1. Lyricist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt, friends from the University of Texas, spend much of the fifties writing a musical—a small-town love story with fairy-tale elements—from a play called The Fantasticks, itself based on the 1894 Les Romanesques, by Edmond Rostand. They try out a stripped-down, one-act production at Barnard College in 1959, piquing the interest of three Off Broadway producers.
2. The team chooses an enthusiastic fellow named Lore Noto, and opens on May 3, 1960, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, to tepid reviews. “Perhaps The Fantasticks is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures,” writes Brooks Atkinson in the Times. (He’ll be very wrong.) But a following grows, particularly for 24-year-old Jerry Orbach as El Gallo, and Rita Gardner as Luisa. The show turns a profit by fall and goes on tour.
3. Everyone from Harry Belafonte to Barbara Mandrell to Roy Orbison records “Try to Remember.” Jones and Schmidt finally get to Broadway in 1963 with 110 in the Shade, but The Fantasticks stays in its 150-seat theater—while spawning about 15,000 productions worldwide, and training future stars from F. Murray Abraham to Glenn Close.
4. With feminism on the rise in the seventies, Jones reworks a song titled “The Rape Ballet.” Dozens of jokey references to rape are cut. Regional productions use an adapted “Abduction Song,” which Jones calls “serviceable, but not nearly as much fun as the original.”
5. By the eighties, profits begin to dwindle. Noto nearly ends the run in 1986, but an outcry—and a boost in box office—keep it running. A 30th-anniversary tour in 1990 ends prematurely when star Robert Goulet bolts (reportedly to join a Naked Gun sequel). A movie version is shot in 1995, starring Joel Grey, and it briefly surfaces in theaters in 2000. At least once, the New York cast plays to an audience of one.
6. Forty-two years in, Noto, gravely ill, pulls the plug, saying the show is “swimming in red ink” and the building’s new owner plans to deep-six the theater. The last show (sold-out, of course) is on January 13, 2002. At 17,162 performances, The Fantasticks is the longest-running musical ever (and the second-longest-running play, behind Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap—still onstage in London, since 1952). Noto dies the following July.
7. In 2005, producers approach lyricist Jones, then 77, with the idea of reviving the show in midtown’s new Snapple Theater. He’s all for it, and promises the revival will be far superior to the final years on Sullivan Street. But one character, the Old Actor, will be played by an old hand, Thomas Bruce—a.k.a. Jones himself. “I’m getting up there in years,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be fun to have one last hurrah?” He will, starting August 23.