Roadside, a new musical by The Fantasticks writers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, gets its New York City premiere, opening Off-Broadway Nov. 29, decades after the pair started working on the show.
Drew Scott Harris, who staged the tent-show-style musical's world premiere at Lyric Stage in Irving, TX, in February 2001, directs and choreographs the Manhattan bow by the York Theatre Company. Previews began Nov. 13. The York opens its 33rd season with the musical, presented in association with Lyric Stage. Performances continue to Dec. 23, but there is hope the folky, humane musical might catch like a brush fire and burn on beyond the nonprofit run.
G.W. Bailey (Sgt. Rizzo of TV's "M*A*S*H") will play Pap Raider in the musical based on Lynn Riggs' play of the same name. In contrast to Riggs' Green Grow the Lilacs (which became Oklahoma!), about young people and the territory's imminent inclusion in the U.S., Roadside is about early-20th century folks who didn't care to be absorbed into statehood. The characters were able to make the adjustment from the old-west to new statehood, but "chose instead, in spite of all the odds, to hold on to the their old dreams of freedom and rugged individualism," according to Roadside production notes from the Texas staging.
"The characters [of the two Riggs shows] are similar and yet the whole thing is different," Jones told Playbill On-Line in 2000. "Green Grow is about making the adjustment to the coming statehood. Roadside is about ne'r-do-well dreamers, people who light their fires by chopping down 'Keep Out' signs." Hannie (played by Julie Johnson), who travels with her father in a wagon, meets a bigger than-life dreamer named Texas (played by Jonathan Beck Reed), who can convince you of anything, though he's apparently just "another drunken cowboy with a dream." Reed and Johnson originated the roles in the Texas staging.
"I grew up on tent shows in the '30s in Texas, we're setting the whole thing up like it's a tent show," Jones said in 2000. "We're not in competition with Oklahoma! That's a competition I don't want to engage in, if you don't mind."
The York cast also includes Jennifer Allen, Ryan Appleby, Tom Flagg, James Hindman, William Ryall and Steve Barcus. Designers are James Morgan (scenic), Suzy Benzinger (costume), Mary Jo Dondlinger (lighting). John Mulcahy is music director. The folky band includes piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and harmonica.
In the 1950s, as a project for his master's thesis in directing at the University of Texas, Tom Jones directed a production of the play, Roadside. After arriving in New York, lyricist librettist Jones and composer Schmidt played with the idea of Roadside as a musical; they wrote a few songs, made a demo recording, but never got the rights to the material. The show was shelved and in the years that followed the writers penned such musicals as I Do! I Do! and 110 in the Shade.
Jones and Schmidt, of course, are best known for their long- running, record-breaking musical The Fantasticks, which opened in Manhattan in 1960 and continues today at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. The end of the historic run comes Jan. 13, 2002, however.
Dan Shaheen, while organizing manuscripts, music and tapes for Schmidt and Jones, ran across the old Roadside demo and persuaded the writers to secure the rights and finish the show. (The record producer Bruce Kimmel recorded a couple Roadside songs on anthology discs on the Varese Sarabande label.) Schmidt and Jones returned to Roadside, with Jones penning a new book and lyrics for 14 new songs by composer Schmidt, joining four of the songs from the original demo. The collaborators reached an agreement with the Riggs Estate and a New York reading was held in February 2000.
Lyric Stage founding producer Steven Jones has always been a big fan of Schmidt and Jones. He first met the legendary team in 1993 in preparation for 110 in the Shade, Lyric Stage's second production. Lyric Stage has since produced Schmidt and Jones' I Do! I Do! and Mirette. During pre-production work on Mirette in the summer of 1999, Steven Jones learned of Roadside from Drew Scott Harris, Mirette's director.
According to the opening night Playbill, the songs include "Uncle Billy's Travellin' Family Show," "Roadside," "Here Am I," "I Don't Want to Bother Nobody," "Smellamagoody Perfume," "Lookin' at the Moon," "I'm Through With You," "Peaceful Little Town," "I Toe the Line," "Back to Our Story," "Personality Plus," "Another Drunken Cowboy," "The Way It Should Be," "My Little Prairie Flower," "All Men is Crazy," "Ain't No Womern But You," "Borned," "Wild and Reckless."
Tickets are $45. York Theatre presents at the Theatre at Saint Peter's in the Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Ave. at 54th Street. For information, call (212) 239-6200.
Off-Broadway's York is known for its intimate stagings of new musicals and musicals in revival, and its popular Musicals in Mufti concert series of underappreciated or flop shows.
— By Kenneth Jones