The Fantasticks: An Interview with Robert Spencer

The Fantasticks began Off-Broadway in 1960 and went on to become the world’s longest running musical with over 21,000 performances in New York. While the production closed in June 2017, it lives on as a classic piece of musical theatre.

Cast member, Robert Spencer, who plays the role of Henry in In Tandem’s production of The Fantasticks, played the role of Matt in the 1960’s. We sat down with him to get his perspective on this charming, whimsical musical and his fascinating acting career.

The cast of The Fantasticks Off-Broadway. Robert Spencer is one in from the left.

The cast of The Fantasticks Off-Broadway. Robert Spencer is one in from the left.

How did you get started in acting?   

As a child, I loved to sing and my parents determined that I was destined to be the next Frank Sinatra.  When I was seventeen years old, I began studying voice at The Russell Wood musical workshop in downtown Chicago.  Mr. Wood also produced scaled down Broadway musicals on the weekends.  Within three weeks, he threw me into the chorus of Guys and Dolls.  On opening night, as we were singing the finale, I distinctly remember thinking, “I don’t want to be the next Frank Sinatra, I want to be a Broadway Musical Comedy Star!”  Soon after that, I was being cast in leading roles.  Developing the personalities and behaviors of the characters I was playing captured my imagination and I knew, “I no longer just wanted to be a musical comedy star, I wanted to be a serious actor” and I sought out the best acting teacher in town, Minnie Galatzer.  She taught “The Method,” a popular acting training program that was developed by the great Russian theatre practitioner, Konstantin Stanislavski.  I loved this method of study, as well as my subsequent training after I moved to New York in 1957.  I have been a professional actor for 63 years.

What was it like playing Matt in The Fantasticks Off-Broadway?
It was a dream come true.  My personal manager, Carly Mills, was also Kenneth Nelson’s (the original Matt in The Fantasticks) manager.  I was in Bye Bye Birdie at the time, and on one of my nights off, he took me to see the show.  I was completely enthralled with the production, and vowed that I would play Matt, someday.  Four years later, I had the opportunity to audition for the role.  There was a line of young men that went around the block at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, also wanting to land that plumb part.  And much to my surprise, I GOT IT!  I loved playing Matt.  Discovering new and unexpected facets of his character was very satisfying to me.

How long did you play Matt in The Fantasticks?
I played Matt for one year and ten months.  It’s the longest I’ve ever played any role.

What is it like to be back in The Fantasticks, this time in the role of Henry?
I am having the time of my life.  To be a part of this phenomenal cast that Jane and Chris have assembled is a real treat at this point in my professional life.  When I was in the Off-Broadway production, every time Henry made his entrance, I fantasized what it would be like to play that role someday.  It only took 53 years to fulfill that fantasy.  I am one happy camper.   

What is your favorite thing about The Fantasticks?
The score.  It’s not only wonderful music, it totally supports, and furthers the narrative of this, delicate, beautiful love story. 

What has your favorite role to play, in any show?
It’s a toss-up between The Emcee in Cabaret and Norman the dresser in The Dresser.

Are there any parts that you never got to play that you wish you could? Any parts that you hope to play in the future?
I really don’t have a specific list of roles I want to play.  Through the years, I’ve pretty much taken whatever has come my way.  I have been blessed with many great roles in my lifetime.  I am about to play a role I’ve had my eye on for some time.  I’ve been asked to play Fool to James Pickering’s King Lear this summer for Optimist Theatre.  I am “chomping at the bit” to work on this one. 

What is the best piece of advice you ever got about acting, and from whom?
Be Present.  Listen.  Play your intentions.  Have fun.  These simple, practical words of wisdom came from Eve Collyer, my New York acting teacher.

What are some of your favorite moments during your acting career?
Being cast in the original production of Bye Bye Birdie, my first Broadway Show.  And stepping onto the stage for the first time at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

The Fantasticks at In Tandem Theatre performs April 27 – May 20, 2018. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 414-271-1371, visit us in-person at 628 N. 10th Street, Milwaukee WI, 53233 (Monday-Friday 10am-5pm), or click here.