The Fantastick World of Jones & Schmidt -- Part 2

The Fantastick World of Jones & Schmidt -- Part 2 Continued from Part 1

Continued from Part 1

MIRETTE

Thirty years after the opening of their last Broadway hit, I Do! I Do!, Jones and Schmidt are again crossing their fingers, holding their hearts, and doing rewrites for a new musical.

This one is one based on Emily Arnold McCully's Caldecott Award-winning 1992 children's book Mirette on the High Wire. The story introduces Mirette, a strong-minded young girl who helps her mother run a boarding house for actors in Paris at the turn of the century. Mirette becomes fascinated with the tragic figure of one of the boarders, Bellini, a former tightrope-walking star who has lost his nerve. Watching his attempts to regain his air lets, she discovers her own latent talent to balance on the high wire. She Bellini resists the girl's interest at first, then decides he cannot let her down. He arranges for a big comeback by walking a tightrope stretched across a plaza in the city. But when the big moment comes, he freezes, and it's up to Mirette to leap into the sky and give him back his courage. The Goodspeed workshop stars Kelly Maby as Mirette, Steve Barton as Bellini and Jerry Vichi as Max.

For the first time since 110 in the Shade Jones has written lyrics only. The book is by Elizabeth Diggs, roommate of author McCully. Diggs went to school with Jones' wife Janet, who is choreographing the show, and lived for time in the same New York apartment building as the Joneses. Diggs initiated the project in the spring 1993 asking Jones to recommend songwriters for a prospective musical based on Mirette on the High Wire. Jones, who was familiar with McCully's work, talked to Schmidt, and suggested that maybe they themselves should be the ones to do it.

A series of meetings followed, afternoons at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where The Fantasticks continued its record-breaking run each evening. McCully's book has very little text, but is richly illustrated. The three collaborators pored over the pictures as so many children have done, trying to read between the few lines and intuit further details.

"I liked the simplicity of the story," Schmidt said. "It's very bare-bones. I like taking something simple and developing it, because you can bring more to it. It seemed like something I could do naturally and easily."

Jones said, "We all worked together to try to imagine more about that story. Take for example the fact that no father is mentioned in the story. We imagined the mother had been married to an actor who had run off and deserted her an her daughter, and the mother had a great distrust of theatrical things, and suspicion of theatrical people, and an absolute determination that her daughter would not become involved in that world."

From that was born the mother's song "Keep Your Feet Upon the Ground," which is intended as a figurative warning from mother to daughter. "The mother doesn't know, when she sings that song, that her daughter is already beginning to practice NOT keeping her feet upon the ground," Jones said.

"We also decided Bellini would be almost like a Heathcliffe: dark and brooding and rude, and almost cruel to the girl at first. He doesn't want to be bothered. He once danced with the gods, but now is nothing. Fear is the one thing he can't admit to. Walking on a tightrope is a very arrogant thing to do. It's really tempting the gods. Also, one could assume by implication that it's something you accomplish totally on your own, no team work. Because of the danger and dedication, Bellini cut off all else in his life. His fixation is in being able to do this thing. When that's taken away, he has nothing, and that produces great anger. For the little girl, he becomes like a missing father. For him, reluctantly beginning to open up to her, he becomes impressed with her determination and talent."

Schmidt said he and Jones like to sit and talk a long time about a story before they begin to write. Once they do, they follow no fixed collaboration pattern: sometimes Jones brings a lyric that Schmidt sets to music; sometimes Schmidt produces a melody and Jones fits it with words.

"I don't do a lot of official research," Schmidt said. "Often I just put her [McCully's] book on the piano and just look at the pictures, I find that stimulating in terms of trying to write music. I'm very visually oriented. I look at the picture of Mirette up on the high wire at night, and I get a sense of what that music should be. I find it frees me."

Schmidt said he's always been fascinated with Paris at the turn of the century -- an interest reflected in his Colette score. And flashes of Satie, Debussy and Ravel can be heard throughout Mirette. But he said, "I'm not really trying to be authentic. Mostly it's just me."

The majority of work on a first draft of what was becoming a 90-minute one-act musical was completed by the end of fall 1993, and a workshop reading at the 1994 Sundance Festival in Utah was arranged for the following summer. A rare second Sundance workshop, this one semi-staged for an audience, followed in 1995, which led to a July 1996 production at Sundance's children's theatre, along with the August 1996 production at Goodspeed. All the productions have been staged by Drew Scott Harris, who did Opal and Johnny Pye and the Fool Killer at the Lambs Theatre in New York.

One of the early determinations was that there would be no actual tightrope walking. Just as the Mute in The Fantasticks suggests a wall by holding out a stick, Mirette has employed benches, raised platforms, or sometimes simply a line drawn on the stage, to suggest the high wire. "It's hard enough to find people who can sing, dance and act -- let alone walk on a wire while doing it, Jones said. "Give me a break! -- But not a leg break."

And so dances Mirette, bringing the theatre-writing career of Jones and Schmidt full circle.

ITEM: ONE MOON

Jones is the best performer of his own work, bar none. On demos, at readings and memorial services, he fairly quivers with pleasure at the chance to embody his own characters: cowboys, an aesthetic maiden, a wily old suburban husband, a courtesan who's also a literary genius, an existential Stage Manager, an Angel.

You've heard him all your life as the Old Actor, which he performed under the stage name Thomas Bruce in the original cast recording of The Fantasticks. It's Jones who, in the Rape Ballet, shrieks "Indians ready? Indians rrrrape! And then, in the sham sword fight, shrieks, "God for Harry, England and Saint Geaww, awwww awww" as he mocks being skewered.

Pure white hair and beard now frame bright eyes that are wrinkled at the corners. Quixote-thin, or seeming so -- Jones is slowly but surely turning into the Old Actor.

Schmidt eagerly plays his own songs -- or his beloved 1940s movie themes -- at any get-together that has a piano. On the Japan-tour CD of The Fantasticks he can be heard playing and singing the new song the team wrote for the show, "A Perfect Time To Be in Love," tailored to Robert Goulet, who did a truncated tour of the show in 1990. Schmidt is given to stopping in at the Sullivan Street Playhouse to see the show for the x-thousandth time, then sitting down at the piano to reprise themes from the show as the audience, generally unconscious of his identity, files out of the theatre. He gives the persistent impression of a chef who takes delight in ladling out, and sampling, his own cooking.

Surveying their work, both the famous and the unknown, one is struck with its consistence, but also its evolution.

You know you're in Jones & Schmidt land when you hear the broken chords that Schmidt loves to use as "fills" in his music, the life-cycle images Jones cherishes in nature, both men's obvious pleasure in the dramatic sound of poetry spoken over an instrumental accompaniment, the unison choruses, the childlike wonder at the simplest of presentational theatre devices.

It's a place where empty spaces are always being filled, sometimes with light, sometimes with stories. It's a place where soulful maidens play out innocent faith in moonlit gardens, or on limelit stages. They are regularly beset by itinerant, magical seducers who are sometimes dashing, sometimes world-weary, sometimes both.

Death is waiting, patiently, sometimes comically, always inevitably.

"I act," the Old Actor tells El Gallo. "Mortimer dies."

"All dead," the Greek chorus in Philemon reminds the audience of its 2nd Century characters, "All dead."

Schmidt retains his ability to write a hitlike ballad along the lines of "Try To Remember" and "They Were You," but his years of experimentation have turned his scores into elaborate fugues, almost large single pieces of music with streaks of melody.

Jones has filled his plays with visions of characters whose transitions owe reflect the cycles in nature. Characters are always growing ripe. The blistering drought in 110 in the Shade seems a part of what's stunting Lizzie's passion; when she opens up to love, the clouds finally burst. Michael and Agnes, the married couple in I Do! I Do! grow older before our eyes, applying greying makeup in full view of the audience. Their efforts to retell musically Thornton Wilder's heartbreaking graveyard scene in Grover's Corners embraces the Hindu-like peace and acceptance of that part of nature, too.

The song "Cockian" in Philemon covers an ancient clown's entire tortured life in three stanzas. Colette Collage covers so many years, it requires two actresses to play her, one young, one old.

In The Fantasticks, the older generation of the fathers tries to pull a fast one on the young people, their children. In Celebration, Young and Old are literally in a battle to the death. In Mirette, young and old finally join forces. An older man is redeemed and resurrected from a symbolic death by a young girl bursting with life.

The moral of all their work is to draw attention to the joy of things that life bestows, and to face the pain of things that life withdraws irrevocably. They advertise the urgency of grasping the joy of life on the way, as it passes.

In their own lives, as in their musicals, the seasons turn. Old friends get older, sometimes wiser. Jones spends more of his time at his country house. Schmidt is planning to give up the Upper West Side apartment where he's lived since the days when he held rehearsals for the original Fantasticks in the living room. Schmidt is getting set to move into the Texas house he inherited from his parents, and to pursue painting and composing there, collaborating long-distance with his partner.

And sometimes the old friends disappear. Both men have had the sad duty of appearing at memorial services in the past year. In November 1995 for Fantasticks director Word Baker, and in July 1996 for the original Hucklebee, Bill Larsen.

At the Baker memorial, held on the stage of the Sullivan Street Playhouse, Schmidt nestled into that narrow space behind the piano to play "Try To Remember. At the end, Jones reached into his pocket, said "This is for you, Word:" and flung a handful of that Fantasticks confetti into the fresnels. They remembered Baker, in light.

That, in one gesture, is all of Jones and Schmidt.

-- By Robert Viagas

A longer version of this story appeared in the Autumn 1996 issue of Show Music magazine.