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

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31 Mar 2012

Tom Jones
Tom Jones
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The lyrics of Tom Jones have been heard on New York stages continuously for the past half century with only a brief hiatus — something no other lyricist can claim, not even Stephen Sondheim.


Jones wrote the book and lyrics to the phenomenal The Fantasticks, stayed Off-Broadway for 17,162 performances, and has run more than 2,000 more in its current revival. Jones also had Broadway hits with I Do! I Do! and 110 in the Shade, all written with longtime collaborator, composer Harvey Schmidt, who has retired to their native Texas. But the "Try To Remember" lyricist is getting a big New York salute from the Off-Broadway York Theatre Company this spring, presenting the current "Musicals in Mufti: The Tom Jones Festival," new productions of five Jones musicals — some with Schmidt scores; some with music by Others — over the course of two months.

This unprecedented Jonesapalooza features Jones' adaptation of the cult film Harold and Maude (music by Joseph Thalken) April 13-15 with Cass Morgan; his adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's The Anatol Plays, which Jones titled The Game of Love (music by Jacques Offenbach and Nancy Ford) May 11-13 with Santino Fontana; plus Schmidt's Colette Collage April 27-29 with Christine Andreas; and Roadside March 30-April 1. The series launched with the revue The Show Goes On March 16-18, at which time Jones appeared on stage with Susan Watson, the Girl in original 1959 The Fantasticks one-act version at Hunter College, plus the original Kim in Bye Bye Birdie.

A further note to theatre trivia buffs: Under the name Thomas Bruce, Jones originated the role of the Old Actor in The Fantasticks, and his voice can be heard on the original cast album's "Rape Ballet" declaiming "God for Harry, England and St. Geor-or-orge!" Now 84, the Texas-born Jones last played the role for the show's 50th anniversary in 2010.

How did this tribute come about and what's it like trying to mount five musicals in the space of eight weeks?
Tom Jones: York Theatre Company artistic director Jim Morgan mentioned the idea to me at the end of last summer. He and [actress] Judy Blazer came out to visit me at my country house and we went to the Goshen Fair. We were talking about doing my musical adaptation of Harold and Maude. She's much too young to play Maude but she had played young Colette on the recording of my musical Colette Collage and we wanted to do something with her. As it happened, Judy got another job [Mame at Goodspeed Opera House], as so often happens. Casting is so complicated. And to cast five shows at one time is one of the most insane things I've ever tried to do, especially under these circumstances. Just when you get the one you want, they get a TV show or a Broadway show and you lose them. But we've been lucky so far. We've gotten some wonderful actors for these parts.


Susan Watson and Tom Jones in rehearsal for The Show Goes On.
photo by Cristin Whitley/York Theatre Company

Has one show been more of a challenge?
TJ: Every one so far has been a challenge. The that was one less of a challenge was Game of Love because it's the last on the schedule. But we've had a wonderful start: Santino Fontana, who played The Boy in the revival of The Fantasticks and appeared in The Importance of Being Earnest, Billy Elliot and Brighton Beach Memoirs, is going to be playing Anatol in this musical, which is based on Arthur Schnitzler's Anatol. The critics have almost universally said this is the most promising young actor in New York. He played Hamlet at the Guthrie Theatre at age 24. In The Game of Love we see him in affairs with five sensational women. The narrator, his friend Max, will be played by Alex Gemignani.

Anatol was musicalized previously in 1961 by Arthur Schwartz Howard Dietz as The Gay Life. Did that affect your version?
TJ: The score of The Gay Life is OK, but the script I don't think is very good. To me, it's not Anatol. But, of course, mine is not Anatol either. Actually I started on this piece before The Gay Life. I began working on it in 1955 and I was still making changes a month ago, so this may be a record for the longest writing period for a musical. In 1960 I had prepared a version that had a narrator but only six songs, all with lyrics by me put to melodies by Jacques Offenbach. I even had an exciting production lined up. Ellis Raab the actor, director and producer was starting a new company with his wife, Rosemary Harris. It was to be called Association of Producing Artists, APA [later merged with the Phoenix Repertory Company] and their first season was scheduled to open in May 1960 and they wanted to do Game of Love, but they wanted me to be there for rewrites during rehearsals. It happens that it was scheduled to open the same week as The Fantasticks, and I chose to be with The Fantasticks.

There are many connections between the two shows. I had originally wanted Ellis Raab to play the Old Actor, and when he wasn't available because of the APA debut, I stepped into the role myself [under the stage name Thomas Bruce].

Later, The Game of Love was done at a regional theatre in Milwaukee and Keith Charles played Anatol. He and his wife, composer Nancy Ford, [I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road] met when he was playing El Gallo in The Fantasticks and she was the show's music director. He later appeared in my shows Celebration on Broadway and one version of Philemon at least. Nancy helped me expand The Game of Love with more songs from Offenbach, and then she also wrote four songs for it. Although the story is set in Vienna, the whole tone of the piece is more French than Germanic. That's why I wanted to use Offenbach instead of the Strausses. Offenbach has all the fun things — the gallops and the can-cans. But there's also a rueful, romantic quality to his music. He started off as a cellist, and you can feel that cello background in his work.

One thing I hope we will get with this production is a cast recording. [Earlier York Theatre Company productions of The Show Goes On and the original Roadside got cast recordings.]


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