The hit song from The Fantasticks is "Try to Remember," and few who have seen that off-Broadway musical will ever forget its whimsical charm. It did not get a "money" notice from the New York Times, but Fantasticks was an audience show, and its survival restores one's faith in Darwin and in the creative stubbornness of a single man. He is the producer, Lore Noto, 50, son of a Sicilian immigrant.

This week, with Noto now also co-starring, Fantasticks celebrates its 15th anniversary, the longest running musical in the history of that uniquely American art form. Still playing in the Greenwich Village playhouse where it premiered, the show has grossed over $3.6 million in that 149-seat theater alone. With 3,371 domestic productions, some 220 others in 54 foreign countries, plus record and sheet-music royalties and other subsidiaries, $1,000 invested in the show in 1960 has paid off $40,380.

But there was no profit at all for the first eight months, and little to go on but the producer's faith in the work of composer Harvey Schmidt and librettist-lyricist Tom Jones. Noto's personal stake, his $3,300 life savings, had to be supplemented by 57 other angels who now dominate the spoils. "I'm not a millionaire myself," he says, "but people think I am. The show got me out of Lefrak City" [a medium-rent, high-rise apartment complex]. Now he, his wife and four children are in a home in Forest Hills—"with a mortgage. We are surviving like The Fantasticks."

Prior to the show, Noto had scrambled from the age of 16 as a door-to-door hosiery salesman, actor and commercial artist. In the early years of The Fantasticks, he stood in for sick performers occasionally and then in late 1972, with rising costs requiring constant supervision—or closedown—he moved into the permanent cast. "There is an old tradition of actor-managers in the theater," he explains. "It has become my life." Quoting a line from the play, Noto says, " 'Who understands why spring is born out of winter's laboring pain, why we must all die a bit before we grow again? I do not know the answer.' I'm probably a maniac to think so, but then I've been called worse—I'm going to take The Fantasticks through the century."