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Dec 30, 2004 11:43 am

Myth and Disorder

Jerry Orbach's death will prompt lots of remembrances, I'm sure. My strongest memory of him will always be as the Narrator/El Gallo in The Fantasticks original cast. (Second would be his leading role in Carnival; I honestly didn't realize it was the same guy until a few years ago, though I grew up with both shows) Fantasticks was a groundbreaking work, which managed to combine mythic deconstruction with immense charm, smartness and sentimentality, absurdist realism.... ok, I grew up listening to it, and I've probably seen as many different productions as I have of anything else (Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret probably are neck and neck with it for number of in-theater viewings). In fact, my one foray into (adult) theater (not counting my musical turn as Bilbo Baggins or moment of silent utility as the pallbearer moment in Evita) was as the washed-up actor (The more complete recording of the Japan Tour includes Tom Jones in that role. He's better than I was, though that probably goes without saying. They probably didn't make him wear an orange wig, either.).

I understood better why I love Fantasticks so much after I saw and fell in love with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods. They are structurally and thematically similar shows: a charming first act playing out an absurd and abstracted version of an old myth/trope/theme/tale; a disturbing second half, in which, without losing the absurdism, the real implications of the first half come to roost and great wisdom is gained at great cost. Both have a first act that can stand on its own, though as a somewhat shallow performance, and give you very few clues as to the mayhem and trauma that awaits. And both include amazing four-way singing arguments....

For your amusement, I offer excerpts from Brooks Atkinson's original review of The Fantasticks, May 4, 1960:

Having won a lot of admirers with a short version of The Fantasticks, Tom Jones has expanded it for the production that opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse last evening. Although it is ungrateful to say so, two acts are one too many to sustain the delightful tone of the first. After the intermission, the mood is never quite so luminous and gay.
That's the point, of course.
The characters are figures in a legend, acted with an artlessness that is winning. As the Narrator, the Girl and the Boy, Jerry Orbach, Rita Gardner and Kenneth Nelson, respectively, sing beautifully and act with spontaneity, not forgetting that they are participating in a work of make-believe.
Perhaps The Fantasticks is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures.
So of course it went on to be the longest running off-Broadway show in history.... And though his face may be famous as Lenny Briscoe, his voice will always be September.

Non Sequitur: New study finds that Internet takes time away from off-line social relationships, TV, sleep. Duh. [I never use that phrase. Never. This is worth it.] The study also finds that computer users spend an average of nine full working days per year struggling with Windows. OK, it said ten days, and" computer problems" but we all know what that means, don't we?

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Ralph E. Luker - 12/30/2004

Jon, One of the great memories of my formal education was when I was in seminary in New Jersey. Our student government bought out the seating at the Sullivan Street Theater and chartered busses to cart us all into NYC for for the performance of The Fantastiks. It was and is a terrific show.

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