PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tom Jones, Lyricist of The Fantasticks, I Do! I Do! and Harold and Maude
By Robert Viagas
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?
Has one show been more of a challenge?
Anatol was musicalized previously in 1961 by Arthur Schwartz Howard Dietz as The Gay Life. Did that affect your version?
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.]
Will you be making any changes to Roadside [which was not a success in its 2001 Off-Broadway debut]?
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.
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?
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?
We're strolling along two sides of a river,
Sometimes we're so close we can almost touch
We're strolling along two sides of a river
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
We come, we go,
Listen to me
That's very moving. And philosophical.
I notice that Grover's Corners, your musical version of Our Town is not on the list.
Aside from your work on your new musical, The Tempest, what would you most like to accomplish with the rest of your career?
Is it the "wall" line?
After the lovers are reunited at the end, the fathers want to tear down the wall they built between their properties. But El Gallo warns them, "Keep the wall. Remember, you must always keep the wall." What did you change?
TJ: Now he says, "No. Forget about the wall. It's not about the wall." Which it isn't. I realized that the old line sounds profound, but it's bullshit. The show is not about that at all. In any way. But Lore [Noto, the original Off-Broadway producer] wouldn't let me take it out. He didn't want me to change the "Rape" song ["It Depends on What You Pay"] either, but I eventually did. [Replaced by a song called "Abductions."] It gets just as many laughs, and it doesn't haunt me. The other one [based on a speech in the Edmund Rostand original] really, really, really made me feel bad for a long time.
There are people who prefer the original.
Do you ever stop by the Off-Broadway revival of The Fantasticks?
The last time you played the Old Actor was for the 50th anniversary in 2010. Was that the capstone of your acting career?
You're now older than the Old Actor. Do you think you'll ever play him again?
(Robert Viagas is executive editor of PlaybillEDU.com, founder of the news service of Playbill.com and author or editor of 16 books including "The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks.")
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