Word Baker was born Charles Baker in Honey Grove, Texas, a town of about 2,500 in the northeast comer of the state. He later took on his mother’s maiden name as his first name. After finishing graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, Baker developed a distinguished career as both a director and a teacher. His academic posts included the theater departments at Carnegie Mellon, Boston, Purdue, Cincinnati and Texas Universities.
Before The Fantastics was even conceived, Baker directed off-Broadway plays in New York including a highly acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Produced in 1958, Baker’s staging of the drama was hailed by New York Post critic Richard Watts, Jr., as “a finer play than… when first produced in 1953…. The play, in Word Baker’s arena staging, has a simplicity and directness missing from the original production… ‘The Crucible’ tells is terrible story with a growing quality of emotion that is tremendously engrossing.”
Baker’s work with The Crucible was praised by the playwright as well. Both Arthur Miller and his wife, Marilyn Monroe, sent telegrams to the director expressing their admiration for his production.
Baker’s other Off-Broadway shows included The Pinter Plays and I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, and he directed Lillian Gish in the television production of The Glass Menagerie.
When Baker teamed up with his friends Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt on The Fantasticks, he had more input into the show than he had ever had with a professional staging. “It was more than just directing because he was involved in the actual creation of the show,” said his daughter, Lucy Baker. The Fanasticks was his shining moment, he loved everything about it.” Lucy was four when the show opened, and didn’t get to stay up late enough to see the second act until three years later. “I always went with my dad when he would check up on the show,” she recalled. I was seven years old when I finally stayed to see the second act. Before that I always thought the show had a happy ending–seeing the painful parts of the second act for the first time just destroyed me! It was a big thing for me at that age.”
Word’s three daughters grew accustomed to the after-theater parties that got started late at night in their home. “Mom and Dad always had huge a huge party after a new show,” said Lucy. “My father was very social; he loved to host parties and paid enormous attention to every detail from selecting the perfect candles to preparing the food. We girls would be asleep when Dad would wake us up to meet everyone.
Barbara Baker recalled what it was like to grow up with a parent who was a theater person. “We’d put on our pajamas and go up to the school to watch Dad run a rehearsal,” she said. “In those days, just after the war, they didn’t use babysitters. Our parents took us everywhere. We didn’t know that the rest of the world didn’t live like that, bringing the whole family to Dad’s work and letting the kids fall asleep in the theater seats.
“Dad was driven to be excellent at everything he did, not just the theater,” Barbara continued. “He was intense in his work and in his parenting, and he always approached everything in a very creative way. He was involved and helpful with our schoolwork and cared that we got good grades and were good students.
Barbara took part in the first Jones-Schmidt-Baker college collaboration, the “Hipsy-Boo” revue. “I danced in the show,” she said. “We got to be in everything!” Years later Barbara sang the title song from the revue for a sorority event when she was in college.
“When I go to the show in New York now,” said Barbara, “Dad’s touches are still very clear.” Lore Noto often asked him to come and solve a problem or clean something up that had somehow slipped from the original staging. This kept Dad actively involved in the show for years, and he appreciated that. We all found it a treasure to see it just as Dad had envisioned it. There is a kind of comfort in that.”
Perhaps even more important than his staging of The Fantasticks is Word Baker’s legacy as a guiding force for the many students and young actors who worked with him in theater departments and festivals throughout the country. “He was such an inspiration to young people,” said Barbara. “That was his gift-to inspire, motivate and mentor young talent. Dad’s passion and commitment to the theater was contagious, and he was fearless when it came to telling a student, ‘Go out there and do it if that’s what you want to do.”‘
Excerpt from the upcoming book The Fantasticks: The Official Illustrated Biography of the Show by Antonia Felix.