My reaction, upon first hearing that Goucher College's theater folks are putting on a production of The Fantasticks, was a not-so-inward groan. A chestnuttier chestnut you could not find, unless it was Oklahoma or Godspell. Goucher has a stellar theater department that has put on some pretty cool stuff recent years, including a stage version of Animal Farm and the infrequently performed but historically important Cradle Will Rock. But The Fantasticks? I mean, come on.
Was there ever a more cheeseball song than "Try to Remember?" Thinking of an 18-year-old singing it was cringe-worthy. What does a college student have to remember - fifth grade? And then there are all those corny, over-orchestrated, throw-up-in-your-mouth-sentimental versions of it. Do a search on YouTube and you get thousands. Ed Ames. Perry Como. Julie Andrews. Andy Williams. The Brothers Four. Roger Williams. Gladys Knight and the Pips (who super-schlocked it by combining it with "The Way We Were" in a medley). Blech blech blech.
But then something occurred to me. There's a reason things become cliches: they hit a universal nerve. And The Fantasticks' original 1960 Off-Off Broadway production is the longest-running musical in history: 42 years and over 17,000 performances (top that, Book of Mormon). Someone somewhere is always performing it. Why?
First off, it's a mash-up of familiar plots. It's (very loosely) based on a play by Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, with some Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer's Night Dream, Greek mythology, and opera thrown in. Second, the scenery is stylized and minimal: some chairs, a kind of balcony thing, a cardboard moon. Third, all you really need is a piano-player, although you can use a harpist who doubles on percussion if you've got one. So you can produce it on the cheap; the original version cost less than $1000 to stage. But it isn't just the performers who like it - audiences love it. An Off-Broadway revival has been running since 2006.
So I decided to go back to 1960 and listen. On YouTube, I found the original cast recording of "Try to Remember," sung by the late and decidedly great Jerry Orbach, who originated the role of El Gallo (left - younger readers may remember him as the voice of Lumiere in Disney's Beauty and the Beast or as Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order). So I listened. And I was blown out of the water. In this recording, Orbach is at the peak of his vocal powers. He sings simply and straightforwardly, no flourishes; it's just his voice and the accompanying piano. Not a mournful oboe or soaring string quartet to be found. Not an atom of schlock or cheesyness. Perfect. And suddenly the song is fresh and new and moving and lovely. Here it is. Pretend all those other singers haven't gotten their paws on it and listen.
Unfortunately, there is only one Goucher performance and it's tonight, so I've missed my chance to see what those fresh, young, unschlocky theater students can do. I hope they've listened to Orbach and trashed the rest of the recordings. I really do. And next time, I'll be less scornful of chestnuts, and more willing to crack open the nutshell and see what's inside.