Saturday, June 10, 2017

Broadway and The Fantasticks

The annual Tony Awards ceremony is tomorrow evening.  The Tonys are the prizes for the year's best Broadway plays.  

Early odds favor "Dear Evan Hanson" as the best musical; "Oslo," a play about the 1990s Israel-PLO peace negotiations, as the best drama; and Bette Midler as the best actress for playing Bette Midler Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!"

Meanwhile in New York, "The Fantasticks" is closing.  After a 42-year run starting in 1960, the play closed in 2002 because its Greenwich Village theater space was being redeveloped.  Then, in 2005, it was revived in another theater on West 50th Street, where it has run for another 12 years.   

With "Our Town," it is one of the most durable plays of the last century, economical to produce and with an evergreen story of young love and a memorable song with a circle-of-life theme. Outside New York, it has been performed by small theater companies and school drama departments worldwide. 

Here's a little rundown from 2016.

"The Fantasticks" was designed to be small; it is performed on a spartan stage by a cast of eight actors and employs a piano and harp for musical accompaniment.  It is a little play that has gone the distance.

I used to say that I was the only person born in the 20th century who had not seen "The Fantasticks."  When I heard the play was closing, I decided it was time to buy a ticket. 

It was great fun to watch, if perhaps dated in a couple ways.  I can imagine parents taking their children to see it, at least in the years before 1994, when Disney launched "Beauty and the Beast," the first of its lavish Broadway spectacles.  The children in my Fantasticks audience loved the slapstick and jokes while their parents got the references to Shakespearean plays.  

For a light play, "The Fantasticks" has deep roots:  These trace to a doomed-lovers' story in Ovid's Metamorphoses, proceed through Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and continue to French playwright Edmond Rostand's lighter treatment in "Les Romanesques" at the end of the 19th century.  Fantasticks combines the comedic theme of the Rostand play with a later plot twist, and it includes much of the silliness of Shakespeare's play-within-a-play in Midsummer Night's Dream.  

Theater as Investment

The first investors in "The Fantasticks" were either smarter than Warren Buffett or very lucky.  Their good fortune was described in a  2010 New York Times article.

Theater is a tough game for investors.  The traditional procedure is to open in a small venue or a regional theater,  and then, if a play proves out, to move to Broadway for the big, money-making run, as "Hamilton" did. 

Another, theoretically safer way to go is to Broadway-ize an already popular property.  This perhaps started with "The Producers," the 2001 musical remake of a 1968 movie; the play won 12 Tonys and ran for six years in New York and in theaters nationwide.  It also has worked for the many Disney stories.

Two seasons ago, "Fun Home," a musical based on a first-person graphic novel was big hit. Last year, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," a novel about an autistic boy, was turned into a successful play.  

This year's Broadway adaptation is a theatrical version of "Groundhog Day," the popular 1993 movie.  

This doesn't always work, of course. Investors socked $75 million into a flawed Broadway Spiderman musical that failed to earn out and probably assured that no other superhero plays will be tried in New York anytime soon.

Back to the Tonys

Here's a fun question:  What Broadway musical won the Tony best musical award for the year "The Fantasticks" was released?  

Answer:  "Bye Bye Birdie," which ran for about 600 performances and was made into a movie.

My guess is you would have a difficult time finding anyone under the age of 50 who has heard of that play or film.

"The Fantasticks," an off-Broadway (small theater) production, was not eligible, but it has resonated with audiences in well over 20,000 New York performances, among others.

There's something to be said for staying power.

The Song

Here is a nice rendition of the play's most remembered song.

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