Producer-Actor Lore Noto Takes His Last Curtain Call in the Longest Running Musical on Earth

updated 06/23/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/23/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's a bit like the old Romeo and Juliet shtik: Boy loves Girl, Girl loves Boy, their feuding fathers try to break it up....But the similarities end there. This is The Fantasticks, and the old men are in cahoots, driving the kids apart to test their love. Result: Boy gets Girl. Joy abounds. Curtain. Audience departs, humming Try To Remember, now an American standard, and remarking about what a relief it is nowadays to see a nice show.

It seems odd that this spare, simple-minded musical (instrumentation: one piano, one harp) should manage to sustain for more than a week. Yet the startling fact is that The Fantasticks, defying bored critics and the big-bucks economics of the theater, has been playing off-Broadway for 26 years, lofting it into the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest running (10,864 performances) musical in stage history.

The show has put producer Lore Noto, 63, in line for a world record, too. One day 16 years ago, Noto decided to play the co-starring role of Hucklebee, the boy's father. He has been doing it ever since—harrumphing, scheming, singing and dancing through more than 5,300 performances. "When people ask how long I've been doing this," says Lore cheerfully, "I say it's a life sentence."

The Fantasticks was hardly more than a one-act experiment when Noto saw it in 1959 at Barnard College in New York and persuaded playwrights Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones to let him produce it. Launching Fantasticks with a puny bankroll of $16,500, Noto coaxed it through its initial spate of tepid reviews till it became a legend. Since then, no fewer than 240 actors have played the show in New York, worldwide productions have numbered in the thousands, and Lore's backers have pocketed a 9,624 percent return on their money.

By now, Noto could probably sleepwalk through his role, but he portrays the well-meaning but bungling patriarch six days a week as if every night were his first. He's gone on with a broken toe and, on one occasion, with an infected tooth that ballooned his face to twice its size. Once, he found himself so staggered at the new way he'd just delivered a line that he forgot what came next. On another occasion he launched into the fathers' duet without delivering the cue. "Fortunately we're all protected by the muses, I guess," he says. "Suddenly something comes out that will bring you forward."

For Noto The Fantasticks is a work that crosses time and generational barriers. "It has a universality that reaches around the world," he argues. "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."

Despite the steady word-of-mouth success of the show, audiences became so sparse at times that Noto considered shutting it down. But when he posted a closing notice, it was saved by a spontaneous flood of public protest, as if Walt Disney had threatened to abandon Mickey Mouse. But now an important chapter is closing. Noto last week quit his stage role and for the first time will share front-office duties with a co-producer. He may have cancer.

Doctors found lymphoma five years ago. Radiation halted its spread, but there are signs that the cancer has returned. "I licked the damned thing before," Noto says. "I'm not afraid of it." A former merchant marine seaman who did a stint in Belgium during World War II, he adds, "How the hell can I worry about a lousy bug going berserk in my body? Let it go berserk."

The middle son of an Italian immigrant, Lorenzo Noto was 3 when his mother died. He and two brothers were sent to live at the Brooklyn Home for Children, where "they taught you to work hard. I've been working since I was a child, which is one of the factors in deciding to leave the show." The home also gave Noto his first taste of the stage: He played Santa Claus at 5 for the board of directors. "When it was all over, this little rich lady came around to the door and said, 'You did very well,' " Noto recalls. "And I guess I've been doing it ever since."

His father wanted Lore to be a lawyer, but the boy balked, became a commercial artist, married, and at night began studying acting. He and his wife, Mary, had three children by the time Lore quit his job to produce The Fantasticks. A fourth child has since joined the troupe, and by now all have worked in some fashion with the production. The show has not made Lore wealthy. He and Mary still live in middle-class Queens, across the river from Manhattan. "To me, rich is when you're able to take cabs," he says. "I still take the subway."

Noto doesn't regret his decision to give up acting. "I suppose I really didn't want to die in the role," he explains. "I had a kind of wild thing that went through my mind, that it wasn't Lore Noto who had cancer—it was Hucklebee. So by leaving the role, maybe I'll clear up the cancer. I know it sounds insane." Perhaps it is no crazier than the staying power of The Fantasticks. Noto has dubbed it "the show that people won't let die."

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