LORE NOTO, in costume to play the role of The Boy’s Father, receives a visit from Helen Hayes.
Lore Noto, the former commercial artist and sometime actor who produced THE FANTASTICKS, jokingly refers to the Off-Broadway musical as a “life sentence.” Since the show is completing its 41st year, his affliation with the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt creation does look like a lifetime commitment.
THE FANTASTICKS started slowly after opening to rather mixed notices in 1960. Noto carefully and expertly nurtured it and eventually was offered opportunities to take it uptown to Broadway. Had he done so, THE FANTASTICKS would probably be a regular statistic in the theatrical books by now, instead of still running eight shows a week, down on Sullivan Street.
Lore Noto first encountered THE FANTASTICKS as a reading in an acting class and then on a bill of one-acts at Barnard College in 1959. Its director from the outset had been Word Baker who, along with Jones and Schmidt, had been a student at the University of Texas in the early 1950’s. “Tom and Harvey had created something,” Noto recalls, “that I recognized in my own mind as a remarkable artistic achievement. The use of language in The Boy and The Girl’s monologues was so beautiful and so poetic that I was able to trust them, and Word Baker as well, and give them a free hand. I had to have confidence in anyone who could conceive a thing like this.”
Noto’s faith in the three collaborators, and in THE FANTASTICKS itself, represents his idealism and sense of optimism. The middle son of an Italian immigrant, Lorenzo Noto was three when his mother died. He and his brothers were sent to live at the Brooklyn Home for Children by his caring but hard-pressed father. Mr. Noto visited regularly and provided family gatherings on holidays. The facility was his home until the age of sixteen. While there he sang in church choirs and developed his interest in commercial art. He found an apprentice job with a commercial art studio and studied acting at night.
As early as 1939, Noto was working as an actor around New York. “In those days,” he says, “Off Broadway was referred to as Little Theatre, primarily because of playhouse capacity. We performed in churches and New York City libraries doing Chekhov, Ibsen and original plays throughout the five boroughs.” Later, working in the New England area, he wrote and directed short patriotic plays for local YMCA events. Although Lore Noto was 4F due to his eyesight, joined the merchant marine service and became an Able Bodied Seaman. While ashore in Antwerp, Belgium on December 16, 1944 he was gravely wounded in a direct hit of a V2 bomb, and as a result was awarded a Purple Heart by the US Army. When his hitch ended in 1946, he re-entered the commercial art field and married in 1947. Noto and his wife Mary had three children by the time he quit his job to produce THE FANTASTICKS. A fourth came later and by now, all have worked in some capacity with the production.
Noto believes his theatrical success couldn’t have been achieved without his wartime experience. He states, “We all know in comparison to the pain and horror of war, theatre is artifice. But the harsh disciplines I learned taught me the importance of collaboration. Theatre is a collaborative art; showboating is the primary pitfall to be avoided; ‘Stroke oars together’ is a life survival truth. When I was offered the opportunity to produce THE FANTASTICKS, I was well prepared to accept the responsibility of so admirable a venture. I was able to not only recognize, but to trust, the special talents and skills of not merely its creators, but the many in all departments who have served the musical since its inception.”
Noto’s own training as an actor prepared him to “improvise’ as a producer. He continues, “We broke quite a few long-standing theatre customs and practices. We allowed Music Theatre International to release the subsidiary stock rights and allow a television version while we were still running in New York. These are now standard practices in the Off Broadway field.”
For Noto, THE FANTASTICKS is a work that crosses time and generational barriers. “It has a universality that reaches around the world. One song says, ‘Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.’ That’s a fact. Another song says, ‘What at night seems oh so scenic/May be cynic in the light.’ These are statements of philosophy.”
Noto continues, making a point about the musical’s longevity, “All these years we secretly harbored the fear that the talent we’d need for replacements would not be showing up, because the contemporary musical styles ‘were a changin’. We are thrilled to note that the schools, colleges and regional theatres are still providing the New York Stage with talented young artists as capable and willing as before, for if, and only if, that flow continues, can we expect to maintain our reputation for high artistic achievement.”
Remembering back to the beginnings of THE FANTASTICKS he says, “Maybe the coming together of all the elements was foreordained; certainly, the right people, at the right time, with results like these, is not a very common occurrence.” For his part, Lore Noto was given the Alumni Achievement Award by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1966.
“In 1971, it looked as if the show would go under,” Noto admits, “and while I’d understudied The Boy’s Father from the start, I’d never really played it for any length of time. I’d always wanted to be the last Father, so I went in and continued until June 9, 1986!” On that last performance date, also his birthday, Noto attempted to retire himself and THE FANTASTICKS Sullivan Street production. The closing notice caused public disbelief and a spontaneous flood of protest.
“To me it was all the same thing — coming to the end of an era,” Noto says. Seeing that the box office advance sales were particularly good, he felt that this was the time “to go out with style, grace and nobility. Why does a show have to close under the worst conditions? Why not close under the best, during a successful run?”
Lore Noto gave in to such unrelenting pressures as a petition signed by theatre people, a nagging cast and crew, tears on his dressing table and friend Don Thompson. “When Lore told me, I couldn’t believe it,” says Don Thompson. So Donald V. Thompson stepped in, became Co-Producer.
THE FANTASTICKS continued it’s run until it’s final performance on January 13, 2002.