Friday, July 31, 2009


I remember lyrics to musicals; I can't help it, they get stuck in my head. I have mentioned this fact on the blog before, but I decided that there is one musical that merits its own post. I am willing to guess that many people today, certainly outside of New York City, don't know the show, and that's too bad. With Broadway musicals being what they are today, well . . . I don't want to be a snob, because pure entertainment without much thought required does have its place, but the show I'm thinking of is no Disney production. It has, in fact—despite my fear that it may someday sink into oblivion, at least in terms of any sizable audience—the distinction of being the longest running production in the history of American theater: more than forty years, a lifetime (mine anyway). Welcome to something amazing: a show called The Fantasticks. The musical opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in 1960 and closed in 2002 (its last curtain on my father's birth anniversary that year); it had a run of more than 17,000 performances. You can see its original cast, which included Jerry Orbach and Rita Gardner, here. I first heard the songs of the show while living in Chicago. I was perhaps eight years old. My parents had the album, but I don't know if they'd seen the play on stage. I remember the album cover: white with purple spiky-script lettering, no illustration or photo. The back of the sleeve had a black and white shot of the cast. I remember thinking Rita Gardner looked impish, sassy, in control; what an odd pose, I thought, her fingertips pressing down on the heads of the men in front of her. She plays "the girl," a rebellious daughter in a story about supposedly forbidden love. It's a very sophisticated story—too sophisticated, perhaps, for an eight-year-old to follow, or to fully understand. What does a child know about the movement from "scenic" to "cynic"? What can she know about a cardboard moon? It's a coming-of-age play, a play about innocence and disillusionment. Take away the golden moonbeam. But it's also very humorous at the same time. For me, the best songs were the ones that made me laugh. In particular this means a song called "Never Say No," which I memorized in short order and loved singing over and over again, performing it for my Mom at our kitchen table. It's a song that captures perfectly a parental technique (and dismay) we are all familiar with: reverse psychology, the power of negative motivation. Make it forbidden and drive them to it. "To manipulate children, you merely say no." Here are the lyrics to some verses I remember verbatim (you'll see why they appealed to my eight-year-old self):

Why did the kids pour jam on the cat?
Raspberry jam, all over the cat!
Why should the kids do something like that,
When all that we said was "no."

My son was once afraid to swim,
The water made him wince.
Until I said he mustn't swim—
been swimming ever since . . .

Why did the kids put beans in their ears?
No one can hear with beans in their ears.
After a while the reason appears:
They did it 'cause we said no.

The other song I remember really enjoying was the one that opened the disillusionment act. The beginning of the song contained a series of disgusted, angry statements and insincere apologies that I found hilarious, particularly the last complaint:

Girl: This plum is too ripe.
Boy: Sorry.
Boy: Please, don't watch me while I'm eating.
Girl: Sorry.
Father 1: You were about to drown that magnolia.
Father 2: Sorry.
Father 2: You're . . . standing . . . in . . . my . . . kumquats!
Father 1: Sorry!

Did I know what a kumquat was? Had I ever eaten one? If I hadn't yet, then I'm sure my piqued curiosity resulted in a mission to find kumquats somewhere to taste. (They are an interesting fruit I devour when I can find them: bitter peel eaten along with the ultra-tart flesh.)

Other songs from the musical became popular, especially the opening number by the Narrator character, "Try to Remember." There were also "Much More" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain." All of the songs can be found online and sampled here. I encourage you to have a listen.

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