Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Sneak Peek: THE FANTASTICKS

My current writing project is a non-fiction book, working title Director’s Notes, since I begin each chapter with the notes which were included in the printed program for the show. In the book I revisit some of the shows I directed over a period of thirty-plus years beginning in 1984. Here’s an excerpt.
The Fantasticks
(2003)
 The Fantasticks is considered a classic in American musical theater, and with good reason. It is refreshing, imaginative, and has a first-rate musical score, which serves to help develop the characters and move the story forward. It asks the audience to use its imagination and to become involved in ways most shows do not. It’s a unique experience, and I only wish every person in this audience had the privilege I’ve had of spending time with the remarkable people involved in this production.
In preparing The Fantasticks, I have worked with an absolutely incredible cast and directing staff, and this has been a memorable experience. Kelly Foley is one of the most creative and imaginative people I’ve ever known. With The Fantasticks, she has been able to let her imagination soar and the results are, well, fantastic. Scott Besser is a remarkable musician and very gifted pianist and this score has offered him the kind of challenge he enjoys. His artistry enhances every moment of music in the show.
The cast has been delightful to work with and each person has developed a character that is truly unforgettable. I would like to thank each of them for making every rehearsal a special time I looked forward to. I believe we have all had a great time learning this lovely show.
For those of you who recall life before TV, you will remember (as I do) radio shows that let your imagination take you to wonderful places. The Fantasticks does that – but it also makes you think about a lot of important life lessons. It’s easy to see why this show has run for 42 years off-Broadway, and why it will be performed for decades to come. Like Shakespeare, it is timeless and absorbing. It is a show that resonates.
 Susan Jordan
Pocono Lively Arts (Best Western Pocono Inn)
July, 2003


Beginning in the summer of 1999, it became difficult for Pocono Lively Arts to continue our summer stage productions at Stroudsburg High School. Newspaper articles from June of that year, including an editorial in the Pocono Record on June 2, 1999, explained the problems that had arisen between the group and the Stroudsburg Area School District. (NOTE: the group had been presenting a holiday show every November or December since 1979, and these were ongoing. The problems were only with using the venue in the summer, which we had been doing since 1989.)
The summer of 1999 we performed A Grand Night for Singing, a delightful scripted revue of the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and in 2000 we presented a semi-staged concert version of Guys and Dolls. These were performed primarily with piano, and though our casts were of necessity much smaller (we were performing in the Inn’s Ballroom), we enjoyed the intimacy and the new challenge of theater-in-the-round and the dinner theater performances were quite well attended. In 2001 we did another dinner theater production revue, Blame It on the Movies.
We found a way to do a fully staged show at Stroudsburg High School in the summer of 2002, The Secret Garden. We had to rehearse off site until tech week, and the set was also built off site and disassembled, moved to the school piecemeal and reassembled at the same time we were rehearsing. These difficulties, and the increased fees we were charged by the school district for our week of rehearsal and performance weekend, meant a return to dinner theater in 2003.
Learning The Fantasticks was an absolute joy for me. I’d heard of it, and I knew a few of the songs: “Try to Remember,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” and “Much More” were all songs I was familiar with and had taught to some of my private voice students. I had an idea of what the show was about, but hadn’t been aware of its thought-provoking, absorbing, meaningful and complex story. The Fantasticks can be defined in many ways, and I think it means something a little different to all of us. We can see ourselves in more than one character in this deceptively simple fable. The story line seems direct; the characters are what create the complexity.
It’s no wonder the show continued its run beyond the year 2003 and only, finally, closed in March of 2015. More and more people have come to see it and be enchanted, and more beyond that have returned, possibly many times, to find something new in the show each time.
Since we could not rehearse in a busy downtown hotel’s ballroom except on a very limited basis, we found other venues for rehearsal. With small casts this proved to be a relatively easy matter, and the Inn management generously gave us as much rehearsal time in the ballroom itself as they possibly could.
We rehearsed The Fantasticks for the most part in a large room which was in a strip mall behind the Paynter Music building. The school had converted it to a studio which was often used for ensemble rehearsals. It was about the same size as the dance floor in the hotel ballroom, which meant whatever we worked out in that space transferred fairly easily to our actual performance space.
It was an unusually rainy summer and we frequently had thunderstorms in the evenings. The parking lot near our rehearsal space had very poor drainage, and it wasn’t unusual for all of us to arrive with our feet soaked from walking the short distance from our cars to the venue. The rain continued into tech week and performance weekend, and the Best Western, a fairly old building, had a leaky roof right over one corner of the ballroom. We had to mop up the dance floor in that area before most rehearsals and performances and repeat the process during intermission. “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” for sure!
Our instrumentation for the show consisted of piano, keyboard, percussion and acoustic bass. Scott Besser is one of the most talented musicians I have ever been privileged to know, and is a near-genius pianist who tossed off the sometimes difficult score with great relish. The music, as the plot, seems deceptively simple, yet it has some complex and difficult sections, echoing the characters.
Scott hesitated about taking on the show at first; he wasn’t familiar with the music and wasn’t sure about the idiom. “Some of the pieces offered substantial challenges, technically and rhythmically,” he recalls. “‘This Plum Is Too Ripe’ was the song that convinced me to play the show. I gave it a chance and of course it grew on me.”
 The Fantasticks works best in an intimate setting, and it was perfect for the Best Western Ballroom where our audience was on three sides of the dance floor, which was our stage. Working in the venue had its challenges but I felt overall we handled the production well. I think the more intimate setting worked better for this show than the eight-hundred-seat Stroudsburg High School auditorium would have.
Anyone who is familiar with the piano score for this show knows it has some virtuosic moments. It requires a pianist who also understands the subtleties of accompanying singers. There is music through much of the show: set musical pieces, incidental music, scene change music. I volunteered to turn pages for Scott. He was probably sorry he accepted the offer, because I was an abysmal page turner for the show.
I went to a music school and turned pages for pianists fairly often. I know what the assignment is: you follow the printed music closely as the pianist plays, anticipating when the page should be turned, making sure to turn at exactly the right time. You cannot be distracted because that leads to an early page turn or a late one, and I’m not sure which is worse. Scott was generous to his very distracted page turner who had to apologize after every show for getting drawn into the performance. It’s hard to be the director who is admiring her cast’s performance and also be a good page turner. He said it was okay, but it wasn’t. Scott is a kind person. We’re still friends.
Every person who was part of this production was deeply committed to it, and was very much affected by it. Rehearsals were absorbing and sometimes exhausting, but more often, exhilarating. The Fantasticks draws you in as few shows do, and we were all sorry to see the run come to an end.
We could have gone on performing that show for a very long time. It’s definitely a theater piece that the actors live. It’s impossible to be a part of it without feeling you’ve been changed. You know yourself better; you look at the world a little differently. You see other people with more compassion. You resolve to be kinder and more understanding.
Maybe that’s why the pianist put up with this not-so-great page turner.


 Scott Besser
photo by Tristan Flanagan