If you’ve written a song called “Never Say No,” aren’t you automatically required to say “Yes!” to any suggestion?
Nevertheless, Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics to THE FANTASTICKS, said “No!” when Michael Lluberes told him what he’d had in mind.
Lluberes had had the brainstorm for some years even before he became producing artistic director of The Flint Repertory Theatre in Michigan in 2017. Last year, he dared to suggest it to Jones.
What if Luisa – a/k/a “The Girl” – became Lewis, and fell in love with Matt – a/k/a “The Boy”?
Boy-meets-boy, boy-loses-boy, boy gets boy wasn’t what discouraged Jones. The writer, then approaching his 94th birthday, felt that he didn’t have the energy to do the necessary work. It would mean much more than changing every “she” to “he” and “her” to “him.”
But just as Stephen Sondheim found the wherewithal to make the necessary changes to make COMPANY’s leading man a leading lady, Jones went to work and made his leading lady a leading man – well, co-leading man, really.
His edits and replacements included Lewis’ “Please let me be something special” rather than Luisa’s “Please don’t let me be normal.” Lewis didn’t hope to “go to town in a golden gown,” but “with a golden crown.” He didn’t have hair long enough to “unfasten till it billows to the floor,” but planned to “let my hair keep growing” till it did the same.” Finally, he staunchly insisted that he wanted “much more than this small town” as opposed to Luisa’s rejection of “keeping house.”
After all that, Matt’s likening Luisa to Juliet, Helena and Cassandra instead had him comparing Lewis to Adonis, Antony and Ganymede.
While Jones was at it, he changed Hucklebee, Matt’s father, to Hattie Mae; he made Bellomy, Lewis’ dad, Mildred. This was wise, for at the risk of generalizing, mothers seem to have an easier time accepting their sons as gay than fathers do.
“Try to Remember,” the legendary musical’s famous opening song, mentions September and December, but Lluberes chose June to debut the new interpretation. Set designer Shan Cinal offered a thrust stage on which there was nothing more (but nothing less) than an all-white panorama. True, it would soon be covered with tons of confetti. Or shall we say inundated? More pieces may have been strewn on stage than the number of people who live in Flint (which, at last count, was 81,252).
The white back wall was not to be confused with Janet Haley, the performer who played The Wall that separated Matt from Lewis. After El Gallo (a persuasive Ben Cherry) introduced her as this human barrier, the audience gurgled with pleasure at seeing one of Flint’s biggest stars – Amanda Wingfield and Nurse Ratched are on her resume – now playing an inanimate object.
On stage seemed to be an actual inanimate object: a pure white and spanking new bathtub. But four rollers beneath it allowed it to glide around the stage. It most markedly played host to Matt (a superb Jeremiah Porter) and Lewis (a most endearing Neil McCaffrey) having their first real connection inside it – after they’d stripped down to their underwear, that is, and before their kiss.
Would anyone suddenly bolt upright out of his seat, throw down his program and storm out?
Usually when you’re sitting in a theater with a thrust stage, you can see two-thirds of the crowd and glean if faces are sporting smiles or grimaces. In this era that demands masks, those expressions were denied us. Ah, but because Chelsie McPhilimy’s lighting was brilliant – literally and figuratively – we could see the upper reaches of faces crinkle around the eyes in a way that conveyed that the people were having a fine time.
Jones had El Gallo question the lads’ parents about the atypical romance. His “And you’re not worried?” got Lewis’ mother to say, “They love each other. Why should we be worried?” (An enchanting Diane Hill delivered the line with utter assurance, as Mildred (a delightfully down-to-earth Catherine Shaffner) nodded in staunch approval.
And the crowd cooed in agreement.
Surprised? Many automatically assume that small towns have small-minded people, but a 2006 independent survey found that Flint was the tenth most liberal city in the country. The warm reception that the capacity crowd gave THE FANTASTICKS on opening night indicated that the pollsters might have shortchanged Flint in giving it the last spot in The Top Ten.
Of all the changes Jones made, the most profound one had nothing to do with homosexual romance. It concerned a controversial word in “It Depends on What You Pay.” El Gallo plans the mock kidnapping that will make Matt seem brave, courageous and bold and thus get the object of his affection to show outright hero-worship.
At the show’s premiere in 1960 – and many moons beyond – EL Gallo called the plan “a rape.” He explained that he meant it in the context of “The abduction. The seizure. The kidnapping.” Yet “rape” was his word of choice, proved by his employing it almost three dozen times in the song.
Even in 1960, “rape” was hardly a synonym for “picnic.” Still, it wasn’t the white-hot button that it has understandably become in the ensuing decades. So in the past, Jones addressed this issue by changing the lyrics to include the three-syllable “abduction.”
However, he’s since come up with a solution so simple that he must have given his forehead a brute-force smote when he realized “Not rape, but raid! The best solution has been there all along! Why didn’t I think of it 62 years ago?”
Well, the sentence with the words better, late, than and never comes to mind. All future productions of THE FANTASTICKS, be they straight or gay, should use the new word. It’s a four-letter one, yes, but it isn’t the least offensive.
And no matter if directors choose Boy-Girl or Boy-Boy versions, their audiences, like the Flint first-nighters, will always relish its universal truths. Matt, whom the script establishes is a recent college graduate, got a big laugh when he said that his romance “makes me young again.” Matt’s father cited the lad’s college education, too, adding “And I hope you know what that costs.” That received groans of recognition from parents who all-too-well remembered writing those four-figure (if not five-figure) checks.
(A not-so-fun fact: When THE FANTASTICKS opened in 1960, tuition at Harvard University was $1,520 a year.)
The crowd also welcomed another daring Lluberes move. To portray Henry, The Old Actor, he cast an actor who could accurately be called a Black version of John Waters’ erstwhile leading lady Divine. Although Jason Briggs played the imperiousness for which many drag queens are famous, he often made Henry a sweet Henry.
As Henry’s co-star, Mortimer gets the chance to show how he plans to die on stage. Traditionally, his purposeful overacting always gets a hand, and Richard Payton didn’t break the streak.
So, at the end of Act One, the applause was of the strength that a production gets at a final curtain when the audience has been thoroughly pleased. But how would theatergoers take to Act Two?
THE FANTASTICKS anticipates INTO THE WOODS, for after the presumed “Happy Ending” that the first act curtain promises, unhappiness rears its inevitable head. Lluberes and Jones (presumably with some help from Edmond Rostand, whose LES ROMANESQUES inspired this musical) made us care enough for the lovers in Act One that the audience stayed with them and was happy to see the kids regain their happiness by the final curtain.
Indeed, after Matt has his misadventures in what we presume to be the Big City, both he and his estranged Lewis realize and insist what the real bounties in life were all along: “They Were You.”
Earlier in the show, though, El Gallo said “A major production requires a set.” This production of THE FANTASTICKS again proved that’s not true. What is required is taste, style and commitment, which Michael Lluberes – and his new idea –