The Fantasticks opened off-Broadway on May 3, 1960, and played at the 150-seat Sullivan Street Theatre in the Village for 42 years, until it closed on Jan. 13, 2002. The closing made front-page news in the New York Times and was covered by many major publications.
Coverage focused on the fact that it was the longest-running musical in the United States, and perhaps the world; that it ran for 17,162 performances; and, according to Back Stage, that it provided its original investors a 20,000 percent profit. Although these statistics are astonishing, other numbers and dates are highly relevant to Local 802 members.
In 1984 the show, in its 25th year, was already a phenomenon. However the two musicians working on the show, pianist Dorothy Martin and harpist Elizabeth Etters, experienced only limited benefits from its success. From the day it opened, many 802 members had worked on the production – but they had never received the wages and benefits provided by a union contract.
In the spring of 1984 the musicians decided to change that. With the union’s assistance, they waged a long and contentious struggle to gain recognition. It ultimately took a strike threat to get the employer to the bargaining table. After more than six months a three-year agreement was finally achieved, dated Oct. 31, 1984.
Both the employer and the union had a great deal at stake in this battle. The show was Local 802’s first off-Broadway contract. Despite an unpromising start, the union and the employer went on to negotiate contracts covering 23 regularly chaired musicians for more than 17 years.
The first contract improved musicians’ wages by $50 a week and added two weeks’ paid vacation a year, Plan A health coverage, and a pension contribution. Just as important to the musicians, it gave them a voice in their workplace through the grievance and arbitration clause.
An article in the January 1985 Allegro refers to grievances against the employer for failure to pay for rehearsals, and below-scale wages paid to a newly-hired musician. These grievances were easily settled – because of the union. Before the contract, the musicians had felt that they had to swallow anything the employer handed out, including not getting paid correctly.
The Fantasticks ran for 42 years – but perhaps most fantastic for 802 members is the fact that 17 years ago at this show, the union made a significant step forward for musicians working in the off-Broadway arena.