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¿Quién es "El Gallo"?

Analyzing the Enigmatic Master of Illusion & Orchestrator of Truth in "The Fantasticks"

By Jacob HerrPublished about a month ago Updated 22 days ago 12 min read
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PART ONE: AN INTRODUCTION

Try to remember the kind of September,

When life was slow and oh, so mellow.

Try to remember the kind of September,

When grass was green and grain was yellow.

Try to remember the kind of September,

When you were a tender and callow fellow.

Try to remember and if you remember,

Then follow.

About a year ago, I had the privilige of visiting my old college theatre department at Butler University. After visiting one of my old professors during their office hours, I was gifited a series of plays and musicals; one in particular was one of the first paperback copies of The Fantasticks, by Harvey Schmidt & Tom Jones. After reading the text, listening to the soundtrack, and watching videos of the show, I found it to be one of the most impactful works of theatre, as well as a show that's on my personal bucket list as a working actor. Yet, it got me thinking, about one specific character which stood out from the others. A man with no concrete background, and only occasionally goes by the mysterious pseudonym of "El Gallo". With my mind sparked by this state of curiosity, I invite you to journey with me and dig deep into not only that makes The Fantasticks such an amazing show, but also what makes an amazing El Gallo.

Now, for those of you not very well acquainted with the show, allow me to give you a brief outline of the story.

  • Starting in Act One, there are two families who live side by side, and are separated by a wall.
  • On one side is a girl named Luisa, and her father, Bellamy.
  • On the other side is a boy named Matt, and his father, Hucklebee.
  • The two fathers want their children to ultimately fall in love, and pretend to wage a fake feud; expressly forbidding their children from seeing one another.
  • Matt and Luisa fall in love, much to their parents' delight. Though, now the fathers must solve the question of how to end the fake feud.
  • Bellamy and Hucklebee hire El Gallo and a collection of other characters (Henry, Mortimer, & "The Mute") to stage a kidnapping; allowing Matt to defeat them, rescue Luisa, give their parents the opprotunity to "bury the hatchet", and end the first act for intermission.
  • In Act Two, Matt and Luisa begin to get on each other's nerves and quarrel.
  • Bellamy & Hucklebee begin to quarrel (this time, for real).
  • Matt runs away, in search of adventure; only to learn how the world is a terrible and violent place; returning home in a battered and scarred state.
  • Luisa falls in love with El Gallo, only to be robbed of her valued heirloom (a necklace which belonged to her mother) by him.
  • Matt and Luisa reconcile, now wiser, and with a more mature understanding of what love truly is; ending the show.

Compared to other musicals running in New York at the time of its release (The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Bye Bye Birdie, Camelot, & The Music Man), and by the admittance of the show's creators, a muscial like this was never expected to be successful. It was a show never meant to be "of its time". It's a show that has its basis in commedia dell'arte in terms of character structure, and its writing is based in poetic verse. In many ways, it was meant to be a contemporary fable; set in a virtually timeless setting. Yet, in spite of these so-called hinderances, to say that the show was successful is an understatement. It ran off-Broadway for 53 years (almost 20,000 performances, between 1960 & 2017), with a multi-generation spanning list of renowned actors playing the roles, and was even adapted for television & a feature length film.

So, what exactly makes The Fantasticks so fantastic? Well, the comedy and the songs are certainly strong factors. The humor in the show is very sophisticated and witty. Yet, what many fans will tell you is how the show never panders to the audience. Rather, the show is very much grounded in and rejoices in the simple things that move us and entertain us. Somebody who's never seen live theatre before, sitting next to sombody who watches live theatre three times a week, can both come and love the show. Audiences can easily identify with the characters. One could imagine viewers from the 1960's identifying with Matt and Luisa, and then identifying with the parents or Henry (the old and disheveled actor with a failing memory) decades later.

Now, with all that in mind, let us move on to the character who sets the stage. The player who controls the players. Let's talk about El Gallo.

Jerry Orbach, Rita Gardner, Kenneth Nelson, Richard Stauffer, William Larsen, and Hugh Thomas in the 1960 stage production The Fantasticks.

The man who first originated the role of El Gallo was Jerry Orbach (later known as Billy Flynn in the original Broadway run of Chicago, Julian Marsh in the original Broadway run of 42nd Street, Jake Houseman in Dirty Dancing, the voice of Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast, and NYPD Detective Lennie Briscoe in Law & Order). Later on, other actors such as Ricardo Montalban, Richard Chamberlin, F. Murray Abraham, and Robert Goulet, would follow in Orbach's footsteps as the character. According to Orbach, he described El Gallo as a magician, the narrator, a romantic, and all the things you'd ever want to be. Certainly wonderful to hear, but that doesn't really give us much to go off of in terms of figuring out who he really is. We'll need to dive headlong into the show, in order to gain a better unsterstanding of him.

PART TWO: THE WRITTEN WORDS

Deep in December, it's nice to remember;

Although you know the snow will follow.

Deep in December, it's nice to remember,

Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.

Deep in December, it's nice to remember,

The fire of September that made us mellow.

Deep in December, our hearts should remember,

And follow.

To me, this final verse in the musical's opening number Try to Remember is not only my favorite verse, but one line in that verse ("without a hurt, the heart is hollow"), perfectly explains what the show is all about. Growing up. In contrast to its theatrical competitors, at the time, Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt decided to use a different means of communicating with their audience. Literary throwbacks to classical poets such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, & Milton, by means of rhyme and blank verse.

The rhythmic pattern of iambic pentameter sounds like this: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

For an example in the context of the show, let's examine a section of El Gallo's opening monologue.

It’s hard to know which is more important, or how it all began. The boy was born. The girl was born. They grew up, quickly, went to school, became shy (in their own ways and for different reasons), read romances, studied cloud formations in the lazy afternoons, and instead of reading textbooks, tried to memorize the moon.

When reading it aloud, you can find the iambic pentameter within the text. It's-HARD to-KNOW which-IS more-IM por-TANT. Furthermore, Tom Jones also implements rhyming couplets in the musical's libretto.

Going back to El Gallo's opening monologue, we do find evidence of the use of rhyming couplets alongside blank verse.

She began to notice something strange. Her ugly duckling features had undergone a change.

These methods of writing the characters' dialogue enhances the mythical and fable-esc quality that goes along with the show, as well as giving the audience hints in regards to El Gallo's identity, background, and motivations. His rhetoric, throughout the show, establishes himself as the narrator; but never does he take the credit for being such.

EL GALLO: Let me tell you a few things you may want to know before we begin the play. First of all, the characters: A boy, a girl, two fathers, and a wall. Anything else that’s needed, we can get from out this box.

He doesn't go on to say "and I am the narrator." or "and I am El Gallo.". He lists the characters and that's pretty much it. Yet, his words serve as an emotional invitation to the story being brought to life before their eyes; using the word "we" more often than "I". He sets himself up not only as just the narrator, but also the driving force of the story, as well as the bridge between the world depicted on stage and the real world. In some ways, he establishes himself as a god-like character; where he (alongside the Mute and the audience's imagination) creates a world, and then proceeds to begin the story.

In short, she was growing pretty. For the first time in her whole life; pretty. The shock so stunned and thrilled her, that she became almost immediately, incurably insane. Observe.

Throughout his opening speech, El Gallo speaks with a great sense of sentimentality. As if he watched Matt and Luisa grow up, for years. Later on, he speaks of them with a greater sense of depth, that borders on admiration. As if he may as well be one of the fathers; seeing the children in their most vulnerable moments. He also, frequently mocks them, but with a sense of ownership. They may come off as weird, sometimes, but they're his; and that's what he likes about them. As the show progresses, two overriding themes become prevalent in Jones & Schmidt's story. Seasonal change and vegetation. These images inform everything in the show; giving it a sense of unity. Both thematic elements are best showcased during The Glen Speech. Now, upon reading the speech for the first time, one could easily discard its importance as simple narration (perhaps even filler, dare I say). However, upon closer examination, the wording of the speech reflects undertones of regret within El Gallo as he delivers it. As if El Gallo once had his own love story that never worked out, and that this glen was the place in his own life where he struck out on that chance. Now, with Matt, Luisa, and their love for one another only growing stronger, can he hope they have better luck than he had.

EL GALLO: You wonder how these things begin. Well, this beings with a glen. It begins with a season which, for want of a better word, we might as well call September. It begins with a forest where the woodchucks woo, and leaves wax green, and vines entwine like lovers. Try to see it; not with your eyes, for they are wise, but see it with your ears. The cool green breathing of the leaves, and hear it with the inside of your hand. The soundless sound of shadows flicking light.

Celebrate sensation! Recall that secret place. You’ve been there. You remember. That special place where once, just once, in your crowded, sunlit, lifetime, you hid away in shadows from they tyranny of time. That spot beside the clover, where someone’s hand held your hand, and love was sweeter than the berries, or the honey, or the stinging taste of mint.

It is September, before a rainfall. A perfect time to be in love.

Act 2, however, begins on a much darker and more sardonic note. Even though El Gallo joined in with the comical antics of the children & fathers, he now embraces the role of teacher. Much like the parent who allows their child to play in the backyard full of poison ivy, he shows Matt & Luisa the brutal harshness of reality; removing their love that was fostered under false pretenses.

EL GALLO: Their moon was cardboard, fragile. It was very apt to fray, and what was last night scenic may seem cynic by today. The play’s not done. Oh, no. Not quite. For life never ends in the moonlit night; and despite what pretty poets say, the night is only half the day.

So we would like to truly finish what was foolishly begun. For the story is not ended and the play is never done until we’ve all been burned a bit, and burnished by the sun!

So, after hearing these monologues, speeches, and soliloquies, have we gotten any closer to figuring out who El Gallo is? No. Absolutley not. Yet there is a very enlightening tidbit of the second act which gives us another cryptic clue. When Matt confronts El Gallo, wanting to best him for real, he asks him "You are El Gallo?"; only to receive a one word response, "Sometimes."

From that point forward, El Gallo and the Mute come together, and serve as whatever's necessary in the course of the moment. Even if it requires El Gallo to do things he doesn't want to do, he knows that he must. The audience watches him destroy Matt and Luisa's lives, and it can be easy to conclude that this character is truly a force of evil; a figure that must be feared. Though, it's in his final soliloquy where he reveals what may be his true sentiments.

El GALLO: There is a curious paradox that no one can explain. Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain?

Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain? Or why we all must die a bit before we grow again.

I do not know the answer. I merely know it’s true. I hurt them for that reason; and myself a little bit, too.

PART THREE: SINGLING OUT THE SECRET

Perhaps one other way we can discern El Gallo's true identity is through his song numbers. In Act 1, following his introductory song Try to Remember, the father's hire El Gallo to fake a kidnaping. When asked to name a price for his services, he gives them a song-driven catalogue of theatrical options (on par with a restaurant menu that includes everything but the kitchen sink) entitled It Depends on What You Pay. Now, in the original libretto, I must confess that the word "rape" is used, but not in the context one would ordinarily assume it to be. El Gallo elaborates.

EL GALLO: Forgive me. The "attempted rape". The abduction. The seizure. The kidnapping. Call it what you will. To plunder. To pillage. To carry off by force. From the Latin “rapere,” meaning “to seize.” You’ve heard, of course, of The Rape of Lucrece.

HUCK: Of course.

EL GALLO: The Rape of the Lock?

HUCK: Absolutely. Absolutely! I heard her speak of Sabine Women.

BELL: Well, it doesn’t sound right to me.

EL GALLO: It is, though, I assure you. As a mater of fact, it’s standard.

Though, even with this clarification, he sings the word almost 40 times. Especially when you consider how shocking it is to only hear it once in today's time. Thankfully, there is an alternate version which serves the story just fine.

Come Act 2, when the children discover that both the kidnapping and the feud between their parents was staged, they become frustrated with each other, and look towards the world (beyond their homes) for the adventure and satisfaction they seek. El Gallo sings a duet, opposite Matt, called I Can See It, to show how his idealism for the outside world is born out of ignorance.

El Gallo then moves on to Luisa. Following Matt's departure and the dashing of his dreams, Luisa becomes infatuated by El Gallo; the masculine, rougish bandit who she saw best Matt in a sword fight. In the song Round and Round, El Gallo proceeds to operate in dual roles. With one being the seductive manipulator. The other, being the sagacious mentor; gaining her trust and affection, only to break her heart and naïvety.

PART FOUR: CLOSING THE CURTAINS

In conclusion, we may not have successfully discovered who this enigmatic character may be, but our understanding of the show he serves a principle role in, has certainly grown; and I only hope your adoration for its writing and music has grown, just as much as it has for me. Tom Jones once remarked that tears without laughter is like laughter without tears. To have exclusively one or the other is essentially shallow and only a half-experience; a half-vision. We must put the two of them together. Never separating the masks of comedy and tragedy, but merging them; twisting, impossible opposites, and irrevocably joined together. For if we do that, then we'll have made some progress. That's what The Fantasticks is all about.

As parting words, I say that whoever we are and wherever we may be, El Gallo is our counselor and soothsayer. For if he does his job correctly, we come out on the other side a little bit wiser than before. Dare I say, a little changed.

CITED SOURCES

  • Schmidt, Harvey, and Tom Jones. The Fantasticks: A Parable about Love. Chappell and Co., 1960. Accessed 18 May 2024.
  • Galen Fott. “The Fantasticks, Complete and (Mostly) Color, Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1964.” YouTube, 1 Mar. 2020, youtu.be/yvsK_m7nSkI. Accessed 18 May 2024.
  • Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers. “The Fantasticks Official Trailer #1 - Brad Sullivan Movie (1995) HD.” YouTube, 5 Oct. 2012, youtu.be/K9Da-XCJvYM. Accessed 18 May 2024.
  • Jacob Herr. “Jacob Herr - El Gallo’s Monologue (the FANTASTICKS).” YouTube, 3 Dec. 2023, youtu.be/ScUeCbudEvY. Accessed 18 May 2024.
  • Release - Topic. “It Depends on What You Pay.” YouTube, 25 Sept. 2014, youtu.be/kxbSgCP0-kU. Accessed 18 May 2024.
  • Release - Topic. “I Can See It.” YouTube, 14 Nov. 2017, youtu.be/E3PsDavQP9Q. Accessed 18 May 2024.
  • Release - Topic. “Round and Round.” YouTube, 25 Sept. 2014, youtu.be/eGJp-L0KubU. Accessed 18 May 2024.

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About the Creator

Jacob Herr

Born & raised in the American heartland, Jacob Herr graduated from Butler University with a dual degree in theatre & history. He is a rough, tumble, and humble artist, known to write about a little bit of everything.

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  1. Excellent storytelling

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  • Emily Marie Concannonabout a month ago

    so much detail, wonderful work! i loved the verses you added! added so much magic

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