Though primarily based on Edmond Rostand’s Les Romanesques, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s The Fantasticks with its highly theatrical format and inventive storytelling draws inspiration from a wide range of influences. According to Tom Jones, the idea of having a narrator who both introduces and influences the action of the play (El Gallo, in The Fantasticks), came from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The notion of having the actors remain onstage, even when not performing, originated in Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. The paper moon and sun, the incidental music, and the frozen tableaus were inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s opera, Candide and famed director John Houseman’s production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Rostand’s play itself drew upon elements from the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, as well as from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. Nevertheless, The Fantasticks was an original creation, and a special addition to the burgeoning off-Broadway musical theatre scene, which burst to life in 1954 by Marc Blitzstein’s hit The Threepenny Opera.
Early productions of the Jones-Schmidt musical premiered at the University of New Mexico and Barnard College, and featured elements which were cut and reworked later. For example, an early version of the play was set in the American West, with the character of Mortimer as an actual Native American. Following in the footsteps of other small-orchestra, small-cast musicals off-Broadway, The Fantasticks opened at the Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York, on May 3, 1960. The cast featured Jerry Orbach (El Gallo), Rita Gardner (Luisa), Kenneth Nelson (Matt), bookwriter and lyricist Tom Jones -- under the pseudonym Thomas Bruce (Henry), William Larsen (Hucklebee), Hugh Thomas (Bellomy), George Curley (Mortimer), and Richard Stauffer (Mute), and was directed by Word Baker. Its intimate scale and simple set design were part of the conceit of the show, but also kept costs low. The producers of The Fantasticks only spent $900 on set expenses and $541 on costumes, all managed by Ed Wittstein, who rounded out his four jobs with light design and props.
The Fantasticks ran uninterrupted for 17,162 performances, closing on January 13, 2002. This makes it the longest-running musical in the world, and the longest-running show of any kind in the United States. A new revival opened on August 23, 2006, at the off-Broadway Snapple Theater Center, and it was set to close on May 3, 2015 to coincide with the show's 55th anniversary, but was given new life by anonymous donors although a closing notice was released on March 24, 2017 that the show will close for good in June 2017. The revival was directed by bookwriter, lyricist, and original cast member Tom Jones. After the passing of original El Gallo, Jerry Orbach, the Snapple Theater Center space was renamed the Jerry Orbach Theatre, in his memory. The Fantasticks is one of the most popular musicals produced in regional, community, college, and high school theaters across the country. In 2010, the New York Times reported that, since its opening, The Fantasticks had over 11,000 productions in 300 cities in all 50 states, as well as 67 foreign countries.