The Evolution of a Musical Language
Content dictates form. If we have learned ANYTHING from Stephen Sondheim it is this. Content dictates form. It's a simple idea but crucial. What it means is that the composition of a piece needs to reflect the situation at hand. So while it might be fun to write a complex aria for your leading lady, an operatic aria is the wrong fit if the character is more of a lowbrow, rough and tumble kind of gal. This idea that content should, shall we say, inform the form is one that can be illustrated with a hundred different musicals, but today, we're going to examine one way this is accomplished in The Fantasticks, the Off-Broadway hit by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.
The Fantasticks is a show with a totally wackadoo plot. Bandits! Kidnapping! Feuding families! Oh yeah, and a totally bleak message about the cruelty of the world. You know, really fun stuff. But all that aside, there are some truly beautiful moments in this score. More than that, the poignant beauty of the score is evident in the musical evolution of our two leads.
At the beginning of the show, Matt and Luisa are idealistic and naive. They have fallen in love despite the fact that their feuding fathers are trying to keep them apart. Then when Luisa is kidnapped, Matt heroically comes to the rescue, the feud is resolved, and our two lovers are all set to live happily ever after. Or so they think. As it turns out, it was all a lie. There was never any enmity between their families. Both the feud and the abduction were staged by their fathers, who hoped that the "forbidden love" angle would bring the kids together.
Yeah... so that backfires pretty badly. Both Matt and Luisa then set out to experience the real world and instead find only disillusionment and pain. Much the wiser for their suffering, the lovers return home and realize that what they needed was in front of them the entire time.
That's The Fantasticks in a nutshell. Throughout the show, Matt and Luisa have a few opportunities to sing together. The contrast between their first duet ("Metaphor") and their last ("They Were You") is striking. It is this contrast that helps us to understand how far they've come in the course of the show.
Santino Fontana and Sara Jean Ford sing "Metaphor" from the New Off-Broadway cast recording of The Fantasticks
In "Metaphor," Matt struggles to find the words that can properly convey his adoration for Luisa. She is his Juliet. She is Guinevere. She is water amidst the "nightmare in the heat of a summer day." Image after image, metaphor upon metaphor, each more exaggerated than the last, until finally he declares, "Love! You are love! Better far than a metaphor can ever, ever be!"
Matt is a little melodramatic, to say the least.
The musical style of "Metaphor" is suitably ostentatious, in keeping with the vividly expressed sentiments of the text. As the piece begins, a series of harp glissandos establish a romantic atmosphere. We know right away that this is not reality. This is a fantasy world of Matt's creation. Then, at Luisa's prompting to "Speak a little louder," Matt boldly declares, "I love you" and what do we get? A dramatic descent of a minor sixth interval, a heavily accented piano accompaniment, a poco rallentando (that's a slowing of the tempo) on the word "love" - Matt isn't pulling any punches here. He has poured his heart into this declaration. And look what he does next. In the following section, it's clear that the text is everything. Composer Harvey Schmidt continually adjusts the meter to match the rhythm of the lyrics. We begin in 2/4 time but switch over to 4/4 to suit the lengthened phrase at "Walking through a nightmare in the heat of a summer day." Then, to punctuate the next few bits of text, Schmidt has added caesuras before the phrases "Then you are water" and "A refreshing glass of water" and again before Matt's final exclamation of "Water!" These caesuras are breaks in the middle of the musical line and they give weight to the lyrics that follow. There is a drama to a caesura that makes it the perfect tool for someone as expressive as Matt.
And where is Luisa through all this? Well, I'm sorry to say it, but Luisa is little more than an accessory in this number. She basically exists to echo Matt's sentiments and provide a little ornamentation over the top. "You are love!" sings Matt. "I am love!" replies Luisa. "My mystery," he sings. "His mystery," she echoes. And on and on it goes: "My joy! (Yes I am his joy!) My grief! (Yes I am his grief!) My star! (Yes I am his star!) My leaf (Yes I am his leaf!)"
I think you get the idea. Also, can we take a moment to appreciate the fact that Matt compares Luisa to a leaf here? Super romantic, bro.
The important takeaway here is that Luisa has no agency in this song. She is an echo. She might as well be a chorus member who simply pops up in the number to give musical support to the soloist. Yes, this is a duet, but it is a love duet wherein the two lovers are totally unbalanced and honestly, it's a red flag. Ladies, take note: you should strive to be more than just an accessory to a man.
"Metaphor" is just the beginning of Matt and Luisa's relationship. As they discover, the world is a cruel place and it wounds both Matt and Luisa in various ways, but in the end, they return home, turning to each other for comfort and fulfillment. Matt and Luisa sing together once more, but the difference in musical language is frankly incredible.
Fontana and Ford sing "They Were You" in the New Off-Broadway cast recording of The Fantasticks.
The simplicity of "They Were You" is its most striking feature. Compared to the trills and glissandos, the dramatic ritardandos and caesuras, the ambitious melodic leaps of "Metaphor," the simplicity of "They Were You" is astounding.
The musical direction at the beginning of the number says it all. It reads, "Simple and pristine." The accompaniment is certainly spare in comparison to "Metaphor." The musical line is also much more even. Whereas Schmidt used caesuras in "Metaphor" to chop up the meter and dramatize the moment, here there are no interruptions to the melodic or rhythmic line. It is even. It is predictable. "They Were You" showcases a much more grounded version of our two leads.
The text likewise reflects the incredible development of these characters. Matt and Luisa have traded the exaggerated sentiments and elaborate metaphors of their opening duet for the simple revelation: "They were you."
Consider too the way in which they share the music. Matt sings the first refrain, but then Luisa sings the next. She is no longer an echo, but a woman with her own voice. They join together in simple harmony for the bridge, and we can sense instinctively that they have found the balance of their relationship. They have formed an equal partnership - something that was sorely missing in "Metaphor." This balance is in evidence again at the conclusion of the number when Matt offers Luisa his coat and Luisa wisely replies, "No. Both. There's room enough for both." It's such a small gesture, but one that beautifully brings home the message of the show. Gallantry will not sustain this relationship. What they need is mutual respect and a commitment to care for each other.
What I love about the Fantasticks score is the gorgeous evolution of Matt and Luisa's musical language. In a show filled with many beautiful musical moments, I think it is "Metaphor" and "They Were You" and most importantly, the contrast between them, that truly gets at the crux of the subject matter. We need to witness that change in tone to fully understand how far these characters have come. Without the exaggerated romanticism of "Metaphor," we cannot appreciate the simplicity of "They Were You." Without the foolhardy passion of their first duet, we cannot recognize the wisdom Matt and Luisa have gained here at the end of their journey. The ending of show cannot land without that evolution of style between "Metaphor" and "They Were You."
In the end, Schmidt and Jones have created something incredible: a believable and compelling dramatic journey that is supported by the evolution of the musical language in the show. The Fantasticks is the world's longest running musical - it ran for 42 years Off-Broadway. Perhaps now we know why.