NEW YORK — The opening night of the musical “The Fantasticks” wasn’t so fantastic.
The reviews were decidedly mixed, with the New York Herald Tribune critic only liking Act 2. The New York Times grudgingly enjoyed just Act 1 and its critic, Brooks Atkinson, sniffed that the show was “the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures.”
Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics as well as acted in it, was crushed. “What I thought was it was the end of the world,” he said. At the opening-night party, the press agent called in to read the reviews and the mood grew “ghastly.”
Jones spent the rest of the night drinking too much and wandering Central Park in despair and throwing up. “One thing I learned that night was never, ever eat Mexican food at an opening-night party,” he recalls.
The date was May 3, 1960.
On Sunday, that little show — with a cast of eight, two musicians, a cardboard moon and guy who sprinkles confetti and makes us believe it’s snow — celebrated a staggering milestone: 20,000 performances, a number so silly that it looks like a typo. The magic has clearly endured.
“My mind doesn’t grasp it, in a way,” Jones said. “It’s like life itself — you get used to it and you don’t notice how extraordinary it is. I’m grateful for it and I’m astonished by it.”
The musical, based on an obscure play by Edmond Rostand, doesn’t necessarily have the makings of a hit. The set is just a platform with poles, a curtain and a wooden box. No explosions, no chandeliers.
The tale, a mock version of “Romeo and Juliet,” concerns a young girl and boy, secretly brought together by their fathers and an assortment of odd characters, including a rakish narrator, an old actor, an Indian named Mortimer and a mute. It’s as much about a love affair as it is a nod to the magic of theater itself.
Composer Harvey Schmidt’s melodies are hypnotic, from “Try to Remember” to “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” to the haunting “They Were You.” Jones’ lyrics are equally accomplished. “Without a hurt, the heart is hollow” sums up the show’s theme.
Despite the initial mixed critical reviews, the show was saved by the pugnacious producer Lore Noto, who coaxed celebrities into coming and built audiences through strong word of mouth.
Scores of actors have appeared in the show, from the opening cast that included Jerry Orbach and Rita Gardner, to stars such as Ricardo Montalban and Kristin Chenoweth to current “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” star Santino Fontana.
It was Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham’s first show in New York, but that isn’t so strange. “For a lot of people, it’s their first New York show,” said Jones, laughing. “We get them for their first show because we can’t afford them usually after that.”
In 1982, it was aspiring actor Kim Moore’s first show, too, after arriving in New York from Wheaton, Minn. He had done the musical in high school and college and hoped he might land the part of The Mute in the Big Apple. He did — on his second audition. And even then he wasn’t the top candidate.
“I was told I got cast because the guy they really wanted to play The Mute was too good-looking and he would have stolen focus,” Moore said, smiling. “I have no problem with that. I don’t need to be your first choice. As long as I’m your last choice.”
Over the next decades, Moore would play The Mute, The Boy and The Narrator. He even fell for and married an actress who played The Girl. “My whole love affair with ‘The Fantasticks’ also involves my own love affair,” he said.
For nearly 42 years the show chugged along at the 153-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, finally closing in 2002 after 17,162 performances — a victim both of a destroyed downtown after 9/11 and a new post-terrorism, edgy mood.
“It didn’t seem strange to me that it would close after 42 years. In some ways, I was grateful,” Jones said. “We had neglected the show. We had let it run down.”
But the magic couldn’t stop.
In 2006, “The Fantasticks” found a new home in The Snapple Theater Center, an off-Broadway complex in the heart of Times Square. Producers quickly asked Moore if he would be its stage manager.
After thousands of performances — on and off over the decades — Moore was a natural choice, knowing all the tricks and behind-the-scenes details. So “The Fantasticks,” which had given Moore a steady paycheck and a wife was now transitioning him to a career after acting.
It’s a show that’s in his DNA now. “I can’t escape it. I finally just sort of gave up after a while,” he said with a smile. “This is my show, what can I say?”
For his part, Jones jumped at the chance to redeem his handling of “The Fantasticks” and even did some rewriting. “I think I’ve finally finished with ‘The Fantasticks,’” he said. “It’s finally the way I want it to be.”
It long ago won the title of world’s longest-running musical. “The Phantom of the Opera,” by comparison, is Broadway’s longest-running show with just 10,700 shows, a mere adolescent. (The only rival to “The Fantasticks” is the play “The Mousetrap” in London, which is the longest- running show in the world, having passed 25,000 performances.)
Jones, 85, who teamed up with Schmidt on the shows “I Do! I Do!” and “110 in the Shade” and is currently working on a musical based on “The Tempest,” finds himself one of only three original cast members still alive.
Reaching 20,000 performances has made him philosophical about a little musical he put on when Dwight D. Eisenhower was still president. He fully believes it will be on when President Barack Obama’s children have kids of their own.
“So many people have come, and this thing stays the same — the platform, the wooden box, the cardboard moon,” he said. “We just come and do our little thing and then we pass on.”
PHOTO: Evy Ortiz, left, and Jim Schubin in "The Fantasticks."