PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones They met at the University of Texas, collaborating on school shows before re-teaming in New York. There they developed a gentle yet experimental little musical — one that has hosted such stars-to-be as Jerry Orbach, Rita Gardner and Kristin Chenoweth and one that has lasted longer than any other show in modern New York theatre history. They, of course, are lyricist-librettist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt and their show, The Fantasticks, which, barring an act of God, will actually end its run Jan. 13, after more than 40 years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. But burly, less voluble Schmidt and puckish Jones, though often eager to revisit their older works and have them revived, are not the types to rest on their lyrical laurels. Not only are they dealing with the slowly-building press avalanche on The Fantasticks' finale, but their latest piece, Roadside, is currently running at Off Broadway's York Theatre Company (which did their career retrospective revue, The Show Goes On, a couple of seasons back), and both men have other projects in the offing, both separately and as a team. And it was as a team that they spoke with Playbill On-Line via conference call just before Thanksgiving.

They met at the University of Texas, collaborating on school shows before re-teaming in New York. There they developed a gentle yet experimental little musical — one that has hosted such stars-to-be as Jerry Orbach, Rita Gardner and Kristin Chenoweth and one that has lasted longer than any other show in modern New York theatre history. They, of course, are lyricist-librettist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt and their show, The Fantasticks, which, barring an act of God, will actually end its run Jan. 13, after more than 40 years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village. But burly, less voluble Schmidt and puckish Jones, though often eager to revisit their older works and have them revived, are not the types to rest on their lyrical laurels. Not only are they dealing with the slowly-building press avalanche on The Fantasticks' finale, but their latest piece, Roadside, is currently running at Off Broadway's York Theatre Company (which did their career retrospective revue, The Show Goes On, a couple of seasons back), and both men have other projects in the offing, both separately and as a team. And it was as a team that they spoke with Playbill On-Line via conference call just before Thanksgiving.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Okay, is it really, really, really, really the end of The Fantasticks?
Tom Jones: Yes. There's been talk of some things, but it seemed very confusing to announce that the show was finally closing, then close it — and immediately reopen it. It gets very complicated about what's going on. There's definite interest in a revived Fantasticks; I don't know if it's economically feasible. It certainly would not be a continuation of the current production. The Sullivan Street Playhouse is out of the picture. [Producer] Lore Noto wants to close it; he hasn't been well, and he doesn't want to turn it over to somebody else. It's a big personal thing with him. Harvey and I on three occasions took an American company — English speaking — to Japan, the last time to 30 different cities. Anyway, we assembled some of the top people who'd ever been in The Fantasticks, lured by the good money the Japanese paid. It was such fun, I can't possibly tell you! In most instances, Harvey played the piano. And remember, in the original company, I played the old actor (under an assumed name). I can still do the forgetting lines part at this point but crawling into the box is getting harder. Anyway, if there were to be another resurrection so to speak, it would have to be later. Maybe in the 42nd Street area. There's a lot of marketing that could be done that really wasn't done for awhile. But the show plays awfully well as long as it's in an intimate setting. It works on a proscenium or thrust even better than it does in Sullivan Street. Still, Harvey calls that one the "mother church version," considering all the historical overtones.
Harvey Schmidt: For the current Fantasticks, business had not been that great, and a man bought the building and wanted to do a total renovation and build out onto the street. He did not want The Fantasticks there any more. It's a shame, but we're all resigned to the closing. We were young when it opened; we're old now. It's been practically our whole lifetime. And the people who came in — Kristin Chenoweth did it a few years ago. And it doesn't seem that many years ago that the ASM was David Mamet, ironing shirts and sweeping up the paper squares. For all that, there's something exhilarating about getting to do a somewhat fresh take on it. Word [Baker]'s original direction was so wonderful, but maybe other things can be done.

PBOL: Speaking of other things being done, you have a new piece out, an American West musical called Roadside being done at Off Broadway's York Theatre. How's that going?
TJ: It's going fine. We're making adjustments and rewrites and compressions and modulating. We've cut one number and are doing all those things you do during previews. As for future plans, we would hope it would be well received here and move it for a run in the city, but whether that happens or not, we think this would play very well around the country. Maybe a tour or regional productions, also. So much depends on the reaction here, though we've already received definite interest from Music Theater International. We haven't contacted any regional houses, per se. Though we have talked to a couple of Off-Broadway producers.

PBOL: In recent years, your bios have also made mention of such upcoming projects as Grover's Corners (an adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town) and Mirette. What's the status of those two tuners?
HS: We had the rights to work on Grover's Corners for a number of years, but we had trouble getting the size of a production the [Wilder] estate was hoping to get. They made a lot on Hello, Dolly! [based on Wilder's The Matchmaker] and saw that as the yardstick.
TJ: We closed The Show Goes On with a song from Grover's Corners, and there were still plans being made. But the estate wanted something in a more traditional Broadway way, as was the tradition of Wilder's plays. It was heartbreaking to both of us. Of course, it's a beautiful play. But I think we took into account the potential dangers in adapting it. We didn't want too much sentimentality or to risk being too operatic and pretentious. The idea was to keep it simple and yet keep it austere. Whatever happens, it was a wonderful experience working on it. It's such a beautiful piece, it affects your life. I pray to God that in my lifetime, I will live to see it released and produced. It would mean so much to so many people in the world. I have two young kids and I'll train them when I'm gone to release it then. And as for Mirette, that had a production this summer in Tokyo which did very well. There was also a staging last summer in California. But this project, too, has certain rights restrictions. There's apparently interest in a film based on the book. Even so, we hope that will go forward. For now, though, we have one new musical [Roadside] plus closing The Fantasticks to occupy us at the moment. Also, some extraordinarily good regional theatres want to do a somewhat modified version of 110 in the Shade (fewer townspeople, a modified orchestra). And this past year, there's been a resurgence of interest in Celebration. It had a reading in the York's Musicals in Mufti series last year. I redid the book extensively, which it sure needed. And the rewrites seemed to work very well. The score was always good. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cheryl Crawford, who produced that show. We talked to Lincoln Center Library about doing a staged reading of Celebration there, to renew interest in that project. So there's a lot of different things from the past that are still cropping up. Plus we've been working on new projects, separately and together. I've been working on a musical version on my own of Harold and Maude. Harvey is retired to Texas, with seven or ten projects he's working on there.

PBOL: How come you're not doing Harold and Maude as a twosome?
HS: I'm not the right composer for that particular piece. It needs a younger composing talent.
TJ: I worked for awhile with Billy Goldenberg, but he's been out on the road with Bea Arthur [the Broadway-bound And Then There's Bea]. I don't know what the status of that is because he's been away for a year. PBOL: Do you each have favorite musicals and composer-lyricists that continue to inspire you?
HS: I've had one favorite composer through it all. I've had wild infatuations through the years with Arlen, Bernstein, Sondheim. But through it all, starting from the beginning, no one dazzles me like Richard Rodgers. The total output and the brilliance of what he does In the tiny span of a few notes. And to be terribly moving. To write music that actually moves people. And these wonderfully jazzy, rhythmic numbers too. He's the greatest theatre composer who ever lived, the scope and range. Over and over again, it dazzles me. You can play his songs any way and they still hold up. They're perfect little creations. That's not to denigrate the other composers. I think as a child, the first piece [people] love is "Rhapsody in Blue," which grabs everybody at a certain age.
TJ: My big turn-on for theatre was Shakespeare. The structure seems like music. And I love the presentational aspects. My ultimate dream in the theatre is musicals that would be like Shakespeare. Beyond that, I think Guys and Dolls is probably my favorite musical. So skillful, so character-driven, yet everything pays off like gangbusters. I love that ebullient fun that can be in musicals. I hope whatever we do, we don't get so serious we lose some of that. I also love My Fair Lady, the original Candide, because it was very funny but deeply moving at the end. They felt the ending was sentimental, so in the revivals they tricked it up, which was a shame. In more recent times, M. Butterfly felt like a musical to me. I liked Bring in `da Noise, Bring in `da Funk. It did something I didn't think could be done: take tap dancing, keep the entertainment quotient and still have a sociological, historical punch, while keeping it in the context of plain old showbiz tap dancing. I was stunned by that. Angels in America was like a musical, with arias. Very daring, very theatrical. With these great, gushing spoken arias that were like music.
HS: So many plays and musicals these days seem very earthbound. One fairly recent musical, City of Angels, was brilliantly written and brilliantly cast. And it made one of the best show records in recent years.
HS: Yes, I thought that was really stylish. Once on This Island was very fluid and really developed. I liked Hello, Again very much. I also credit Graciele Daniele for doing things theatrically but not to draw attention to herself, to reveal the piece. I love when a director can do that and not be doing "look at me, look at me."
HS: I also like Baby very much. Maltby & Shire are great writers.
TJ: True, it had a better score and script than came though the staging. We saw a Chicago staging that was simpler and better. Oh, and I adore the music to Jesus Christ Superstar. My underarms would start perspiring when I heard that score! But they so fucked it up when they did it, both the last time on Broadway and the first one, by the guy who did Hair. If they'd just done it so simply... Andrew Lloyd Webber is a much better writer than he's given credit for, and was a very daring writer in those days. But then he got convinced that he could do "productions"; he did it to Superstar and to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But those are fun scores.
HS: Evita's a brilliant score and very daring.
TJ: He's gotten so much less daring as time's gone on.
HS: Yet Phantom is a beautifully-achieved piece of theatre and very satisfying.
TJ: Sunset Boulevard was just following the A-B-C standards of how you wrote a musical in 1957. And if you spend $100,000 to do a mockup of a car, that's a basic sign of something being terribly wrong. As opposed to The Lion King which had wonderful staging that revealed and celebrated the theatricality of it.
HS: The score for The Full Monty I liked very much.

PBOL: Any thoughts on A Class Act, which, by covering the life of A Chorus Line's Ed Kleban, dealt with the field you're in?
HS: Another excellent cast album.
TJ: It was very well staged, very well performed. But a part of me kept saying "all right already, give me a break." The character's personality kind of wore me down. He ceased to endear me and began to irritate me. There are more important things than theatre.

PBOL: There are more important things than theatre!!??
HS: The sun in the in the morning and the moon at night. Living in Texas helps me get in touch and lead a simpler life. I've added a big studio in the house. I sit at a row of windows in my office and look out. I'm not knocking New York. I lived here 40 years and adore it.
TJ: Theatre is very important. More important than religion. The artist can capture things people feel but can't quite hold onto. It clarifies and makes it possible in a communal way to have a group affirmation that is transcendent. That's true of both laughter and the serious parts. But the most important thing of all is to open yourself to experience, good and bad. We did a musical about Collette [Collette Collage]. She opened herself to the painful parts as well as the pleasurable parts and in so doing realized that's the only way to do it. You feel or don't feel. To the degree you feel good, that's the degree to which you'll feel bad. Do you go the full monty, so to speak, and embrace it, or be safe and closed off and anesthetized? And then, if you can capture these fireflies and put them in a jar and share them with others...

PBOL: Is that the definition of what constitutes a "Schmidt-Jones" show?
HS: Artists all have their own style. You do what you like to do, what you're attracted to. The style emerges after a person does a number of shows over a number of years.
TJ: We like a kind of celebration of theatricality itself. Certainly it's true of The Fantasticks. That's what it is, a celebration of what the theatre can do. It's true even of the domestic comedy I Do! I Do!, where the characters come down like oleos and do monologues on married life. Roadside is set in an old-time traveling tent show — which was the only theatre I saw growing up in Texas. I don't like things that pretend to be totally real. I like some kind of celebration of the theatricality of theatre, which is fairly consistent in our work. I think we're unjustly accused of being overly sentimental. There's often a duality of sentiment or sentimentally mixed side by side with a mocking of sentiment for an ambivalent feeling.
HS: We both like the audience laughing one minute, crying the next, then laughing again. I like that musically, too, going from quiet to loud, bombastic to romantic.
TJ: Very many of the shows are specifically about romanticism and "reality." That's what The Fantasticks is about: the boy and girl give up their romantic illusions to settle down. In 110 in the Shade, it's a choice between Starbuck the dreamer, and File, the sheriff; Melisande and Lizzie. As she says, "Melisande's for one night, Lizzie will do me my whole life long."

— By David Lefkowitz