Edmond Rostand and the Fantasticks

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A link on Terry Teachout's blog to a super-rare full-length kinescope recording of The Fantasticks from 1964 brought back lots of memories for me, and not just ancient ones, because I've seen this great Off-Broadway musical at least eight times, most recently only a few years ago with my kids. It's a musical comedy about two young lovers whose fathers pretend to be in a bitter feud (they secretly like each other a lot) so their children will want to rebel against them and marry. The ruse works, until the young lovers find out they'd been set up, at which point a whole lot of romantic confusion and angst ensues, followed by a happy ending. The moony overtones of the story are nicely undercut by a deliberately frothy, self-consciously aesthetic staging: there is a character known as the Mute; sets and props are minimal; the orchestra consists of a piano, a small drum kit and a full-size harp.

I saw the play most often at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village, New York City, where it ran for four decades. The 1964 kinescope now viewable for the first time is an abbreviated version shown only once on Television. Cut to an hour, the show omits a few characters and at least two songs "It Depends On What You Pay" and "This Plum Is Too Ripe". Still, I watched the whole thing with joy and appreciation, especially relishing the chance to see the two great comic stars Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway harmonize as the two fathers (Lahr was the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and Holloway was Doolitle in My Fair Lady).

The viewing inspired me to finally read a book I'd ordered from Amazon last year, Les Romanesques by Edmund Rostand. This is the once-popular French comedy authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt based The Fantasticks on, and I was curious to see what had and had not persisted from the original version. I was also curious to learn more about Edmond Rostand, the celebrated French playwright most well known for Cyrano De Bergerac, which he wrote three years later.

The Fantasticks, I quickly realized as I began Les Romanesques, followed Rostand's popular play very closely. Matt and Luisa, the boy and girl, are here named Percinet and Sylvette, while the fathers Huckabee (yes, Huckabee) and Bellomy are here named Bergamin and Pasquinot. The villain El Gallo is named Straforel.

The sequence of events is almost identical between the French play and the American musical. Rostand's original emphasizes more clearly that this fable is a direct parody of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Both the play and musical share an effusively light touch and Bohemian attitude.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the play version is the touching, painful moment when the truth about the father's setup scheme is revealed. In the musical version, the moment is given plain treatment: they learn the fact, are horrified, and immediately move apart. In Rostand's version, the action moves slowly and more is revealed. The girl learns the truth first, and her first thought is to worry what will happen when the boy finds out. When they both face the truth together, the moment is drawn out for all its bitter emotion:

Sylvette: Farce, all of it!

Percinet: And I your savior! All our poetry was bought and paid for. Our beautiful bubble is now a tiny fleck of soap. Farewell, Shakespearean lovers -- we have nothing in common with you!

They try to cling together, puzzling over whether they fool their fathers or their fathers fool them worse if they break up, or if they stay together. Lost in swirling confusion, they can't figure out which way to turn, and this moment is clearly the center of the play.

In the end, I did come to understand The Fantasticks better after reading Edmond Rostand's sweet, very slim stage drama. Which version is better? Easy: Les Romanesques doesn't have a song called 'Try to Remember'.

7 Responses to "Edmond Rostand and the Fantasticks"

by Claudia on

Levi, when you tell us about all the great cultural experiences you have in NY, it reminds me of the advantages of living in a big city (though they're so expensive!). I love French melodramas because they're light, comical and entertaining. But nobody does them better than Molière...

by Eli on

I'm sure it's no record, but I've seen The Fantasticks thirteen times -- all different productions and venues.

I don't know how many times you came along -- maybe just once or twice?? You've got a better memory for this stuff than I have.

Glad to be a part of a good recollection. Thanks for discovering the kinescope.

by Levi Asher on

Hi Dad -- I think I saw it twice with you when I was a kid, both times regional productions on Long Island. Never saw it with you in Sullivan Street, surprisingly enough!

But you do definitely get the credit for exposing me to the show all those years ago -- good move!

I read Cyrano this year, and risking pedantry, I thought the comic potential of the penultimate scene in which Roxane, ensconced at the convent, awaits what will be Cyrano's final visit, was not fully milked by Rostand. It's something I'd love to visit with Richard Wilbur about one day. A girl can dream...

by Eli on

Yes, that's not surprising -- I only saw it once at Sullivan Street, and that was toward the end of its original long, long run.

by lisa peet on

Such a New York kid-with-hip-parents' rite of passage, I think. I remember my folks taking me to see it at Sullivan Street back in early '70s, eating pasta with red sauce in Little Italy afterward. I'll have to check out Terry's link, thanks.

by Bbrooks on

After seeing The Fantasticks I realized that the original play had to be a period piece: actors as vagabond rogues, the girl laguishing at home while the boy travels the world, and most importantly, set in a period when parents arranged the marriages of their children. The two fathers are not folksy farmers who think it would be sweet for their kids to marry; they are property owners who want to consolidate their adjoining estates through a family alliance, but know the kids will rebel against being told to. (Upper class marriages were typically arranged in this way; love had nothing to do with it.) The plot is actually a reversal of Pyramus and Thisbe, in which feuding parents build a wall between their properties.

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