This week, the off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks will reach its 50th anniversary. The show, a valentine to young love requiring no more props than a stick, a sheet, and some confetti, is the longest-running musical of all time. That unprecedented record isn't the only miracle: Its original backers have scored, too. So far, they have earned nearly 24,000% on their original investments.
Was this little musical one of the best investments of all time?
These weren't big-time theatrical producers. They were average people.
Muriel Neufeld's husband wasn't in show business. He was in the shoe business. And on a lark, they went to a friend's apartment to hear two young students from Texas play and sing songs from a musical they had written. They thought the songs were sweet, so they put a few hundred dollars in, and then went about their lives. It was a simple as that.
Neufeld is still receiving checks to this day. The show's original lawyer, Donald C. Farber, had unwittingly drawn up a contract that contradicted industry standards by switching the word closing with opening. His deal granted investors returns for 18 years after the show's closing, as opposed to 18 years after opening, which was then the norm. Because the original production at the Sullivan Street Playhouse closed in 2002 after 17,162 performances, the investors and their heirs will keep getting money until 2020, a full 60 years after they first wrote their little checks.
The Fantasticks re-opened off Times Square in 2006. Without lifting a finger, the original investors make money off the current New York production at the Jerry Orbach Theater in the Snapple Theater Center. They also collect a portion of every show mounted anywhere in the world.
The show's extremely low production costs (no set, no special effects) also make it one of the most popular regional productions of all time. Carol Edelson, Senior Vice President of The Fantasticks' licenser, Music Theatre International, estimates the show books 250 or more productions every year, which means that during the last 50 years of licensing, more than 12,500 productions have been mounted.
If you figure that each production played to about 3,000 people, then 37,500,000 people have seen The Fantasticks around the world. What's more, that audience estimate doesn't even count the people who have seen the show in its long-running New York City incarnations.
The original investors get a slice of every ticket sold.
Just don't ask them about the widely reviled 2000 movie version featuring Joey McIntyre, which was so bad it sat on a shelf for half a decade, defying release. Neufeld, for one, said she prefers not to dwell on that disastrous interpretation.
In case you aren't one of the millions who hasn't already seen it, the premise is simple and sweet: Two neighbors pretend to feud so that their children will fall in love, which of course they do. It's a romantic little valentine, rich with poetic metaphors and devoid of controversy or snark, and some of its classic songs include "Try to Remember" and the jazz standard "Soon It's Gonna Rain."
Among the talent who have gotten their start in the show, or appeared in productions of it, are Jerry Orbach (the original production's El Gallo), Liza Minnelli, Robert Goulet, Glenn Close, Richard Chamberlain, and F. Murray Abraham.
I, too, have a Fantasticks connection, although, regrettably, I don't get a cut of the gross. I was involved with the original Sullivan Street Playhouse production in a minor capacity. In the mid-'90s, I ran the lights on nights when the main electrician had something else to do. I lit the show with a hand-controlled light board in a sort of pas de deux between performers and light.
One of the Luisas to fall under my spotlights was a little-known but prodigiously talented actress, fresh from Oklahoma, trying her luck in New York City. Her name was Kristin Chenoweth.
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