By: Ellis Nassour
Remembering Harvey Schmidt – and Tom Jones, who recently turned 90: Part Two
When The Fantasticks was on its way to becoming a solid Off Broadway hit, composers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt were dangled a carrot of another kind: Broadway.
N. Richard Nash wanted to do a musical adaptation of his romantic comedy The Rainmaker, about a lonely farm girl reaching spinsterhood and yearning for love – which had been a 1952 TV special, a 1954 Broadway play starring Geraldine Page and Darren McGavin, and a 1956 film headlining Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.
That Broadway musical, titled 110 in the Shade, came to be — — but, according to Schmidt, “ by a circuitous and torturous route.”
To fulfill his dream, Nash had approached a number of composers, including Rodgers and Hammerstein and Harold Rome, but couldn’t find the right combination. Then he met with Jones and Schmidt.
“When he came to us,” laughs Jones, “Richard said he wanted to work with some younger writers. We were in our thirties, and had never done anything on Broadway.” Noted Schmidt, “We figured we were at the bottom of his list and he got to us because no one else was interested. But Tom and I felt The Rainmaker was the type of story we’d like to tackle. Maybe it was because we were from Texas, and knew the territory.”
For those too young to remember the antics, some bordering on revenge and rudeness-taken-to-a-nth-level, David Merrick, dubbed the “King of Broadway” because of numerous hits, had never considered Rodgers and Hammerstein even if Nash had asked him to.
After flying to France three times, Merrick finally got the rights to the fateful cinematic romantic trilogy set on the Marseilles waterfront, Marius, Fanny, and Cèsar by Marcel Pagnol, a leading light of Paris theater, he set his sights on a composer. He met with Rodgers and Hammerstein. They weren’t interested, but he didn’t give up. They wouldn’t budge. This led to a lifelong feud and an out-and-out hatred of Rodgers [in spite of his legendary talent and success, not always the nicest of people]. Harold Rome became the composer of the musical, Fanny, directed by Joshua Logan [original South Pacific, Mister Roberts, Picnic].
Opening night of his last show, the blockbuster 42nd Street, when Merrick found out that Dorothy Rodgers, widow of the composer, had been invited, after more than a quarter century, his unconsummated meanness shown through brighter than premier klieg lights: He relocated her seats to the balcony of the Winter Garden Theatre. When asked why, the not-so-beloved producer replied, “Because I am mean.”
And Then It Rained – No, Stormed
Though things were rosy at The Fantasticks box office, Schmidt was still working his day job doing commercial art. “The day Mr. Merrick called,” he reports, “I was packing to go to Iran for Sports Illustrated to do a series of paintings of the Shah’s tiger hunt. The tigers had to wait, but Mr. Merrick turned out to be as crafty as any wild animal.”
Jones had seen The Rainmaker on a trip to New York and loved it. “And, on the last night before I was discharged from the Army, I had watched the TV adaptation and was impressed with it.” Schmidt was a fan of the movie and “thought the story was a natural to make into a musical.”
For their audition, they played and sang tunes from a musical they’d been working on that was set in Texas. Merrick and Nash were pleased. They were aboard, but they didn’t know they were heading much too fast into a dangerous curve.
Joseph Anthony, an esteemed director whose only musical staging was the original Most Happy Fella, directed The Rainmaker on Broadway, would be captain; “but, really, Mr. Merrick,” says Schmidt, “a hands-on person if ever there was one, called the shots.”
Inga Swenson, won out over Barbra Streisand, who had become a Broadway sensation due to her “Miss Marmelstein” in Harold Rome’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale for the role of Lizzie, the young “old maid” whose rancher father is trying to marry off.
Swenson was classically-trained with only one music revue credit, Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1956. “Ironically,” notes Jones, “in spite of a great voice, Inga was too beautiful to be playing a gal who was supposed to be plain. However, wigs and make-up accomplished the required look. [Swenson went on to other musicals and a TV career; Streisand recovered pretty well from the rejection – Funny Girl came two years later.]
Will Geer, who became a household name playing Grandpa on The Waltons, was cast as Lizzie’s father. Stephen Douglass of Damn Yankees! fame was cast as Sheriff File, the town’s most eligible bachelor. Leslie Ann Warren, straight out of high school, won the role of the Cupie doll sweetheart Snookie of Lizzie’s brother Jimmy (Scooter Teague). [Teague’s understudy was the late Jerry Dodge, who was to co-star in Hello, Dolly! as Barnaby, as well as George M! and Mack and Mabel.]
Hal Holbrook won the coveted role of the mythic, wandering stranger and rainmaker Starbuck. But he wasn’t Merrick’s first choice. Recalled Schmidt, “In some derring do, all of a sudden Hal was out and Robert Horton, a TV heartthrob [from the hit series Wagon Train] was in the role.”
According to the composers, Horton had been under contract to star in Richard Rodgers and Alan Jay Lerner’s musical I Picked a Daisy, but when the production was postponed because Rodgers grew uneasy with Lerner’s writing pace, and then aborted, Merrick gleefully snapped him up. Holbrook, however, had a contract. Merrick’s out was that it didn’t stipulate what role Holbrook would play! Instead of staying with the production in a lesser role, Holbrook walked – “no doubt,” said Schmidt, “with a nice check in this pocket.
[The Daisy project later became the 1965 Lerner and Burton Lane musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which co-starred John Cullum and Barbara Harris.]
110 in the Shade has a rich score. In their eagerness to get their Broadway debut right, Jones and Schmidt wrote 114 songs before rehearsals ever began. Their thinking, according to Schmidt, was “we wanted to be prepared when and if during tryouts Mr. Merrick or [director] Joe wanted other songs. When that happened, we’d go to our room and pull another song from our suitcases instead of burning the midnight oil.”
Sixteen songs made the cut. They include “Another Hot Day”; Lizzie’s showstoppers “Love Don’t Turn Away” and “Simple Little Things,” and “Is It Really Me?”; Lizze and Starbuck’s duet “You’re Not Foolin’ Me”; Lizze and File’s duet, “A Man and a Woman”; the hilarious “Raunchy” by Lizzie and her dad; and the finale, “Wonderful Music.” Starbuck’s Act Two solo “Melisande” is a beautiful bit of magical thinking that could easily fit into The Fantasticks.
But, on its way to Broadway, there was constant bickering between the composers and Merrick, and as was in his DNA, he often tried to set them against each other.
“Mr. Merrick was a double-edged sword,” stated Schmidt. “Because of his mega successes, doors opened for record deals and theater parties. Early on, we could tell he wanted something that wasn’t there. He saw 110 as a big dance show. We didn’t. We knew we were in trouble when he brought in Agnes DeMille.”
The composers didn’t want 110 to be a warmed-over Oklahoma! [which won DeMille critical acclaim for her choreography], but something more earthy. “We told Mr. Merrick and Miss DeMille how we felt,” says Jones. “She replied, ‘Great. That’s exactly what I want.’ Then, I guess obeying orders from Mr. Merrick, proceeded to make it a dance show!”
“A couple of numbers ran over ten minutes,” laughed Schmidt. “They were wonderful ballets, but not much room remained for the story and songs.”
“It was a tumultuous time!” Jones explains, cringing at the memory. “There were all sorts of shenanigans and yelling over casting. For instance, here was a show about the dust bowl and Mr. Merrick was screaming for a chorus of pretty girls.”
Worst than the undercurrent of mistrust, Jones and Schmidt reported that Merrick kept shifting back and forth on creative decisions. After Boston, where the musical got mixed to positive reviews, he decided the musical, like the original play, would have three acts. “I was close to suicidal!” exclaims Jones.
“Mr. Merrick wanted a superhit,” said Schmidt, “and didn’t react too well in Philadelphia when the reviews were negative.” Relays Jones, “In fact, he threatened to close the show. Harvey and I said, ‘Great!’ We were relieved. Anything would have been better than to go on like that. As we were about to walk, he said, ‘Wait. I’ll give it one last chance.’ We went back to two acts and put in other changes. It made a huge difference. Things started to click. Audiences were loving it.”
However, according to the composers, by the time the musical arrived in New York, the show was beset with rumors of impending doom.
It was a nervous opening night at the Broadhurst Theatre on October 24, 1963. As the dailies rolled off the press, there was hope. The newspaper critics found much to cheer about, especially in Jones and Schmidt’s surviving score. That is, except for the New York Times. “Confound that damn Times review!” exclaims Jones. “Then and now, their critic established a show as a box-office bonanza or an also-ran.” Added Schmidt, “It was a weird, strange review, calling the musical everything but the dirtiest show on Broadway.”
It didn’t help that the nation was thrown into a collective depression the following month with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Then, when business picked up, Swenson slipped in the pouring stage rain, injuring her ankle. She was out of the show for several weeks.
In spite of the Times review and all the headaches of getting to Broadway, 110 did modest business. It received four Tony nominations – one for Jones and Schmidt’s score, Swenson, and director Anthony. However, it never became a must-see.
“Mr. Merrick didn’t market the show,” noted Schmidt, “because his energies were more focused on Dolly, which was in out of town tryouts and, hard to believe now, having a difficult time. He never got behind us. He made our lives and the lives of everyone involved a living hell.”
In addition to Dolly, which opened on Broadway three months later, the season was soon to see another blockbuster in Funny Girl starring Streisand.
110 ran just over nine months, 330 performances. Thanks to the RCA original cast recording, the musical wasn’t forgotten. There were Off Broadway and regional revivals and, in 1992, an acclaimed revival by New York City Opera, which co-starred Karen Ziemba and Richard Muenz [1979 Most Happy Fella and original 42nd Street,].
In the intervening years, several songs – “A Man and A Woman,” “Simple Little Things,” “Wonderful Music,” and “Love Don’t Turn Away” – had a life of their own, earning Jones and Schmidt “a nice nest egg.”
The composers were “more than pleased” with the first ever Broadway revival of 110, Summer 2007, produced in by Roundabout at Studio 54, starring Audra McDonald, in a return to the stage after three years, John Cullum, Steve Kazee, and Christopher Innvar. In featured roles were Bobby Steggert (Jimmy), Will Swenson, and Betsy Wolfe.
Said Schmidt, “After all the duels with Mr. Merrick, Roundabout’s revival was a great joy and wonderful to have our show rediscovered. Things were done as they should be done.” The duo had special praise for then Encores! musical director Paul Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick’s “outstanding” orchestrations. It was directed by Lonny Price, with choreography by Dan Knechtges. The production received five Tony nominations: including Best Revival, Musical; Actress; and Supporting Actor (Cullum).
There was to be another hit, the poignant two-hander I Do, I Do , based on Jan De Hartog’s The Fourposter, starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston, directed by Gower Champion, and featuring “My Cup Runneth Over,” which became a popular recording. In 1969, there was the innovative but devastating failure, Celebration, which came out of an Off Off Broadway workshop. It was listed as an “avant garde musical fable,” using masks and presented on virtually a bare stage except for platforms, and explored the contrasts “between youth and old age, innocence and jaded corruption, love and ambition, and poverty and wealth.” It received positive reviews, but audiences didn’t overwhelm the Ambassador Theatre box office [109 performances]. It was directed by Jones, and featured Keith Charles, a later El Gallo in The Fantasticks; and Susan Watson, the original Louisa in The Fantasticks.
In 2001, there was Road Side, a long-simmering high-kicking musical presented in Dallas [with an Off Broadway production the following year] about a happily rootless, travelling family in Texas at the beginning of the 20th Century. It boasted an infectious, country-infused score of 20 songs, which included “The Way It Should Be.” The concept was based on the play Roadside by Lynn Riggs (source material, Oklahoma!), which was the subject of Jones’ 50s master’s thesis in directing at the University of Texas.
More recently, there’s been Grover’s Corners, the composers’ musical adaptation of Our Town, and Mirette, an adaptation by Emily Arnold McCully of the Elizabeth Diggs book, Mirette on the High Wire.; and a retrospective revue, The Show Goes On.
“We’ve had tremendous career highs and lows,” says Jones “The old way of doing Broadway musicals has changed. Almost none are created on Broadway. They come from regional theaters, workshops, and Off Off Broadway experimental spaces. Then you have to consider our ages. When we were young, we were a success because we were daring and innovative. Today, we’re considered the past.”
He explained that their interest in certain themes hasn’t changed. “We’re still writing about time and seasonal changes. All said and done, our career has been marked by some notable benchmarks. And, to be blunt, I never believed anyone would pay us to do what we most love to do.”
“We never made a lot of money,” added Schmidt, “but we’ve made a living. In theater, that’s something! Our love of musical theater never diminished. It’s always been our life.”
He stated that neither he nor Jones have changed much from when they met in college and during their early New York days. “Working with Tom is certainly no different. We discovered a long time ago that collaboration is like a marriage. It just took years to figure out the best way to make ours work. Sometimes we want to strangle each other, but we’ve never been unfaithful!”