“The Fantasticks” premiered in 1960 Off Broadway, where it ran for 42 years — 17,162 performances — making it the longest-running musical in history. It continues to be performed throughout the world continually, with some 250 new productions each year.
That creates something of a double-edged sword for Susanna Gellert, Weston Playhouse’s new executive artistic director, who is making her directing debut at Vermont’s oldest professional theater with the musical.
“There’s a real community that’s really important, of people who grew up with this musical, who know it,” she said recently between rehearsals. “And then I started to think, how do I create the next generation of people who want to connect to it today, and not at the expense of people who know it already?”
Weston Playhouse Theatre Company will present “The Fantasticks,” with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, June 20-July 13 at the historic Weston Playhouse on the Weston village green.
The story is a quintessential teen love story. Two neighboring fathers, Bellomy and Huckabee, trick their children, Luisa and Matt, into falling in love by feuding and building a wall. To bring matters to a head, the fathers hire a professional, the dashing El Gallo, to stage an abduction of Luisa so that Matt can save her. But, of course, things don’t go quite as planned.
While “Try to Remember” is certainly most memorable, the score is filled with songs that are charming and witty. The combination has led to television and film versions of this ever-popular show.
“What that first audience’s experience was, that kind of magic and wonder and surprise and shock,” Gellert said. “One of the things we’re learning about this play is how deep it gets, but also how it plays extremes. There is the height of joy, and the depth of sorrow — and it happens in 5 minutes.”
The creators called it a play, rather than a musical.
“There’s a simplicity to it,” Gellert said, “and that simplicity is about theater and imagination. It’s so much how the audience’s imagination completes the picture in all the ways we can cast ourselves into those people.”
Also key to the show’s success was its intimacy.
“When they premiered it in 1960, it was in that tiny theater where the audience and the actors were virtually one and the same — there was a foot distance between them,” Gellert said. “As I look how we’re going to approach it, it’s really just saying, if it was happening now, what is it?”
As Gellert does with any theater, from Shakespeare to musicals, she went first to the text, looking to the dialogue, the language that is spoken and sung. The script for “The Fantasticks” includes detailed stage instructions, but she chose to ignore those for the moment in favor of the direction she found in the dialogue.
Casting allowed for another look at the essence of the show.
“I did want to have a younger El Gallo (who is usually portrayed as a mature adult), so I was looking at a younger ensemble and an older ensemble,” Gellert said. “Interestingly, in the younger ensemble, not all know this play, it was a first time. So, with older actors in auditions, it was getting them to explore new things, and for young actors, it was finding the story. It was magic.”
One problem is that the list of actors in New York who have played in the original production is a long one.
“And you see this on Broadway too, that when actors are going in and out for that same role, the play doesn’t have the capacity to say, what if so and so is El Gallo? Or so and so is Luisa? It’s this is who Luisa is, fit yourself into that,” Gellert said. “So a lot of the work we’re doing is to say who is Devin (Ilaw)’s Ell Glalo? Who is Julie (Benko)’s Luisa?”
The cast is a mix of Weston regulars and newcomers. Returning are Tom Aulino (Mortimer), Benko (Luisa), David Bonanno (Hucklebee), Geoffrey Wade (Henry) and Megumi Nakamura (Mute). Joining them are Francisco González (Matt), Wayne Pretlow (Bellamy) and Ilaw (El Gallo).
So Weston’s version of the show will be Gellert’s, but it will also decidedly be “The Fantasticks.”
“I was going back and looking at the basics of what are the actions people are playing on each other,” she said. “That does mean that there are some things that are new to ‘The Fantasticks’ for this production — but I’m staying very true to the piece.
“I’m making no attempt to recreate the original,” Gellert said, “and yet I’m making every attempt to recreate the first audience’s experience.”