Fifty-four years ago this month — almost to the day, actually — The Star ran a review of a new musical that was running at the John Drew Theater of Guild Hall. The play was “The Fantasticks,” and I wrote the review, one of its first. Today, The Star is to publish another review I wrote of a new musical. This time it is “My Life Is a Musical” at the Bay Street Theater. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose?
All these years, I have been dining out, so to speak, on what I’ve described as my own misbegotten moxie in panning a theatrical masterpiece that went on to run continuously for 42 years and 17,162 performances. The problem with my handy-dandy dinner-party anecdote is that I didn’t really pan it.
“The Fantasticks” had already opened at the Sullivan Street Theater in Manhattan, in May of 1960, when it came to Guild Hall in August. Although I remembered thinking it was too corny to make it for very long in the Big City, and I even called some of the lyrics “sophomoric” in the song “Try to Remember” — “without a hurt the heart is hollow” — the review was generally positive. Looking back, I am excusing myself for the word “sophomoric”; I was a recent college graduate.
Knowing that memory, at least mine, plays tricks, I went to The Star’s archives this week to take a look. It turns out that, in addition to sophomoric, I called the musical “an ingenious kind of vaudeville for the modern stage.” I praised Jerry Orbach, the original narrator and villain, as “the best member of the cast” and said Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics and also took the role of the Old Actor, was “excellent.” The review concluded that “like vaudeville, it is light entertainment that is soon forgotten but, for the moment, entirely captivating.”
When “The Fantasticks”closed in 2002, its passing was widely reported. It had been viewed as a musical incarnation of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and more than one generation of theatergoers had been enchanted by it. It has been produced in 67 countries and on innumerable high school and college campuses.
When it was revived on Broadway in 2006, Ben Brantley of The New York Times noted with approval that it had “no artificial amplification or special effects” in an era of over-the-top productions. But he also said it began with “whimsy preserved in formaldehyde” and had some “spun-sugar poetry.” Even if I had been clever enough to choose those words, back as a slightly pretentious recent college graduate in 1960, I wouldn’t have had the nerve.
But you know what? Today, sitting at the computer writing this, I can’t get “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” out of my head. I have no idea whether what I’ve written about Bay Street Theater’s new show, “My Life Is a Musical,” is on target, but I certainly wish it will “follow, follow, follow” the success of “The Fantasticks.”