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August 21, 2006

TT: Ghost world

I can't tell you how the average drama critic (if such a peculiar creature exists) gets his start in life, but I have a feeling that my own resume is a bit on the unorthodox side. I started out as a classical-music critic, then began covering the other arts as well. I occasionally wrote about plays in Second City, the arts column I used to write for the Washington Post, but I didn't put in any time as a working drama critic until three years ago, when The Wall Street Journal tapped me to launch its theater column.

I did do quite a bit of theater in high school and college, but even then I wasn't the sort of kid who bought original-cast albums with his lunch money. Though I've always loved show tunes, I first got to know them through the recorded performances of the great jazz and pop singers. Most of the classic Broadway musicals struck me as hopelessly square, and I didn't change my mind until I moved to New York and saw my first Stephen Sondheim show, Into the Woods. That opened my eyes to the expressive potential of the form, and before long I'd come to love it passionately, if never uncritically.

No doubt it helped that I was exposed early on to two of the best-made musicals of the postwar era. The Smalltown Little Theatre produced The Fantasticks and Fiddler on the Roof when I was in high school, and I played in the pit for both shows, doubling as the onstage violinist in Fiddler on the Roof (I wore a fake beard). I had the time of my life, and in retrospect I find it puzzling that the experience didn't cause me to become more interested in musical comedy. On the other hand, those were the days when I was deep into rock and roll, and I suppose it would have been hard for a geeky egghead who longed to be popular to turn his back on the prevailing cultural winds of the early Seventies.

All of which brings us to Saturday night, when I went to the new Snapple Theater Center at Fiftieth and Broadway to see a press preview of the new revival of The Fantasticks. As anyone who knows anything about theater can tell you, the original production of The Fantasticks opened in 1960 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a 153-seat off-off-Broadway theater down in Greenwich Village, where it ran until 2002, racking up 17,162 performances before it finally posted its closing notice. (The building has since been sold and is about to be converted into a luxury apartment house.)

As I walked into the theater, I realized that it had been thirty-four years to the day since I'd last seen a performance of The Fantasticks. I always meant to catch it at the Sullivan Street Playhouse but never got around to doing so, just as I've never been to Radio City Music Hall or the Central Park Zoo. Like most New Yorkers, I figured it would run forever, and so took its existence for granted until it was too late.

When the show was over, I remembered that I'd written about the Smalltown Little Theatre production of The Fantasticks in City Limits, the memoir I published in 1991. I looked it up as soon as I got home:

The only thing wrong with The Fantasticks was that it contained no role suitable for a clumsy teenage boy with a newly changed voice. Having just talked my parents into buying me a bass guitar, I chose instead to offer my services as bassist for the three-piece "pit orchestra." Gordon Beaver, director of the Smalltown High School Concert Choir and my beloved piano teacher, and Richard Powell, director of the high school orchestra and my equally beloved violin teacher, had always accompanied Little Theater musicals, but both men were too busy that year. No other bass players volunteered, so I got the job....

Adolescence had me firmly in its moony grip by this time, and I spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be in love with "the kind of girl designed to be kissed upon the eyes," that being the way in which Luisa, the fey heroine of The Fantasticks, describes herself. No such girl turned up, but The Fantasticks gave me something almost as good: a chance to make music with a small group of my peers. "Making music" seems the wrong way to put it, for a musician doesn't make anything, and when he stops playing, nothing is left behind. But he is a craftsman all the same, for the object he "makes," though it vanishes in the air, lingers in the memory, and he lavishes on it the same intensity and skill and respect for the tools of his trade that a carpenter lavishes on a mahogany cupboard. I had spent the better part of my life doing my best to make little clay mugs and hit line drives, and my best had never been good enough. Now I had found a craft of my own, and I quickly grew to love it with a fierce passion. I had discovered the incomparable joy of doing something really well.

The Fantasticks was the first play to be performed on the tiny stage of the Smalltown Activity Center, which started life as the First Baptist Church of Smalltown, built in 1915 and deconsecrated in 1971. I worshipped there as a child, worked on two shows there as a teenager, and eventually saw it turned into a juvenile courthouse. The building was razed not long ago, and now it's a vacant, grass-covered lot.

What remains of the fierce passion awakened during the many nights I spent rehearsing there? Nothing but memories. A thief broke into my station wagon in Kansas City a quarter-century ago and stole my battered bass guitar, and though I bought a new one, I stopped playing soon afterward. Richard Powell died last year, and Gordon Beaver followed suit six months later. It's been years since I last saw any of the people with whom I worked in The Fantasticks. (Where are you now, Bonnie Harris?) I still have a faded copy of the printed program, though, into which I tucked a clipping of a newspaper story about the production that ran in the Smalltown Daily Standard on August 17, 1972. It was accompanied by a black-and-white photograph of our little three-piece orchestra. I'm sitting on a high stool picking a Fender bass, wearing a flowered shirt and looking very, very serious.

And what of The Fantasticks? It, too, is full of ghosts. Jerry Orbach, who sang "Try to Remember" in 1960, died in 2004. The obituary writers all led with Law & Order, though most of them made a point of mentioning The Fantasticks as well. Rita Gardner, the first in the long, long string of girls designed to be kissed upon the eyes, is still working on Broadway, playing a foul-mouthed grandmother in The Wedding Singer. Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics of The Fantasticks and played a non-singing role in the original production, directed the performance I saw last Saturday, casting himself as Henry, the same part he played at the Sullivan Street Playhouse on opening night.

As for me, I'm the gray-headed drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and a resident of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, none of which I anticipated when I was sixteen. Back then I planned to marry my high-school sweetheart and spend the rest of my life teaching English in Smalltown, but a funny thing happened on the way to the future, and I ended up sitting on the aisle of a New York theater, watching The Fantasticks with a friend who had yet to be born the last time I saw it.

Small wonder that I felt my throat tighten as I listened to the show's very first words:

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

I didn't have to try very hard.

Posted August 21, 2006 12:00 PM

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