The Fantasticks opens in Act One with El Gallo singing the most famous song in the play, “Try to Remember the Kind of September.” El Gallo quickly addresses the audience as narrator and tells us the simple story of a boy (Matt), a girl (Luisa), two fathers (Hucklebee and Bellomy), and a wall (often played by a Mute holding up a stick). From the beginning we realize that Luisa is young, innocent, pretty, and thinks she’s in love with her neighbor that’s just over the wall, Matt. Matt feels the same about Luisa. But when their fathers appear, the lovers do not show their affection since the two fathers are supposedly engaged in a private feud with each other. However, we quickly discover that the fathers have concocted the feud for no other reason than to get their two children together—a kind of reverse psychology in action. They are actually good friends and have built the wall simply to add to the deception. There is only one difficulty: they can’t decide how to end the feud. Finally one father suggests that they hire a man (El Gallo) to stage a fake abduction. They both agree. The plan is that El Gallo will abduct Luisa, Matt will run in to save her and defeat El Gallo, and Matt will become the hero, thus ending the feud.
El Gallo is helped in the abduction by two actors who are down on their luck—one Mortimer (who specializes in dying) and one rather old Henry (who specializes in reciting mixed up passages from Shakespeare’s plays). The actors succeed in the abduction with just a little bungling and Matt emerges as the hero having vanquished all three actors with his wooden sword. Our girl, our boy, and our fathers embrace in a loving tableau. Act One closes with our families still frozen in a “happy ending.”
Act Two opens on our families still in the same frozen tableau, only they are getting tired of it. Gallo remarks that “the play is never done / Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit / And burnished by—the sun!” Our families come to life, but they are complaining and irritable with each other. The fathers tell their children that the abduction and feud were all arranged. El Gallo makes his appearance with the bill for the abduction, and Matt tries to sword fight him again, but this time he loses. Our fathers part, angry with each other over gardening habits, and our lovers part, over equally trivial things. Matt heads down the road “to a world that’s gleaming,” and Luisa sheds a tear as they separate.
At this point El Gallo and Matt sing a song from opposite sides. Matt is looking for a “bright shining somewhere” and El Gallo knows that “There’s a song he must sing; / It’s a well-known song / But the tune is bitter / And it doesn’t take long to learn.” As Matt heads off, Mortimer and Henry turn up to accompany Matt on his journey.
El Gallo informs us of the passing of the month of October. Next we see our two fathers by the wall that is being fortified; however, they start discussing the fact that they haven’t heard from Matt for over a month. They end up by singing a song about how much they enjoy gardening because, unlike children, vegetables are dependable. They are friends once again and leave to play a game of poker.
We find Luisa daydreaming when suddenly she sees El Gallo sitting up in a tree. She is happy to see “her bandit” since she is obviously infatuated by his good looks and decides to climb the tree to sit beside him. She asks him if he won’t take her “To the parties! To the world!” El Gallo and Luisa dance, and the Mute hands her a paper, laughing mask to wear over her face. While they are dancing, Luisa sees Matt in various dangerous circumstances—first being burned by Mortimer and Henry, then being beaten by them, and then being forced to sit on nails. In each case Luisa feels no compassion as long as she keeps the mask to her face. El Gallo agrees to take Luisa and run away with her. As Luisa runs off to pack, we notice that Matt has returned and has been watching. Now Matt knows that the world is not gleaming—it contains hunger and sorrow. He tries to stop El Gallo from leaving Luisa, but it is useless. Luisa returns to find El Gallo gone and sinks to her knees.
As narrator once again, El Gallo explains that hurting them was a necessary part of their growing. He and the fathers watch as our two lovers once again face each other and sing, “You are love”—only this time, everyone is wiser. One father suggests they tear down the wall and El Gallo responds, “No. Leave the wall. Remember—you must always leave the wall. . . . Deep in December it’s nice to remember / The fire of September that made us mellow.”