What happens when fan fiction takes over the original: a steampunk national tour of ‘The Fantasticks’

It’s not unusual to do a concept production of a play or musical. Alan Cumming just did a version of “Macbeth” on Broadway as a man in a psych ward acting out all the roles. But, usually, the concept is inspired by some aspect of the original: the slow mental decline of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in the case of the above production.

Playbill has just announced a national tour of the long-running musical “The Fantasticks” that is “re-envisioned as a steampunk-inspired production.”


Anyone who knows the musical knows that this is insane. “The Fantasticks” is a musical written in 1960, just on the border between the classic and modern musical. It is a boy-meets-girl story that turns the old cliché on its head with smart dialogue, meta-theatricality, and a unique and heartbreakingly real love story. It has rung so true with audiences that it is also the world’s longest running musical, playing for over 50 years in New York. It holds a Guinness World Record and all. “The Fantasticks” is set in an ambiguous time and place, because reality takes a backseat to theatrical magic and the dreams and fantasies of the characters.

But it has nothing whatsoever to do with steampunk, which is a sub-genre of science fiction that features steam-powered machinery in the pseudo-historical setting of the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England and which is a popular topic in fan fiction.

The creative team doesn’t have a strong explanation for this wild concept either. Director Carl Beck said in a statement that “It’s not an intrusive concept. It seems like the allegoric-quality can blend with the fantasy, giving it a quasi-period feel and making for a stronger statement than [The Fantasticks] usually gets.”

A stronger statement than “The Fantasticks” usually gets? Did you just crawl out from under a rock? This critically-acclaimed musical has been running for over 50 years and has gained a loyal following. I doubt that this is because, according to you, it fails to make enough of a “statement.”

According to Playbill, “the story … is not being re-written or changed, and the show will remain true to its original incarnation, aside from the steampunk-style costumes, set and props.” Okay, so not only are you foisting a misguided concept onto the show, but you’re not actually integrating it in? We’ll see how that goes. A poorly executed directorial concept spells disaster in the theater world.

For all I know, there may be steampunk fan fiction for “The Fantasticks,” like there is for most films, TV shows and plays. Fine by me. Fan fiction is wish fulfillment, a chance to try something that you wanted to happen in the original, but didn’t happen for whatever reason. It’s also a chance to try out crazy, impossible ideas just to see what would happen. But when the creative team behind the source material uses fan fiction-like elements to change the original? That gets weird. There seems to be little behind this concept besides someone’s crazy, half-baked idea brought to life.

Hopefully they’ll leave the current Off-Broadway production intact, so that audiences can continue to fall in love with “The Fantasticks.”