The composer Harvey Schmidt died last week in Houston at the age of 88. Richard Sandomir captures the drama of his professional life in the excellent New York Times obituary. Most notably, Schmidt wrote the music for The Fantasticks. I learn from Sandomir that Schmidt said he wrote the melody to “Try to Remember,” the signature song of the show, in a rehearsal hall in five minutes.
Even though I wore out every album the Beatles released on Capitol between 1964 and 1969, I don’t think there was an album I heard more often growing up than the original Fantasticks cast album with Jerry Orbach et al. My dad loved the cast album and took me to several productions of the musical. He appreciated the generational conflict woven into the story, the wit of the lyrics and the singable melodies. He (of course) identified with the parents; I (of course) identified with the kids.
The original production famously opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village in 1960 and continued its run for a mere 42 years. It was one of the unheralded victims of 9/11, closing in January 2002.
In 2007 I in turn dragged my oldest daughter to see the revival of The Fantasticks at the Snapple Theater Center on 50th and Broadway. The revival was wonderful. Taking a hilarious turn as the histrionic old actor Henry under his stage name “Thomas Bruce,” librettist and lyricist Tom Jones directed the show (and stole it).
The show’s songs are certainly one of the reasons for the show’s indestructibility, but the show also requires a plausible El Gallo in order to work properly. The great Jerry Orbach — a talented actor with character and a resonant voice — was the El Gallo who launched the show when it opened in 1960. I think you can safely say he aced the part. As you can deduce from Orbach’s reference to the show having played for 28 years, the video below shows Orbach singing the signature number from The Fantasticks at the White House in 1988. Try to remember!