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The Fantasticks - Off-Broadway

The world's longest-running musical returns to New York!

John Davidson on His Five-Decade History With The Fantasticks and His Dream of Playing Ted Kennedy

John Davidson on His Five-Decade History With The Fantasticks and His Dream of Playing Ted Kennedy
John Davidson in 'The Fantasticks'
I think the part of Henry, the old actor, is one of the top 10 roles in musical theater.

If you’re over 40 (okay, 50), John Davidson needs no introduction. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the handsome, dimpled actor jumped from musicals and Disney movies to headlining in Las Vegas and hosting That’s Incredible, Hollywood Squares and more. One of Davidson’s first screen roles was the young hero Matt in a 1964 TV film of The Fantasticks (Watch the video at the end of this article, including Davidson and Susan Watson’s lovely duet of “They Were You.”) Almost five decades later, he has returned to the show as Henry, the pompous elderly actor who stirs up trouble between Matt and his true love Luisa. Unrecognizable in white makeup and a bald wig, Davidson shows off his comedy chops and classical diction in a non-singing role. The 70-year old star (who looks a decade younger) chatted with about the enduring appeal of The Fantasticks, why he isn’t crooning “Try to Remember” at the Snapple Theater Center and his dream stage role, Senator Edward Kennedy.

Welcome back to New York. You are absolutely adorable in The Fantasticks.
Adorable? At 70 years old, you can’t be adorable [laughs]. It’s a thrill to be back. I think the part of Henry, the old actor, is one of the top 10 roles in musical theater. It has shades of Spamalot and is such an over-the-top character. I’m there to add a bit of comedy in the middle of this story of a boy and girl.

You have a long history with this show.
Yes, more than 46 years ago, I played the boy in the Hallmark Hall of Fame version, and I was that wholesome young boy. I grew up outside the city in White Plains as a naive preacher’s kid. Both of my parents were working ministers, and I was very sheltered as a kid, so this story means so much to me.

What are your memories of the TV version?
It was a fabulous cast: Ricardo Mantalban was El Gallo, my father was Bert Lahr and Susan Watson’s father was Stanley Holloway of My Fair Lady. But I must say that it was a disappointment to anyone who really knows The Fantasticks, as was the [1995] movie, as was the national tour. I had a lot of respect for Robert Goulet but that [touring] production made it into a big Broadway show. It is so powerful here at the Snapple Center and at [original home] the Sullivan Street: 150 seats, right in your face, the actors falling all over the audience—that’s The Fantasticks. I don’t think it worked on television or on film, and it doesn’t work as a big Broadway show. In an intimate theater, it hits people right between the eyes.

Audiences may be surprised that you’re not singing “Try to Remember.” Did you consider playing the narrator, El Gallo, rather than Henry?
That’s funny, because I ran into Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda [Kotb] at a play, and when I said, “I’m going into The Fantasticks,” Kathie Lee said, “Oh, you’re going to be El Gallo!” And I said, “No, I can’t be El Gallo.”

Why can’t you?
Because I’m 70 years old! Actually, he can be any age, but there’s a roguish quality to El Gallo that I’ve never had. I played Billy Flynn in Chicago in summer stock and I was really good, but the producers on Broadway won’t even see me because they say, “He’s not a rogue.” I don’t think I would buy me as El Gallo, whereas I love doing crazy old Henry. It’s a part of me that my wife sees. She comes to the show and can’t stay in her seat because she is seeing my fantasies played out.

The score of The Fantasticks is so beautiful, and yet so simple.
It’s a classical piece of musical theater that so many shows have learned from since. Remember, The Fantasticks came out in 1960, and I hear little nuances of it in Ragtime and Les Miz and Phantom. And, of course, it’s the classic Romeo and Juliet story of star-crossed lovers and the two families who are against each other.

Pop star Aaron Carter is currently playing Matt. Did he know who you are?
No, I don’t think so [laughs]. I didn’t know who he was. I had heard about his brother who was in the group [Backstreet Boys]. Aaron is a triple platinum recording artist, so I had sort of heard about him, but I could be his father’s father.

Aaron was a top-five contestant on Dancing With the Stars. Would you consider doing that?
So many people say that to me. I have an international fan club, and a couple of times a week people send me notes saying, “You should be on Dancing With the Stars.” The trouble is, I came from musical theater [at a time] leading men didn’t dance. I’ve studied tap and jazz, but I feel funny dancing unless I can fool around and make fun of it. I would look silly on Dancing With the Stars. If they offered it I suppose I couldn’t turn it down, but I would rather do other things.

You obviously feel at home on stage.
I do my live concerts, my one-man musical show, all around the country. I play banjo and guitar, and that’s fun. But I’ve taken an apartment in New York for a year, and I want to get back where I started. There is something about being in the theater that is so attractive to me; I respect myself more in the theater than being in clubs. It’s hard to get back into television because there is only one grandpa on a sitcom. So, this is kind of an investigative year for me. I would like to do what John Lithgow has done, and Stacy Keach—these are guys in my category. It doesn’t matter about the money. If you want to make big money, you don’t do Broadway. You do it because you love it.

What’s your dream theater role?
I’m working on a one-man show on Edward Kennedy that I commissioned. Richard Broadhurst is the playwright. I think Edward Kennedy is a classic tragic hero, almost in a Shakespearean sense. He has so many flaws and so much greatness about him.

You previously played Teddy Roosevelt on stage, right?
I did Teddy Roosevelt, and he was a big boy scout. He was so perfect—he didn’t have a mistress; he never did anything wrong. Ted Kennedy has a lot of controversial things about him. People either hate him or love him. I happen to love him, so that creates a great stage for a character.

Does the Kennedy family know about this?
No. I called the Kennedy [library] in Boston and said, “May I send you a copy of this?” And they said, “We don’t endorse any commercial products.” It presents Edward Kennedy in a very vulnerable way. It’s candid but we do not vilify him. He was a great senator, but he made a lot of mistakes and that’s what makes it such a good play.

Every article about you mentions your “boyish good looks.” Do you ever get tired of that?
I think whatever you are, you just are, and my “boyish good looks,” if you want to call them that, have served me well. I’m not Al Pacino and I’m not Robert De Niro. When I first got to the city in 1964, my career got going because I wasn’t a “street” type guy. I was square. I was Richie Cunningham, I wasn’t the Fonz, and that has served me quite well.

See John Davidson in The Fantasticks at the Snapple Theatre Center.

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