By Elaine Pilkington
Which investment made in 1960 has returned 19,465 percent? General Motors stock? RCA? No, it’s The Fantasticks , a simple but timeless story of the tenacity of love. Although best known for this nearly immortal, off-Broadway hit, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones have created an extensive body of work in a musical collaboration that has spanned over fifty years.
Their personal and professional association began at the University of Texas in 1950 with a musical revue for which Jones wrote comedy sketches and Schmidt served as musical director. At that time, neither planned to pursue a writing career. Jones majored in play production, and Schmidt was studying art. After graduating from college and before relocating in New York, Schmidt and Jones continued their collaboration, sending music and lyrics between bases while both served in the army (“The Authors,” The Fantasticks Company, 2000. <http://www.TheFantasticks.com>).
Once in New York, Schmidt worked as a graphic artist for NBC Television and then as an illustrator for Life, Harper's Bazaar, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune. Jones taught, conducted workshops, and endeavored to become an established director. Together they wrote revue material for Julius Monk’s Upstairs at the Downstairs shows and Ben Bagley’s Shoestring Revues as well as a musical version of Edmund Rostand’s play Les Romanesques that evolved into The Fantasticks, receiving its first performance as a one-act musical created at the request of Word Baker, who had directed the University of Texas musical revue that first brought Schmidt and Jones together in 1950. Having attracted the attention of the professional theater, The Fantasticks made its way to the Sullivan Street Theater (It’s still there!) on May 3, 1960 (“The Team,” <http//members.aol.com/n2thewoods/index.html#/theteam>).
Following The Fantasticks, Schmidt and Jones wrote 110 in the Shade, their first Broadway show. Opening in 1963, this musical version of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker “boasted a glorious score which was especially singled out by the critics” (“The Team”). Schmidt and Jones “wrote over a hundred songs for 110 in the Shade before the final choices were made” (Martin Gottfried, Broadway Musicals [New York: Abradale Press/HarryN. Abrams, Inc., 1979], 39). Three years later, I Do! I Do!, adapted from Jan de Hartog’s comedy, The Fourposter, opened with Mary Martin and Robert Preston appearing in the roles originally performed by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn (“The Authors”).
From 1969 to 1975, Schmidt and Jones operated the Portfolio Studio to experiment with primal theater (Robert Viagas, “The Fantastic World of Jones and Schmidt,” Playbill Online, 30 September 1996. <http/members.aol.com/n2thewoods/part1html>). Celebration appeared in 1969 as an attempt to expand the scope of the Broadway musical by combining aspects of myth and ritual with popular entertainment. Concentrating on small-scale musicals in new and often untried forms, they created The Bone Room, Portfolio Revue, and Philemon, which won the Outer Critics Circle Award and was later produced by Hollywood Television Theater (“The Team”).
Since then, three major projects have occupied their talents. The first is Collete. Having written songs for a play based on the autobiographical works of Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette, the author of Gigi, the two resolved to write Colette, a full-scale musical covering her entire life of eighty-two years. The work initially blossomed into an elaborate production before becoming the far more simple, more successful Colette Collage. While endeavoring to perfect Colette, Schmidt and Jones also worked on Grover's Corners, a musical version of Thornton Wilders’ Our Town. Working within the restraints of rights to Our Town that were initially limited to two years, the two have seen the musical through many versions, including a production in Chicago that received great acclaim (“The Team”). Mirette, the third most notable production in recent years, is based on the Caldecott Award book Mirette on the High Wire written by Emily Arnold McCully. The 1994 Sundance Festival included a first draft workshop reading of Mirette. “A rare second Sundance workshop, this semi-staged for an audience, followed in 1995, which led to a July 1996 production at Sundance’s children’s theatre” (Viagas).
“In the 1997-98 season, Jones and Schmidt appeared off-Broadway in The Show Goes On a new revue based on their theatre songs. . . . [H]ailed by the New York Times as ‘lighthearted, loving and sad, laced with nostalgia but also with laughter,’ the show extended its run several times and was subsequently released as a CD” (“The Authors”). Schmidt and Jones are no strangers to performance. When The Fantasticks opened in 1960, the Old Actor was played by Thomas Bruce, better known as Tom Jones. When the actress playing Colette was detained during readings for a workshop production of Colette Collage, Jones decided to play the role himself. “With Schmidt at the piano, Jones threw himself into the part . . . establishing that he remains one of the great, though rarely-heard interpreters of his own work—even as a gaunt sixty-plus-year-old playing a ripe seventeen-year-old courtesan” (Viagas). When the National Alliance of Music Theatre Producers obtained the rights to Grover's Corners and organized a premiere production in 1987 at the Marriot Lincolnshire Theatre near Chicago, Schmidt and Jones “served onstage as co-Stage Managers. Jones did most of the talking; Schmidt played piano and chimed in on songs” (Viagas). Jones first played the role of the Stage Manager when he was twelve years old, the only child in a cast of adults (Donald P. Farber and Robert Viagas, The Fantasticks: America's Longest Running Play [Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1991], 9). Schmidt was known to attend performances of The Fantasticks and sit “down at the piano to reprise themes from the show as the audience, generally unconscious of his identity . . . [filed] out of the theatre” (Viagas).
Their dedication, involvement and enthusiasm for their collaboration have earned them an Obie Award, the 1992 Special Tony for The Fantasticks, and the ASCAP-Richard Rodgers Award. “In February of 1999 they were inducted into the Broadway Hall of Fame . . . and on May 3, 1999, their ‘stars’ were added to the Off-Broadway Walk of Fame outside the Lucille Lortel theatre” (“The Authors”). They have given us much to remember.