'The Fantasticks' reaches mind-boggling milestone

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NEW YORK — The opening night of the musical "The Fantasticks" wasn't so fantastic.

Reviews were decidedly mixed, with the New York Herald Tribune critic only liking Act 2. The New York Times grudgingly enjoyed just Act 1, and its critic, Brooks Atkinson, sniffed that the show was "the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures."

Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics as well as acted in it, was crushed. "What I thought was it was the end of the world," he says. At the opening-night party, the press agent called in to read the reviews and the mood grew "ghastly."

Jones spent the rest of the night drinking too much, wandering Central Park in despair and throwing up. "One thing I learned that night was never, ever eat Mexican food at an opening-night party," he recalls.

The date: May 3, 1960.

The show — with a cast of eight, two musicians, a cardboard moon and a guy who sprinkles confetti that we believe is snow — on Sunday celebrated a staggering milestone: 20,000 performances, a number so silly it looks like a typo. The magic has clearly endured.

"My mind doesn't grasp it, in a way," says Jones. "It's like life itself — you get used to it and you don't notice how extraordinary it is. I'm grateful for it and I'm astonished by it."

The musical, based on an obscure play by Edmond Rostand, doesn't necessarily have the makings of a hit. The set is just a platform with poles, a curtain and a wooden box. No explosions, no chandeliers.

The tale, a mock version of "Romeo and Juliet," concerns a young girl and boy, secretly brought together by their fathers and an assortment of odd characters, including a rakish narrator, an old actor, an Indian named Mortimer and a mute. It's as much about a love affair as it is a nod to the magic of theater itself.

Composer Harvey Schmidt's melodies are hypnotic, from "Try to Remember" to "Soon It's Gonna Rain" to the haunting "They Were You." Jones' lyrics are equally accomplished. "Without a hurt, the heart is hollow" sums up the show's theme.

Despite the initial mixed reviews, the show was saved by pugnacious producer Lore Noto, who coaxed celebrities into coming and built audiences through strong word of mouth.

Scores of actors have appeared in the show, from the opening cast that included Jerry Orbach and Rita Gardner, to stars such as Ricardo Montalban and Kristin Chenoweth to current "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" star Santino Fontana.

It was Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham's first show in New York, but that isn't so strange. "For a lot of people, it's their first New York show," says Jones, laughing. "We get them for their first show because we can't afford them usually after that."