, he just released a memoir about Vonnegut, I Hated to Do It: Stories of a Life.

Here’s the video. They’ve since made another 5 years’ worth of cash.

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