Not long ago, Kevin R. Free went to an audition for a part in the longest running musical in history. He immediately felt weird.
All the other actors vying for the same part were at least 10 years older and he was the only African-American. Looking around at his competition, Free was confused and getting increasingly angry.
"I just felt like, 'Why am I here? I have to talk to my manager about this,'" he recalled, laughing. "I mean, 'Why am I even here?'"
Free, a playwright, director and actor in New York's downtown theater scene, pulled himself together enough to do a monologue and sing a song when his name was called.
It worked: He got both the job and a chance to make history. Free has taken over the role of Bellomy in "The Fantasticks," the first time a black man has played the role in the New York show's more than 20,000 performances over 54 years.
"If we're talking about fictional stories -- and if they're so-called universal stories -- they can be played by any race," says Free, 45. "I really love doing the show."
"The Fantasticks" -- playing at The Snapple Theater Center, an off-Broadway complex in the heart of Times Square -- has a cast of eight, two musicians, a cardboard moon and guy who sprinkles confetti to create snow.
The tale, a mock version of "Romeo and Juliet," concerns a young girl and boy secretly brought together by their fathers and an assortment of odd characters, including a rakish narrator called El Gallo, an old actor, an Indian named Mortimer and a character who doesn't speak.
Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics, helped prepare Free for the role. "I don't think he would say it was written for white people to do, but I don't think he pictured me as it was written in 1952," says Free. "But I think I fit really well in the show."
Scores of actors have appeared in the show, from the opening cast that included Jerry Orbach and Rita Gardner, to stars such as Ricardo Montalban and Kristin Chenoweth.
Over the years, there has been a black El Gallo, and the lead girl has been played both by a Latina and an Asia-American. But Bellomy, her father, hasn't been portrayed by an African-American before. No changes have been made to the script to address the fact that Free's daughter is now being played by a white woman.
Catherine Russell, who co-produces "The Fantasticks," welcomed the change, pointing out that mixed-race families are increasingly the norm, reflected from Cheerios commercials to the race-neutral casting in "Scandal."
"I'm really excited about that, and I'm really happy that that's happening with 'The Fantasticks' also," she says. "I think it should reflect modern life."
Free had seen two previous productions of the "The Fantasticks" -- in the 1980s in college and again in the 1990s at a community theater in his native North Carolina.
When he found out about the audition, Free naturally went out and bought a ticket to see the show. But he went to the wrong theater that night and was too embarrassed to show up late.
At the audition, Free had to be creative. "I wore a purple cardigan and a brightly-colored bow tie," he says. "I thought, 'This will work. This is what I'll wear.' I had no idea that the character actually wears a little bow tie and brightly colored clothes."
Free is also a producer of The Fire This Time Festival, which promotes playwrights of color, and is a director at the Broadway Training Center of Westchester, where he's preparing 11 girls in "Starlight Express" this summer.
His path to "The Fantasticks" started with his arrival to New York in 1995 to do musical comedy and has led him to regional roles, parts on "Law & Order," directing and writing, performing with the New York Neo-Futurists and narrating audiobooks.
"I got all the things that I got from saying 'yes' after somebody asked me, 'Do you want to try this?' 'Do you want to audition for this?' I just said, 'yes,'" he says. "It's better than waiting tables."