Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, creators of THE FANTASTICKS, were inducted in the Theatre Hall of Fame on February 1, 1999. THE FANTASTICKS presented its 16,652nd performances, and began its 41st year on May 3, 2000 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse
Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote “THE FANTASTICKS’ for a summer theatre production at Barnard College. Their relationship began unofficially at the University of Texas in 1950 with a musical revue entitled “HIPSY-BOO!” for which the former wrote comedy sketches and the latter served as musical director.
Neither of the two was planning to become a writer. Jones was a drama student, majoring in play production and Schmidt was studying art with hopes of becoming a commercial artist.
However, HIPSY-BOO!, directed by fellow student Word Baker, was successful. So successful, in fact, that Jones and Schmidt followed it almost immediately with an original book musical, and after that, they began writing songs together on a more or less regular basis.
After graduation, while both of them were serving in the army during the “Korean conflict,” the two continued their informal collaboration by mail, exchanging lyrics and musical tapes back and forth between the camps where they were based. Upon discharge, along with two other University of Texas chums (one of whom, Robert Benton, became an Academy Award-winning film writer and director) the pair came to New York and took the West Side flat which still serves as office and home for composer Schmidt.
The first New York years were more productive for Schmidt than for Jones, who eked out a meager existence “teaching a little bit, conducting a theatre workshop at St. Bartholomew’s Community Club, and trying, unsuccessfully, to become established as a director.” Schmidt, for his part, was becoming widely recognized in the field of commercial art, first as a graphic artist for NBC Television, and then as a freelance illustrator for such magazines as Life, Harpers Bazaar, Sports Illustrated and Fortune.
The two continued writing together, contributing revue material for Julius Monk’s UPSTAIRS-DOWNSTAIRS shows and Ben Bagley’s SHOESTRING REVUES. And in their spare time, they worked on a full-scale musical based on a little-known Rostand play called “LES ROMANESQUES”. The plot, which spoofs “ROMEO AND JULIET” by having the parents invent a feud in order to make their children fall in love, was envisioned by the young writers as a big Broadway show involving two ranches in the southwest, one Anglo and one Spanish.
“We worked on it, very haphazardly, over a period of several years,” says Jones, “trying to take the story and force it into a Rodgers and Hammerstein mold, which is what everybody did in those days.”
“I always imagined everybody on real horses on the stage of the Winter Garden,” adds composer Schmidt. “Eventually,” says Jones, “the whole project just collapsed, our treatment was too heavy, too inflated for the simple little Rostand piece. It seemed hopeless.”
It was at that point, in the summer of 1959, that Word Baker again played a key role in the collaboration. He had been offered a job directing three one-act plays at a summer theatre which the actress Mildred Dunnock was producing at Barnard College. Baker wanted one of them to be a musical and he told his friends that if they could give him a one-act musical version of the Rostand play in three weeks, he would give them a production of it three weeks later. And that is what happened. After years of struggling unsuccessfully with the material, the two writers threw out everything (except a song “Try to Remember”) and, starting from scratch, completed the basis of what is now THE FANTASTICKS in less than three weeks time.
They even returned to the original title. The English version of the Rostand play which they had used as a guide was an obscure one called “THE FANTASTICKS”, written by a woman under the pseudonym George Fleming. It had been introduced to them by one of their college professors, B. Iden Payne, who had directed it in London in 1909 with Mrs. Patrick Campbell as “The Boy” in a breeches part.
Harvey Schmidt in particular, found himself drawn to this title. “We couldn’t come up with a new title,” he admits, “and we liked the way this one looked, with that “k” adding the extra kick.” Clearly the visual artist dwelling alongside the composer in the Schmidt psyche was asserting itself. “It was hard to sell anybody on it,” he remembers, “but since we didn’t have another title, we sort of drifted into using it.”
“We went back to Rostand for inspiration,” says Jones, “because it was smaller and simpler. And yet we used it only as a guidepost, as a map to refer to whenever we got lost. For years we had wanted to try a lot of experiments mixing presentational forms with musical theatre. And since we were no longer aiming for Broadway, we decided to go ahead and attempt all the things we had been dreaming of doing for years. After all, we had nothing to lose.”
Among these experiments, gathered from a wide spectrum of sources, was the use of The Narrator to help them tell the story, and the “invisible” Property Man from the Chinese Theatre. The suggestion of a commedia company on a crude wooden platform was inspired by a City Center production of Goldoni’s “A SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS”, as performed by the famed Piccolo Teatro of Milan. The thought of using the moon for one act and the sun for the other was borrowed from a production John Houseman had directed of Shakespeare’s “A WINTER’S TALE” at Stratford, Connecticut.
In fact, Shakespeare served as a model in more ways than one. “I decided to attempt the whole thing in verse,” Jones explains, “to mix open verse with heavy rhyming and even, upon occasion, doggerel. I tried to let people end scenes with couplets as a sort of flourish. I followed Shakespeare’s device of using a unifying image to glue the whole thing together. In this case, it was vegetation. Seasons. Gardening. Fruition. Harvest. Whenever in doubt, I tried to put in something about vegetation and the seasons. Curious, nobody’s ever noticed it. At least no one ever mentioned it in a review. But it does provide a texture, all the same. It gives a sort of sub-text to this light, romantic tale.”
When their one-act version was produced at Barnard, it attracted enough attention from the world of the professional theatre that Jones and Schmidt were soon placed in the position of having to choose one off-Broadway producer from a field of several viable candidates.
Their choice was Lore Noto who had first encountered fragments of Jones’s script when director Word Baker used it in an acting class. Having heard the brief opening speeches Jones had written for The Boy and The Girl, Noto was drawn to Barnard, where he saw a very early dress rehearsal and determined to mount THE FANTASTICKS for a commercial run.
The initial theatre engagement will complete its 40th year of continuous performances at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, the attractive little Greenwich Village theatre where the show opened to rather mixed notices on the night of May 3rd, 1960.
It is to producer Lore Noto that Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt attribute much of the record-making long run of THE FANTASTICKS . “Lore believed in the show when nobody else did,” says Schmidt. “He had total faith in it and it paid off.”
Apart from launching the longest run in the history of the American Theatre, THE FANTASTICKS marked the official New York start of that rich and diverse Jones/Schmidt partnership, a collaboration that until then had been limited to a handful of revue songs.
For Broadway, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt have written 110 IN THE SHADE, a musical version of N. Richard Nash’s tender Southwest romance, THE RAINMAKER, as well as I DO! I DO!, adapted from Jan de Hartog’s long-run comedy smash, THE FOURPOSTER. For the Jones/Schmidt telling of the famous marital tale, Mary Martin and Robert Preston appeared in the roles originally done in New York by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.
For several years Jones and Schmidt worked privately at Portfolio, their theatre workshop, concentrating on small-scale musicals in new and often un-tried forms. The most notable of these efforts were “CELEBRATION,” which moved to Broadway, and PHILEMON, which won an Outer Critics Circle Award.
Along the way they contributed incidental music and lyrics to the off-Broadway play, “COLETTE,” written by Elinor Jones and starring Zoe Caldwell. Later, their full-scale musical based on the same subject toured the western states with Diana Rigg. And later still, it was produced in New York under the title “COLETTE COLLAGE,” where it was recorded by Varese Sarabande with Judy Blazer and Judy Kaye playing the younger and older Colette.
In the 1997-98 season, Jones and Schmidt appeared off-Broadway in “The Show Goes On” a new revue based on their theatre songs. Winning unanimous rave notices and hailed by the New York Times as “lighthearted, loving and sad, laced with nostalgia but also with laughter,” the show extended its run several times and was subsequently released as a CD.
“MIRETTE,” their musical based on the award-winning children’s book, was presented at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1998, and at present they are working on a new western musical entitled “Roadside.”,
In addition to an Obie Award and the 1992 Special Tony for “The Fantasticks,” Jones and Schmidt are the recipients of the prestigious ASCAP-Richard Rodgers Award. In February of 1999 they were inducted into the Broadway Hall of Fame at the Gershwin Theatre, and on May 3rd, 1999, their “stars” were added to the Off-Broadway Walk of Fame outside the Lucille Lortel theatre.
As for “THE FANTASTICKS” as it completes it’s fortieth year at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, it has established its place not only in America, but around the world. Today, this very minute, there are dozens of productions taking place, some in English, some in a wide spectrum of foreign tongues, in such far-away places as Budapest, Bangkok, Beijing and Tokyo, where someone is hanging a cardboard moon and inviting the spectators to “Try to remember, and if you remember, then follow…”