You wonder how these things begin. For Harvey Schmidt, co-writer of the longest-running musical in history — who died last week at 88 — and his collaborator, Tom Jones, it began when the two were students at the University of Texas.
In a sense it really began in their romantic hearts. No one could have written what these men wrote, unless they had ever been deeply and passionately in love. For those who consider themselves romantics, “The Fantasticks” allowed a young man to express his love for a girl without having to come up with the words himself.
The girl I took to see the show at the old Sullivan Theatre in New York remembers a half-century later. I know she does, though I haven’t seen her in almost that long. We went on to be captured by other loves, but speaking only for myself, I have never forgotten that night, that girl or that feeling.
In an age of so much political turmoil and nasty expressions of dislike, even hatred, for others, “The Fantasticks” provided a respite, a shelter, from the political storms.
Try to remember, if you can, and if you never saw the show or listened to the music, go to YouTube where it remains. “The Fantasticks” is about many things, but mostly it is about love. It touches the deepest recesses of one’s being and recalls memories of youthful emotions that were sometimes lost, but always recalled when the music plays in one’s head … or on a satellite radio.
It’s also about that “special place where someone held your hand. And love was sweeter than the berries or the honey. Or the stinging taste of mint. It is April — before a rainfall. Perfect time to be in love.”
See what I mean? As you read Jones’ words and listen to Schmidt’s haunting tunes, no matter your age today, you can “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow.”
Is contemporary life ever slow and mellow? Not in Washington and in the big cities. Too often it is fast and bitter. Was life ever tender? Was there a time when “no one wept, except the willow” and “dreams were kept beside your pillow?” One wishes for that time.
A thin plot was all this little play needed. In the end, it was less about two fathers attempting to manipulate the lives of a son and daughter as it was a showcase for some wonderful songs. This was long before “Mamma Mia,” “Jersey Boys” and the current “Margaritaville” served as Broadway vehicles for hit tunes.
In 1992, “The Fantasticks” received a Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre. It remains the only off-Broadway show to ever have won a Tony, and deservedly so.
The show is a staple of high school productions and amateur theater companies. But for those of us who saw it early in its run, bought the album and memorized the lyrics to quote to a girl we loved, it is more than a show; it is a life experience never to be forgotten.
To that girl I took to see the show long ago in more innocent times, I offer this memory, hoping she will read it and will try to remember:
“When the dance was done,
When I went my way,
When I tried to find rainbows far away,
All the lovely lights
Seemed to fade from view:
They were you.
They were you.
They were you.”