PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tom Jones, Lyricist of The Fantasticks, I Do! I Do! and Harold and Maude

By Robert Viagas
31 Mar 2012

Jones in rehearsal for The Show Goes On
Photo by Ben Strothman

Will you be making any changes to Roadside [which was not a success in its 2001 Off-Broadway debut]?
TJ: Yes, we're taking out the context that's its being presented as part of a traditional touring tent show. We cut a lot of shit-kicking at the top of the show. They love that in Texas but I don't think it helped us here with New York audiences at all. Also we're doing an interesting thing. We have two characters called The Ikes, who are there for comic relief. There are two other characters in the show, Ned the Jailer and the spinster town woman. We're going to have the two Ikes play those roles as well, as two church ladies, and they'll also come in as the Posse. So every time you see them they are playing different roles, which should be fun.

I saw a workshop of your show Colette Collage, based on the life and writings of the French author Colette, in which the actress playing Colette got called to do a commercial at the last minute as wasn't able to do the first act. If I recall, you played Colette for that performance.
TJ: That was so terrifying. There I was, totally unprepared, trying to be Colette in front of an invited audience including Bernadette Peters! But the actress, Cass Morgan, did a lovely job with the second act. She just finished appearing in Memphis and will be taking part in this Musicals in Mufti series. She will be playing Maude in Harold and Maude. , Christine Andreas will be doing Colette this time around.

Harold and Maude is the story of an unlikely romance between a young man obsessed with death, and an 80-year-old concentration camp survivor who teaches him to love life. I saw the 2005 production at Paper Mill Playhouse. Has it changed much since then?
TJ: Oh, it got so lost on the huge stage there. We subsequently did a production at the 500-seat TheatreWorks at Palo Alto, California with five people in the cast and it was hugely successful. I'd say the score and the script have been 50 percent rewritten. We've done lots of good work. We have a wonderful young actor named Matt Dengler playing Harold. He played the Mute and covered The Boy in The Fantasticks. I think he's going to be something, I really do.

The original film Harold and Maude had a distinctive musical personality thanks to the score by Cat Stevens. How did you go about giving the stage musical its own sound and how did you choose which moments to musicalize?
TJ: In the movie the songs were outside commentary. For me, I look, first of all, for where an emotional connection is within myself. I'm old now, older than Maude at this point. And I have comparatively young sons. They were quite young when I started working on this. The connection, reaching across time, is a very personal one. I put it in a song, called "Two Sides of a River, which Maude sings to Harold. He's sort of suspicious of her — but interested.

We're strolling along two sides of a river,
A river known as time.
I'm over here in my final years,
You're over there in your prime.

Sometimes we're so close we can almost touch
Sometimes we seem miles apart.
Still, to keep trying can be satisfying
The important thing is to start.

We're strolling along two sides of a river
And until it ends,
Though not eye to eye
At least we can try
To be wonderers and wanderers and friends.

We're treating the story differently for the musical, and we're treating Maude differently. We don't want it to be like Ruth Gordon [Maude in the film]. Because nobody is Ruth Gordon except Ruth Gordon. Something that's touched very lightly in the film we make more of Here — Maude's background as a concentration camp survivor. I don't want to make it sound too grim because that would be misleading. The show is romantic and it is funny. She doesn't go on about her experience. But you realize her need for Harold as much as his need for her. As she says, at one point "You're my tree."

And we've changed the part in the film where she just decides at age 80 she will commit suicide. That's never been acceptable to me. That's the thought of a 24-year old. I'm 84 how, and the best work I've ever done in my life is what I'm doing now. There has to be some compelling reason for such a step. Instead of just deciding that, she now has an illness that will only get worse and she doesn't see any point in going on. So Maude sits Harold down at a party he has arranged for the two of them on her 80th birthday. And she says, "Whatever I tell you, you have to promise not to move." Here she realizes how important this will be to him. She says, "Tonight I'm going to die. I've taken the pills already." He panics and says, "I've got to call somebody!" She says, "You promised. I need you here. To help me make my passage. I don't want anybody else."

He's so distraught, that she says, "Once upon a time I used to think that life was solid like a rock or a tree. Then I lost my husband and my family and the world I knew. I realized life wasn't like a rock, it's like water or the wind. Once I thought life was like this." [Jones clenches his hands in fists against his chest.] "Then I realized life was —" [He spreads out his hands and arms.] "Now I live like this. I open my arms, and whatever it is, I'm ready." She then sings her last song. Which is trying to teach him.

We're like birds who are perched in the limbs of a tree
When the time is right we simply fly away.
Then other birds come and take our places,
But they won't stay.

We come, we go,
It was always so
And so it will always be.
We're like a flock of birds, moving endlessly.

Listen to me
I want you to know
The most important thing:
Before the time we must fly away
We have a chance to sing
Don't miss the chance to sing.

That's very moving. And philosophical.
TJ: Under a lot of my work you often find religious things. In my fitful youth I was very susceptible. I kind of wanted to be a Christian — not a Baptist Christian like where I grew up. It was the philosophy. I got a Kindle for my 84th birthday and I've been reading the Greek philosophers. It's amazing the things they were thinking in 700 BC: "Nothing is, everything is becoming." That's what's wrong with so many religions. They think things are fixed. They want to make things fixed. But things are always in motion.