Rita Gardner Dies: Original Cast Member Of ‘The Fantasticks’ Was 87
Rita Gardner, an original cast member of the long-running Off Broadway phenomenon The Fantasticks, died Saturday of leukemia at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. She was 87.
Gardner’s death was announced by her friend and colleague Alex Rybeck on Facebook.
In 1960, Gardner, who had recently appeared Off Broadway in the Jerry Herman musical review Nightcap, was cast in what would be her signature role: Luisa, or “The Girl,” in the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones musical The Fantasticks. Based loosely on Edmond Rostand’s 1894 play The Romancers, the musical told the allegorical story of two fathers who trick their children – The Girl, Luisa, and The Boy, Matt – into falling in love by pretending to oppose the union.
The production, at a tiny Off Broadway venue in Greenwich Village called the Sullivan Street Playhouse, became a huge success, spawning a hit song (“Try To Remember”), running 42 years and boosting the careers of Gardner and other cast members (including Kenneth Nelson, who went on to star in The Boys in the Band, and, most notably, Jerry Orbach, the Law & Order star who enjoyed a long career on stage, film and television).
In the years after her stint with The Fantasticks, Gardner appeared in other Off Broadway shows including The Cradle Will Rock (1964), To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1969), Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1972), Steel Magnolias (1987), Wings (1993) and The Foreigner (2004).
On Broadway, she appeared in the short-lived musical A Family Affair in 1962, a 1963 revival of Pal Joey and Ben Franklin in Paris in 1964. Later Broadway credits would include the featured role as Rosie in the 2006 stage adaptation of Adam Sandler film comedy The Wedding Singer.
In addition to numerous regional theater credits, Gardner staged a one-woman revue called Try to Remember in New York in 2002 and again in 2011. A planned revival in 2020 was canceled due to the Covid shutdown.
Television credits included the long-running franchise that starred her old cast mate Orbach: She appeared on Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
In addition to performing, Gardner taught acting at New York’s HB Studio and as a guest teacher in other colleges and universities.
Gardner’s first marriage to playwright Herb Gardner ended in divorce. She is survived by husband Robert Sevra.
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