Rita Gardner, who in a long cabaret and theater career earned an enduring place in stage history in 1960, when she originated the role of Luisa in the musical “The Fantasticks,” the longest-running musical in theatrical history, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 87.
Claire-Frances Sullivan, her personal assistant and caretaker, said the cause was leukemia.
Ms. Gardner was in her mid-20s and not particularly well known when she responded to an audition notice for “The Fantasticks,” a romantic fable with a book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt. She had called Lore Noto, the show’s producer, before attending the audition, and he told her that though the creative team already had another actress in mind for the part, she should audition anyway.
“I didn’t know Tom or Harvey or anybody,” she said in an interview for the book “The Amazing Story of ‘The Fantasticks’” (1991), by Donald C. Farber and Robert Viagas. “I came in, essentially, off the street. They didn’t know me either.”
She sang the song she had once used to win an “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” contest, “Over the Rainbow.” Mr. Schmidt heard a quality he liked.
“With a lot of singers you can tell when they go from head to chest voice; it’s two different voices,” he said in an interview for the same book. “With Rita it was all one voice. Rita was like a pop singer, yet she could do these obbligato things, and it didn’t seem strange.”
She got the part of Luisa (also sometimes called simply “the Girl”), the only female role in the piece. The show, whose signature number, “Try to Remember,” became a standard, opened in May 1960 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Tickets were $3.75.
In The Daily News, Charles McHarry pronounced the show “recommended without reservation.” But in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson, while having kind words for the actors, thought the story lost steam. “Although it is ungrateful to say so,” he wrote, “two acts are one too many.”
In a 2000 interview with The Associated Press, Ms. Gardner recalled that keeping the show open was touch and go until that August, when the production took time off amid the New York City summer and played in East Hampton, N.Y., for a week.
“All the posh people saw it and told their friends,” she said. “Audiences started to grow.”
The show ran for 42 years, closing in 2002 after more than 17,000 performances, and then reopened in 2006 and ran until 2017. Ms. Gardner stayed only until the end of 1960. (Jerry Orbach, who was also in the original cast, left at about the same time.) But she was with the show long enough to record the original cast album.
In a 2001 interview with The Bradenton Herald of Florida, Ms. Gardner recalled that, about 10 years earlier, she had attended a production of “The Fantasticks” for the first time as an audience member.
“I didn’t know I had been in something so good,” she said.
She was in Bradenton performing a revue she had assembled called “Try to Remember: A Look at Off Broadway,” in which she sang songs from “The Fantasticks” and other shows and told stories. A few months earlier she had staged the show at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, the same theater where she had originated the “Fantasticks” role 40 years earlier. There, her performance started at 10 p.m. — because “The Fantasticks” was still running in the theater’s main evening slot.
Rita Schier was born on Oct. 23, 1934, in Brooklyn to Nathan and Tillie (Hack) Schier. She studied opera and dance and sang in a close-harmony group called the Honeybees; in the late 1950s she appeared in a revue called “Nightcap,” which featured songs by the then unknown Jerry Herman. In 1957 she married the playwright Herb Gardner, who would become known for “A Thousand Clowns.” Their marriage ended in divorce, as did her marriage to Peter Cereghetti. At her death she was married to Robert Sevra, who is her only immediate survivor.
Ms. Gardner left “The Fantasticks” to appear in a movie called “One Plus One” (1961), and she had small parts in other movies over the years. She also appeared on television, including in several episodes of “Law & Order,” the show that helped make Mr. Orbach an instantly recognizable star. She appeared on Broadway in “A Family Affair” (1962) as well as in the 1963 revival of “Pal Joey,” among other shows.
She performed frequently on the cabaret circuit, where she employed not only her fine singing voice but also her droll sense of humor. In her show “Try to Remember,” she talked about life beyond Broadway’s bright lights.
“Off Broadway is not just a location, it’s a definition,” she said. “The Actors Equity definition is a theater that has less than 300 seats, but my definition growing up Off Broadway was a little different. It was a theater that had less than 300 seats, most of them broken.”