THE ART OF COLLABORATION
March 5, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Reading the obituaries last week for the theatre composer Harvey Schmidt, I was struck by the longevity of his collaboration with his writing partner, Tom Jones. They first met at the University of Texas in the spring of 1950, when they both worked on an original musical revue (Jones was a grad student). At the time, funnily enough, neither wanted to be writers. Jones had his eye on directing and Schmidt was an art major. But once they started writing together, a relationship forged when they were young men continued happily into old age. Now with Schmidt’s death at eighty-eight, one of the most enduring of theatrical partnerships has ended.
“You wonder how these things begin,” speaks El Gallo, the Narrator of The Fantasticks. After college in the late 1950s, after both young men had recently been discharged from the Army, they travelled on a Greyhound bus to New York City. There, Schmidt found quick employment as a commercial artist, freelancing for television shows as well as for Esquire and Life (he designed the iconic logo for The Fantasticks). Jones hustled for whatever theatre work he could find.
A musical Jones was working on, based on Les Romanesques, a comedy by the French playwright Edmond Rostand (the author of Cyrano de Bergerac) wasn’t going well. When his composer fell out, Jones talked Schmidt into writing its score with him. An intimate staging at Barnard College as a long one-act was so well received, that it prompted interest from three separate producers wanting to expand it into a full evening’s entertainment.Keeping its light commedia dell’arte style, stringently budgeted at $16,500, and newly titled The Fantasticks, it opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse on May 3, 1960. On that night, when a twenty-five year old Jerry Orbach (prior to fame and fortune) sang the opening song, “Try to Remember,” none of its creative team, least of all Jones and Schmidt, could have ever envisioned its occupancy on Sullivan Street would last almost forty-two years. It is still the longest-running production in the history of the American stage and one of the most frequently produced musicals the world over.
It’s difficult when the first thing you write is a phenomenon, as was the case with Jones and Schmidt. Careful with their next show not to veer too far from the simple purity of The Fantasticks, they wrote a musical adaptation of N. Richard Nash’s stage and film hit, The Rainmaker. Retitled 110 in the Shade, it had a respectable run, and a 2007 Broadway revival with Audra MacDonald gave audiences a chance to catch up with what after forty-four years had become an all-but-forgotten show. In 1966, I Do! I Do!, a musical version of the Tony Award winning two-character play The Fourposter, was a big Broadway hit for the team. With Mary Martin and Robert Preston making up its entire cast, I Do! I Do! was a sell out, later spawning nearly as many productions as The Fantasticks, due to its being the very first two-character musical, and therefore a must for budget-minded theatres everywhere.
Of course, disappointment comes with the territory by way of a life in the theatre, and Jones and Schmidt were no strangers to it. In 1969, their third Broadway show, the experimental Celebration, was written off by the critics and closed after 109 performances. Colette, based on the life of the French writer, played Off-Broadway in 1970 with Zoe Caldwell in the title role, but was more of a play with music (its book writer, Elinor Jones was, at that time, Mrs. Tom Jones). Raves for Caldwell kept it open, but not for very long. A dozen years later, a new version with mores songs added (and no longer with a book attributed to the ex-Mrs. Jones), opened in Denver starring Diana Rigg. Sadly, its poor reception ended all hopes of an already announced Broadway engagement. Grovers Corners, a musical version of Our Town was a thirteen- year labor of love, that unfortunately was taken away from Jones and Schmidt when the Thornton Wilder estate withdrew the rights. I saw a workshop production in 1984 with a wonderful cast of Broadway pros that included John Cunningham, Liz Callaway, Scott Waara and Ronn Carroll. Perhaps at some point it will see the light of day again.
Both shows, in addition to a number of others, were incubated by Jones and Schmidt at their Portfolio Studio, a brownstone in the West ’40s that they transformed into a workable space to workshop new musicals. A theatre on one floor, a costume shop on another — sort of miraculous, really. Here’s how the team described it (with self-effacing charm):
Harvey Schmidt: “Right after we’d done I Do! I Do! we had quite a bit of money rolling in with regular royalties and things, so we decided to do an experimental workshop where we would do everything — write, direct and I would design.”
Tom Jones: It’s called “egomania!” Or hubris which is punished by nemesis. So we had both hubris and nemesis — Act 1 and Act 2.
But their modest brand of never-say-die spirit kept Jones and Schmidt going for many years, with some projects fully produced, and some not. One of their last, was a revue of their songs titled The Show Goes On. It featured a cast of five, that included the duo themselves (with Schmidt seated at the piano for the duration of the evening). A live recording was put out, and is still available by way of streaming and CD.
In an interview the team gave in 2001, posted at TalkinBroadway.com, Harvey Schmidt discussed his personal legacy, which I think offers a nice closer: “I’d like for people to remember ‘Try to Remember,’” he said. “I’m going to put that on my tombstone. I’m going to be buried in this very simple country cemetery in central Texas where my parents are buried, and my grandparents and all of my aunts and uncles. It’s a beautiful rural church that was built and designed by my grandfather in the late 19th century … I want to design my tombstone before it happens. I want it to be in Roman type. I don’t trust anyone else to do that.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.