Saturday, June 25, 2011

You Wonder How These Things Begin

Lorenzo "Lore" (pronounced Lorry) Noto saw The Fantasticks in its one-act version and quickly offered to produce it off Broadway. Now charged with re-expanding the show into a full-length musical, Schmidt and Jones went back to work. Schmidt created an overture to accompany Jones’ new idea of starting the show with the hustle and bustle of a commedia troupe arriving and preparing to present a play, an idea Jones got from a production he had seen of The Servant of Two Masters by the Italian company Piccolo Teatro di Milano. They cut a few songs – "Have You Ever Been to China?", "I Have Been a Fool" – and began writing new songs, including "It Depends on What You Pay" and all of Act II. The two "actors," Henry and Mortimer, returned in Act II as Lodevigo and Socrates, loosely based on the amoral cat and fox in Disney’s Pinocchio.

Schmidt and Jones dubbed the romantic Act One "In the Moonlight" and they went to work on Act Two, "In the Sun," exploring what happens to the two families and the new marriage in the cold, hard light of day. As El Gallo says:

Their moon was cardboard, fragile.

It was very apt to fray,

And what was last night scenic

May seem cynic by today.

The play’s not done.

Oh no – not quite,

For life never ends in the moonlit night;

And despite what pretty poets say,

The night is only half the day.

So we would like to finish

What was foolishly begun.

For the story is not ended

And the play is never done

Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit

And burnished by the sun!

Notice that El Gallo (and Jones) consciously distances himself from the "pretty poets," the traditional, flowery romantics. Notice, too, that in order to learn what we must learn, we must be "burned" – hurt, destroyed consumed – but also "burnished" – polished, smoothed, brightened. And let’s not forget that burning does more than destroy; it also provides light and heat, both necessary to life. This lesson these kids will learn will destroy them and it is necessary to their lives.

Act Two was the Beat’s answer to the traditional romantic Broadway musical, a kind of gentler companion piece to much darker Nervous Set, also commenting (though more urbanely) on the increasingly unhealthy isolationism and insularity of suburban America during the Eisenhower years. In Act One of The Fantasticks, Matt and Luisa find a traditional Broadway musical Happily Ever After. But it’s tainted – predicated on a deception – like much of mainstream American life at the time (and still today). And like Kerouac, Matt believes he can only find answers Out There in the World; but though Kerouac only crossed America, Matt goes literally around the world.

One could argue that Act One was in form like the old-fashioned musical comedies of yesteryear that portrayed shallow, cardboard love, and that Act Two was more like the concept musicals to come in the 60s and 70s. In Act Two, the disillusionment sinks in and the young lovers find that love cannot be built on false romanticism. The Happily Ever After they have been promised all their lives runs smack up against the reality of Life. As many young people did in post-war America, they find that Marriage is Hard. All the lovely lies of the American establishment, the Happily Ever After that the end of World War II had promised, that mythical American Dream that only a few Americans actually get to enjoy, is revealed to be a fake. Like the musicals that would be written in the years to come, Act Two of The Fantasticks tells us that life is complicated, difficult, confusing, but that it is possible for clear-eyed realists to navigate this decidedly un-musical-comedy terrain. This was a show at least a decade ahead of its time.

The Fantasticks was the beginning of the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, and it paved the way for unconventional shows like Anyone Can Whistle, Cabaret, Company, Celebration, Promises, Promises, and others.

From Scott Millers Inside the Fantasticks

1 comment:

  1. So many strong echoes of Voltaire's "Candide".

    Look upon the suffering of others through the mask (of television?) and be entertained.

    Is it the crowing of El Gallo that rudely awakens the young couple from the beautiful dream into the harsh light of day's reality?

    Great production!

    "We must cultivate our own garden."