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Posts Tagged ‘sorrow’

We saw The Fantasticks on our trip to NYC in early October. It’s one of the longest-running shows around, but I’d never seen it and wasn’t familiar with the music. After seeing it, though, I bought the soundtrack, and have been humming “Try to Remember,” the theme song, ever since.

Image from Wikipedia

The Fantasticks is a small-scale show, with a cast of eight (and one of the roles is a mute). The “set” is a curtain, plus a cardboard circle that serves as sun and moon, and a trunk to conceal two traveling bums/actors who pop up when needed. On one level, the story is simply a charming take on the star-crossed young lovers trope. (There’s a wall between their houses, but it turns out their fathers put it up to encourage them to fall in love. Reverse psychology!)

The plot includes a staged abduction (which allows the young “Romeo” to be a hero), several arguments, and plenty of bumbling fun from the traveling actors. The narrator, El Gallo, as wickedly handsome and wryly humorous as Captain Jack Sparrow, spends half his time addressing the audience and half his time acting as chief bandit/architect of the love story.

Part of me is tempted to dismiss The Fantasticks as merely a frothy, whimsical, sparkling piece of musical theatre. There’s a lot of exaggeration and then lampooning of musical-theatre stereotypes (the young lovers, in particular, are so wide-eyed they’re a bit annoying). The dads are highly amusing, with their sly wit and irritable tempers. There’s only a little “real” violence, and all’s well that ends well. Simple, right?

Not quite. The plot’s deeper meaning has nothing at all to do with falling in love, or reverse psychology, or the questionable morality of staging your daughter’s fake abduction. It hides in plain sight, and it only comes to light near the end, when the narrator explains why he pulled the puppet strings to separate the young lovers for a while:

There is a curious paradox that no one can explain:
Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain?
Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain,
or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?

I do not know the answer; I merely know it’s true.
I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little bit too.

El Gallo would never admit it, but he’s a little sad to end up alone, as he has been the whole time. He’s a romantic but lonely figure, riding off into the sunset. However, he’s stumbled on a bit of wisdom, which reappears in the final song and takes on a new gravity after the lines above: “without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”

While I don’t believe in a narrator (or anyone else) pulling my strings like a puppet, I do believe this: sorrow can deepen us, make us into better, braver and more compassionate people. When I was a college student grieving the loss of a friend who had died suddenly in a car crash, one of my professors put it this way: sorrow digs a well inside us.

The young lovers, before their struggle, were sweet but shallow: they needed the separation to make them appreciate one another, and to draw on their own reserves of courage and strength. (After they’re reunited, El Gallo urges the fathers not to take down the wall. One set of obstacles is gone, but others will remain.)

The Fantasticks isn’t a morality tale, and it would be dangerous to view it as a blueprint for life. But these lines about grief and love have lodged in my heart, and I think the show needs this bittersweet reminder. There must always be some darkness to balance the light, a bit of grief to balance out the joy – even in the world of musical fantasy, where anything can happen.

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