Around The Town

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt

Part 2 – Remembering the Legacy of Composers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt

By: Ellis Nassour

August 15, 2023 – The theatrical legacy of composers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt is a colorful one. The duo created the longest-running musical in history, The Fantasticks, which opened in 1960 and ran 42 years Off Broadway and was revived there July 2006 – June 2017. They also wrote the Broadway musicals 110 in the Shade, I Do, I Do, and Celebration, and Off Broadway’s Road Side.

Part 2 – Remembering the Legacy of Composers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt

By: Ellis Nassour

August 15, 2023 – The theatrical legacy of composers Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt is a colorful one. The duo created the longest-running musical in history, The Fantasticks, which opened in 1960 and ran 42 years Off Broadway and was revived there July 2006 – June 2017. They also wrote the Broadway musicals 110 in the ShadeI Do, I Do, and Celebration, and Off Broadway’s Road Side

Jones, who wrote book and lyrics, died Friday at his home in Connecticut. He was 95. Composer Schmidt died in 2018 at his longtime home in Tomball, TX. He was 88. 

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 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.”

“When he came to us,” explained Jones, “Richard said he wanted to work with some younger writers. We were in our 30s.” Noted Schmidt, “We figured we were at the bottom of his list and 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, called. 

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 reported, “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, was hired. “He would be captain,” stated Schmidt, “but Mr. Merrick, “a hands-on person if ever there was one, called the shots.”

Inga Swenson, won out over Barbra Streisand, who’d become a Broadway sensation due to her “Miss Marmelstein” in Harold Rome’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale, for Lizzie, the young “old maid” whose rancher father is trying to marry off. She was classically trained with only one music revue credit, Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1956. “Ironically,” said Jones, “in spite of a great voice, Inga was too beautiful to be playing a gal who was supposed to be plain – enter wigs and make-up. [Swenson went on to other musicals and a TV career; Streisand recovered pretty well from the rejection – Funny Girl came two years later.]

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.”

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 Snookie, the Cupie doll sweetheart of Lizzie’s brother Jimmy (Scooter Teague, whose understudy was the late Jerry Dodge, who was to co-star in Hello, Dolly! as Barnaby, George M! and Mack and Mabel.]

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.

 “Mr. Merrick was a double-edged sword,” stated Schmidt. “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 the show 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,” reported 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 story and songs. Here was a show about the dust bowl and Mr. Merrick was screaming for a chorus of pretty girls.” 

“It was a tumultuous time!” Jones explained, cringing at the memory. “There was constant bickering with Mr, Merrick, all sorts of shenanigans and dirty tricks. As was in his DNA, he often tried to set us against each other.”

Worse than the undercurrent of mistrust, Merrick kept shifting back and forth on creative decisions. “After Boston, where we received mixed to positive reviews, Mr, Merrick decided, like with the play, we’d have three acts,” exclaimed Jones, “I was close to suicidal!”

“Mr. Merrick wanted a superhit,” said Schmidt. “In Philadelphia, when the reviews were negative.” relayed Jones, “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, by the time the musical arrived in New York, the show was beset with rumors of impending doom.

It was a nervous opening 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!” exclaimed Jones. 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 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 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. He allowed the show to die.”

110 ran just over nine months, 330 performances. Thanks to the RCA original cast recording, the musical wasn’t forgotten. The composers were “more than pleased” with the first Broadway revival, Summer 2007, produced by Roundabout at Studio 54 and directed by Lonny Price, It starred Audra McDonald, John Cullum, Steve Kazee, and Christopher Innvar. In featured roles were Bobby Steggert (Jimmy) and Will Swenson. The production received five Tony nominations: including Best Revival, Musical; Actress; and Supporting Actor (Cullum).

Said Schmidt, “After all the duels with Mr. Merrick, it was a joy to have our show rediscovered. Things were done as they should be done.” 

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,]. 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.”

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, an “avant garde musical fable,” using masks and presented on virtually a bare stage. It explored the contrasts “between youth and old age, innocence and jaded corruption, love and ambition, and poverty and wealth.” Even with positive reviews, 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 high-kicking musical presented in Dallas [with an Off Broadway production the following year] about a happily rootless, travelling family at the beginning of the 20th Century. It boasted a country-infused score of 20 songs, which included “The Way It Should Be.” The concept was based on the play by Lynn Riggs (source material, Oklahoma!).

Later came Grover’s Corners, the musical adaptation of Our Town, and Mirette, an adaptation of Elizabeth Diggs’ book, Mirette on the High Wire.; and a retrospective revue, The Show Goes On.

“We’ve had tremendous career highs and lows,” allowed Jones. “The way of doing Broadway musicals has changed. Almost none are created on Broadway. They come from London, regional theatres, workshops, and experimental spaces. 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. “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 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 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!”

The Legacy of Composers Tom Jones and Harvey SchmidtPart One