The Fantastick World of Jones & Schmidt -- Part 1


September 30, 1996

Suddenly it's Jones & Schmidt everywhere you look.

Suddenly it's Jones & Schmidt everywhere you look.

The songwriting team etched their names in theatre history when they wrote The Fantasticks, which has plodded along, tortoise-like to become the longest-running musical ever, anywhere.

Jones & Schmidt went on to write modest Broadway hits 110 in the Shade (1963) and I Do! I Do! (1966) and one high-profile flop, Celebration (1969). Their off-Broadway Philemon was a critical hit in 1975, but in the twenty years that followed, they had no new musicals on or off Broadway.

Where did they go? What were they doing? And more interestingly, why is their work suddenly popping up in places like Hollywood, where their long-nurtured dream of seeing The Fantasticks filmed has finally come true? Or in New York, where 110 in the Shade was revived by New York City Opera, and I Do! I Do! was revived off-Broadway by Arthur Cantor?

Or on CD racks, where Varese Sarabande producer Bruce Kimmel has mounted a one-man crusade to shine a light on their less-famous works by recording the complete College Collage and putting their songs on every one of his Lost in Boston CDs?

Don't forget bookstore shelves, where Jones' Making Musicals was scheduled to appear in fall 1996.

And now at Goodspeed Opera House where their latest musical was workshopped in August 1996. As it turns out, Jones and Schmidt have been chasing women. Two women specifically: one named Colette, the French writer who is the central character of their Colette Collage, and Emily, as in Webb, the focus of their Our Town adaptation, Grover's Corners.

And now, a young girl named Mirette may be the one to lead Jones & Schmidt out of their career wilderness. She is the heroine of Mirette, a musical based on the award-winning children's book Mirette on the High Wire, which was developed at the Sundance Festival in Utah, further refined at Goodspeed Opera House's Norma Terris Theatre in August 1996, and presented in New York as part of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's Festival of New Musicals.

If they've been in a wilderness, it's been a wilderness lit always by the sun of their wonderwork, The Fantasticks, which has run uninterruptedly at the same off-Broadway Theatre since May 3, 1960, quietly reaching its 15,000th performance July 24, 1996.

It's also a wilderness that they still don't quite accept that they've been in. But both Jones, 68, and Schmidt, 67, express bewilderment that most people, even theatre fans, lost track of them after 1969's Celebration. They know only that they've been working just as hard since then as they did in the years before.

"The years have gone by and it may not seem like we've done anything," Schmidt said, "All I know is, I do something every day."

Varese Sarabande's Kimmel is unequivocal in his admiration for the team. "I just adore their work," he said, "I just think they have simplicity. They just get to the heart of the mattter all the time. Harvey is a unique melodic composer and Tom writes simple, heartfelt lyrics. They're just magical when they're on."

And Kimmel puts his CDs where is mouth is. He assembled an enviable cast for the 1994 studio album of their Colette Collage and just released the cast album of the 1996 off-Broadway revival of their I Do! I Do!. Kimmel put Jones & Schmidt trunk songs on all three of his "Lost in Boston" series CDs, an honor shared only by Bock & Harnick. Another Jones & Schmidt song will be on "Lost in Boston IV," due out in fall 1996.

Kimmel said, "They're unique but, in a way, they never went where they should have gone after 110 in the Shade (1963). "

Where exactly DID they go?

Over the years their work has gone through several fairly well-defined "periods." The first was the Julius Monk/Fantasticks period in the decade or so after they arrived from Texas in the early 1950s. They wrote songs for Monk's Upstairs at the Downstairs revues while working on the breakthrough project that became The Fantasticks. Everything was on a small scale.

Then came the high noon of their Broadway period, from 1963 to 1969, when David Merrick produced their sprawling 110 and the two-character I Do! with megastars Mary Martin and Robert Preston.

Next came the "Portfolio" period from 1969 to 1975. They opened the Portfolio Studio on West 47th Street to experiment with their interest in primal theatre, which resulted in Celebration, Philemon and the incomplete The Bone Room.

The longest period has been from 1975 to now, struggling to apply the fruits of their experiments to a big Broadway project, but plunging into what in Hollywood they would call "development hell."

Here is what happened during that latter time. It's the most obscure part of their career, but now is the time for it to be told. Their tireless pursuit of two elusive muses attained epic proportions, and deserves a place in theatre legend:

COLETTE COLLAGE

Jones & Schmidt met Colette casually, but her spell proved potent. More than a quarter century of rewrites later, the two men have still not fully escaped her power.

The obsession began innocently enough back in 1970, just months after the closing of Celebration, when Jones' then-wife, playwright Elinor Jones, asked her husband to write a few songs for her new project, Colette. The play was based on autobiographical writings by French author Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette (1873-1953). Under the nom de plume Colette, the latter chronicled the passions of the French soul (and body) in Gigi, Cheri, The Vagabond, the autobiography Earthly Paradise, among many other books, plays and articles. She was a vivid and original character full of wild and beguiling contradictions.

Gripped by inspiration, Tom Jones underwent one of those miraculous flashbulb nights of the creative soul, knocking out out six song lyrics between sunset and sunrise.

Schmidt recalls the remarkable night's work as some of Jones' best lyrics ever, though Jones looks back with not a little rue: "Oh yes, we liked them the next morning. But I don't know if it was a blessing or a curse. It's what kept us going on this Colette project through all these years and through extreme complications."

Schmidt, who had been asked to write incidental music for the play, quickly set the lyrics, and the songs were incorporated into the production, which opened (with Schmidt onstage at the piano) off-Broadway in May 1970. Starring Zoe Caldwell in the title role, the production ran a modest three and a half months. But, as with a summer romance, the boys hated to say farewell. After the premature closing of Philemon in 1975, Jones & Schmidt rolled up their sleeves on what was developing as not just a Colette-play-with-music, but a full-scale Colette musical.

Problems arose almost immediately. For one, it's frustrating to dramatize a writer's life, because the most dramatic thing most of them do is, well, write. The conflicts take place inside their heads. Which isn't very interesting to watch. Fortunately, Colette's early life was thronged with incident. Her childhood marriage to a rakish author (who took credit for her writing) went messily on the rocks. She broke free, went into French vaudeville, then became the toast of Paris by writing under her own name at the turn of the 20th century.

But, as Jones relates, "Our desire was to cover her entire vivid and extraordinary life -- 82 years. That's a pretty serious problem, to do it without turning out like The March of Time. Beyond that was finding an actress who could follow this range. After doing many, many versions [Jones did book and lyrics], we finally zeroed in on matching events: A young girl marries an older man in Act I, then an older woman has an affair with and marries an younger man in Act II."

Harry Rigby and The Kennedy Center acquired the rights to Colette in the early 1980s, and set about staging the story as a big, brassy, Broadway-style musical, with Diana Rigg ("The Avengers" TV series, and recently in Medea on Broadway. The show opened a Broadway-bound tour in Seattle in February 1982, and, when reviews proved disappointing, the producers fired the director.

"Diana Rigg was absolutely wonderful in the second half," Jones recalls, "but wasn't really good in the first half when she was vulnerable and weak. Diana Rigg isn't weak and she can't do weak."

Schmidt recalls walking backstage and seeing what looked like "thousands of women sewing beads on dresses. It was like MGM. Things had gotten terribly overblown. The way we'd written it was a simpler version."

But the fault was neither Rigg's nor the director', at least not entirely. The show and its score did not have a clear enough focus, or an emphatic story arc. Was the score evocative enough for the story and its main character? Schmidt was never one for excessive musical research. He prefers to listen to a few carefully chosen recordings. He says he's always liked French Music Hall music of the turn of the century, which he has drawn on again for Mirette which takes place roughly the same time as Act I of Colette.

But Schmidt always returns to his own idiosyncratic musical style, and he did so in Colette, which owes far more to Celebration and Philemon than to Piaf or Offenbach. Colette fibrillated on for a few more weeks, directorless but with a desperate need for a strong director, to its second stop in Denver, where it got the same reviews again.

By that point the producers were trying to replace Jones & Schmidt as well. Colette closed in Denver in March 1982. But Jones and Schmidt refused to accept that their Colette project -- already the one that had taken them the longest to write of any show in their careers -- was dead.

The team had opened four major musicals from 1960 to 1969, The Fantasticks (1960), 110 in the Shade (1963), I Do! I Do! (1966) and Celebration (1969). By contrast, the years 1975-1983, and some later, were consumed with rewrites and revisions of Colette.

So they next tried going a route similar to the one that produced The Fantasticks. Few know that The Fantasticks was originally written as a huge Oklahoma!-style Western musical, fetchingly titled Joy Comes to Dead Horse, with a cowboy chorus on horseback. Only after they'd given up beating Dead Horse, and director Word Baker asked them to strip it down to the bare essentials for a college production, was the simple little Fantasticks born.

In this way, the mega-musical Colette became the minimalist, nearly bare-staged Colette Collage, which was produced off-off-Broadway by the York Players in 1983. Directed by Fran Soeder, choreographed by Jones' second wife Janet Watson (sister of Celebration ingenue Susan Watson) and starring Jana Robbins as Colette, the production got admiring notices, but ran only its scheduled 17 performances.

But Colette Collage was still something of a loose tooth for Jones & Schmidt, and they just couldn't leave it alone. "We felt we'd gone too far from the production in Seattle," Jones said. The most recent New York production of Colette was an off-off-Broadway workshop at Musical Theatre Works at the Theatre at St. Peter's Church for 26 performances in April-May 1991. Betsy Joslyn played the title role.

One night during readings for this workshop, the actress who was playing the lead notified J&S that she was shooting a commercial and would arrive late for one evening's performance. Instead of cancelling or delaying, Jones decided to go ahead and play Colette himself, script in hand, for Act I. With Schmidt at the piano, Jones threw himself into the part, warbling his way joyously through "Joy" and the other numbers, and generally establishing that he remains one of the great, though rarely-heard, interpreters of his own work -- even as a gaunt 60-plus-year-old playing a ripe 17-year-old courtesan.

Jones estimates that he and Schmidt wrote 30 to 50 songs for the various versions of the show. Those who doubt the figure should keep in mind the legend that J&S wrote 110 songs for 110 in the Shade. Schmidt says the true number is a little over half that.

A 1994 recording of Colette omits "Earthly Paradise," one of the loveliest songs from the very first version in 1970. But Schmidt said the song "never seemed to fit" any of the later incarnations, so it was consigned to J&S's well stocked trunk.

But plenty of the songs were played in the 1991 read-through, which started at 8 and lasted past midnight. Toward the latter half of the epic Act I, Schmidt could be seen pounding and flourishing away at the piano . . . which held no trace of sheet music. Schmidt is unable to read music, though he grasps firmly the tenets of musical composition. He was playing the entire score -- cut, patched and pasted as it was -- from memory, as he plays all his music.

The similarly shuffled libretto has gone through many incarnations, some more plot-driven; some amounting to a collection of character sketches stitched together with a biographical thread. Nearly a quarter-century of work on the project was summarized in the version recorded by Kimmel for Varese Sarabande and released on CD in 1994.

Starring Judy Blazer, Rita Gardner, Jason Graae and Jonathan Freeman, the recording solved one of the central problems of Colette Collage."We finally realized the only sensible and sane thing to do is have two actresses, play the part; one to play young Colette, and one to play older Colette," Jones said. "Zoe [Caldwell] did the whole thing, but nobody else could cover the spectrum the way Zoe did."

On the recording, Judy Blazer plays Colette during her Act I apprenticeship; Rita Gardner, the original Luisa in The Fantasticks, plays Act II's mature Colette.

As satisfying as it is to have a first-class concept album of the show, the fact that it's not an original Broadway cast continues to rankle.

"I always felt we got close, but never found the right niche," Schmidt said. "It was tempting not to give up. But we've now [since the 1994 Varese Sarabande recording] put it to bed."

Schmidt said the version of Colette Colllage now available through Music Theatre International is definitive. -- But not so fast.

Jones, for his part, said as late as July 1996, 26 years after that thunderbolt night, "I can't give up on Colette. There's just too much good stuff there. If a lot of good things happen with us, maybe someone will come along and do it as a project . . .

"GROVER'S CORNERS" p Overlapping the last half of the Colette era was the development of the other grandly abortive (at least so far) J&S epic, Grover's Corners, a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer-winning American masterpiece, Our Town.

Two more wildly different projects could scarcely be imagined. Colette is the story of a wild woman romping through decadent Paris. Grover's Corners is about the profundities lying below the seemingly placid surface of a conservative New Hampshire village.

A closer look reveals some similarities, however. Both stories linger during the years before World War I, though on different continents. Both are about the joy and pain of passing time and growing older, of seizing the red-hot gold of wisdom. Wilder wrote, Our Town "is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life."

Our Town had exerted a magnetism for the pair since their days at the University of Texas in the late 1940s/early 1950s, when they were disciples of master professor B. Iden Payne, to whom The Fantasticks is dedicated.

Payne was an evangelist of minimalist theatre. The barer the stage, the better. A plank and a passion were more than enough. Wilder specifies that Our Town, is to be played on just such a bare stage.

Stage directions in the published script are as spare as what they describe: "No curtain. No scenery." As set designer, Wilder employs only the audience's imagination.

Our Town strongly inspired not only the eventual staging of The Fantasticks but the handling of the latter's story. In both plays a young man and woman grow up in adjoining houses, fall in love and marry, while an omnipresence -- the Stage Manager and El Gallo, respectively -- watch over them, narrate their story, and step into the action at key moments. There is a curtain in The Fantasticks, but most of what passes for scenery (and two of the actors, as it turns out) comes out of a prop box. The wall between the two family's gardens is suggested by an actor holding a stick.

In 1983, just after York Players' version of Colette Collage closed, Jones & Schmidt got a phone call out of the blue from Peter Neufeld, half of the legendary theatre management firm of Gatchell & Neufeld. Neufeld had acquired the rights to Our Town by taking tea with Isabel Wilder, surviving sister of the author, who controlled the estate, in her New Haven home. Neufeld convinced her that her permission would enable him to fulfill a lifelong dream to produce a musical adaptation of Our Town. Permission in hand, Neufeld was calling to see if Jones & Schmidt would try writing the score.

"I was stunned," Schmidt said. "I knew that for years everyone including Rodgers and Hammerstein had tried to get the rights. But Thornton Wilder had been unhappy with a TV version in which Frank Sinatra played the Stage Manager, and he hadn't wanted to do it as a musical. At that point, I didn't want us to be known as the people who 'ruined' Our Town." But the chance proved irresistable."

The two men went back into the studio -- in this case at Jones' country home in Cornwall, Connecticut -- and wrote several songs. The songs were what Neufeld was hoping for. So they began to work in earnest -- and under the gun. Isabel Wilder has granted the rights, but for two years only. The team wrote the show in 1983 and early 1984, and began casting a relatively large-scale workshop production at Greenwich Village's Westbeth Theatre Center in summer 1984 , with the idea of moving the show to Broadway immediately afterward, preferably to the Music Box or one of the smaller Shubert Organization theatres.

Liz Callaway played Emily Webb, Scott Waara was George, and the Stage Manager was played by John Cunningham. The workshop opened the same day Jones' first son was born, Dec. 15, 1984.

"It was a nice space, a beautiful production and well cast," Schmidt said. "Peter (Neufeld) was counting on money from the Shuberts, but the Shuberts came to see it, and said nobody wants to see a musical where everybody winds up dead at the end."

Gatchell and Neufeld tried to go forward with other producers and tried to set up a second, post-rewrite, workshop for spring 1985. But the money wasn't forthcoming, the project kept getting postponed -- and then the two-year option ran out.

It wasn't easy getting Isabel Wilder to renew them. "I think she always regretted it," Schmidt said. "The keeper of the flame is always in an awkward stuation. We had the same problem with Colette's daughter. They know they should do something [with the material] but they're afraid to do the wrong thing."

The rights were picked up by the National Alliance of Music Theatre Producers, an organization that cultivates new musicals to keep musical theatres lit around the U.S. The Alliance organized a premiere presentation at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre near Chicago, which was to be followed by a national tour.

The tour would need a major bankable star, but for the Marriott Lincolnshire production in 1987, Jones & Schmidt themselves served onstage as co-Stage Managers. Jones did most of the talking; Schmidt played piano and chimed in on songs. Reviews were good enough that the production completed its entire three-month run, during which time the musical was tightened and sharpened. Marge Champion would choreograph. All they needed now was a star to play the Stage Manager.

And here's where the trouble began. "We couldn't find the right male star, who was willing to go on the road for fifty to fifty-two weeks," Jones said.

It was up to Nicholas Howey of the Maryland-based Troika Organization to put forth the suggestion that they might cast the role, non-traditionally, with a woman. Schmidt said they immediately came up with Angela Lansbury, Katharine Hepburn and Mary Martin. They played the show for Hepburn but the star of Coco seemed too frail for the rigors of a tour.

Martin, on the other hand, was an old friend of Jones and Schmidt's. The Broadway star of South Pacific, The Sound of Music and Peter Pan had starred on Broadway in their (and her) last hit, I Do! I Do!.

Coming on the heels of the Legends debacle -- author James Kirkwood would later claim in a book that the show closed partly because Martin couldn't memorize her lines -- Grover's Corners would be Martin's big comeback on more familiar musical theatre territory, and among friends.

Schmidt said, "She'd always taken her time," in memorizing lines, and Legends had only two weeks to rehearse. The part [in Grover's Corners] was written so the Stage Manager would carry a book; Jones had done so in Chicago. So if Martin needed a prompt, she'd have one always at her fingertips."

They played the score for Martin and her lawyer in Palm Springs that year, and the match was made. Soon, a full-page ad in Variety announced the solid-gold match -- Mary Martin in the musical of Our Town by the authors of The Fantasticks. How could it fail? A week and a half after the ad appeared, Martin was diagnosed with the cancer that would soon claim her life.

"I have photos of us at lunch," Schmidt said. "None of us knew she had cancer. She didn't seem sick at the time. But now that I look at the pictures, I realize how frail she looked."

Before a new star could be found, the rights again reverted to Isabel Wilder, who by now was convinced she should never have given them away in the first place. She said 'This is enough'," Jones recalls. "She said 'I don't want this done as a musical, period. And the door closed."

Looking back, aside from a few detours -- three tours of Japan in The Fantasticks, a record album and calendar from Schmidt, The Game of Love, a musical of Schnitzler's Anatol from Jones with music by Nancy Ford that played regionally, the screen adaptation of The Fantasticks -- Jones and Schmidt have expended a quarter of a century on two cliffhanger projects that came to dead ends.

"It's been a frustrating time," Jones said, with a well-earned sigh.

Once again, however, they haven't quite given up. After Isabel Wilder's death in early 1996 , Jones and Schmidt contacted the new guardian of the estate, Wilder's nephew Tappan Wilder. The young Wilder agreed in late June 1996 to release the rights once more -- this time to Jones and Schmidt directly. They hold the rights for two years, with an option to extend for a third. Jones said he's hoping a major production can be mounted in 1997 -- the 100th anniversary of Wilder's birth.

Bruce Kimmel said, "Now that they've got the rights to Grover's Corners back and I think that's the answer for them. That's a big, nice show for them, in the classic Broadway mode." "The work is done" Jones said. "We were ready to tour in 1987, and we still are."

Continued in Part 2 .