Fynsworth Alley: 10 Questions with Harvey Schmidt

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

10 Questions with Harvey Schmidt

What was your involvement in the film version of The Fantasticks?

After years of turning down offers, of waiting and hoping that some day, some film director would come our way with a vision that we might approve on just how to turn what is very much a stage piece into film, Michael Ritchie came along and presented us with such a proposal. So Tom and I were engaged to work on the screenplay and to also be on call for whenever Michael wanted us around, whether it be recording sessions, location shooting in Arizona, or final editing sessions in Los Angeles and New York.

Is there any truth to the rumored Broadway revival of I Do! I Do! with Kathie Lee Gifford?

Up till now I have only heard the same rumors that everyone else seems to have heard. Having long been a fan of hers, I think she could be a perfect “Agnes” in this show, so I would be delighted if the rumors should turn out to be true.

Can you compare the process of writing a song to that of painting a picture?

Since I have always done both my entire life, I find the process of creating either one very natural and almost identical. Before beginning, I try to have a clear vision in my head of what I’d like the finished product to be, and then just set about trying to reach that goal. There will, of course, be a lot of stumbling and fumbling along the way, with some sudden surprises and windfalls being incorporated, but that original vision of potential fulfillment remains enshrined in my head, constant, like a beacon.

What’s the writing process like when you work with Tom?

If the show we’re writing is based on an existing property, we will first spend a lot of time just laying out the whole piece, and agreeing where the major musical peaks and valleys might be. We will then each pick a different section to begin working on, and if that doesn’t pan out to our satisfaction, we might then reverse the process, and have the other one try his hand at it. When the show has an original book, the work is usually much more fragmented, with musical sequences and songs beginning to form and develop out of scenes while they are still being written.

Has your partnership changed at all in the last forty years?

Not much, really. The major drift, possibly, is that we no longer feel the need of total proximity to each other we once did. With time has come a kind of shorthand of understanding. The fact that we both still like and strive for the same kind of musical theatre helps a lot. And having learned, over the years, that in some ways we can work even better when we’re on separate continents has helped pave the way. When you’re sending things back and forth to each other from great distances, you’re constantly faced with mini-deadlines-of-response to the other person’s last epistle. And you have the chance to frame your reactions with greater perception and care than you might face-to-face in the same room.

People always ask, “which comes first, the music or the lyrics?” We continue to approach material both ways, whichever seems to work out the best, and most of our scores seem to have turned out to be about half-and-half of each. I think you get a richer score this way. In the earliest days of our collaboration, we had sometimes also tried writing songs together at the piano, but since this usually led to too many disruptive disagreements, we’ve drawn the veil on that.

Not too many years ago we learned that Lerner and Loewe often wrote songs starting with just a title first, and we have found this to be a helpful device for certain songs as both partners retain a certain degree of expressive freedom.

The Fantasticks was off-Broadway at the beginning of the off-Broadway movement. What was it like in those days?

By the time we were trying to get our show on, the Off-Broadway theatre had been receiving serious credence via Brooks Atkinson’s often-laudatory reviews in The New York Times. As a result, the critics from the other seven dailies, as well as the magazines, had begun to regularly cover this latest wrinkle in New York theatre and they were all there the night The Fantasticks opened. Although the reviews were what is generally referred to in the business as “mixed,” there were enough excellent quotes to draw on and with the help of producer Lore Noto’s life savings, the show was able to get a foothold during those early weeks till the buds of positive word-of-mouth began to blossom. Although the show’s original budget of $16,500 seems like a paltry sum today, it had not been easy to accumulate, and to accomplish the same feat now would involve raising a sizable fortune.

If you had to choose one song of yours to be remembered by, which would it be?

I suppose it would have to be “Try To Remember.” This seems to be our best-known song, having been recorded by practically everyone and beloved all over the world. The melody was a gift dropped in my lap one day in the late 1950’s at the old Nola Studios in Steinway Hall on 57th St. After giving up on some very jazzy interlude I’d been struggling with, I decided to take a break, and for a change of pace suddenly just played this melody, once, straight-through. I paused to think, “My, that’s pretty,” and then played it through once more. And the amazing thing is that I never again changed or altered a note from the way I first played it. Jerry Orbach sang it in the same key (F major) and thus it is published note-for-note as I played it that first afternoon. Luckily, Tom worked diligently and long to perfect the beautifully poetic lyric that everyone relates to.

If you had the opportunity, would you go back and change any of your songs or shows? Which and how?

Once I have finished working intensely on a show and putting it to bed, I never have a desire to go back to it, or to work on any of the songs again. I prefer looking forward, not backward. However, the one exception might be, if I were writing the girl’s part in The Fantasticks today, I would not include the complex coloratura-obligato sections which make it more difficult to cast than it need be. Because the original Luisa, Rita Gardner, managed this so easily and all in the one voice, it has been permanently preserved in the vocal score and I have been dissuaded from tampering with it at this point.

What are you listening to these days?

The music I listen to these days is almost always classical. When I was young, growing up in Texas during the 1930’s Depression days, I lived for the week-end symphonic radio broadcasts of Arturo Toscanini, the New York Philharmonic, the NBC Symphony, and the CBS Symphony which was a late-night favorite of mine because they played a lot of contemporary American composers like Howard Hanson, David Diamond, and Samuel Barber. So when I was first able to buy my own 78 recordings, they were all classical. Although I could play (by ear) the popular songs of the day that I also heard on the radio or in the movie musicals, it was not until I entered the University of Texas in 1948 that I first became infatuated with theater scores of the great musicals which were just then coming out in the new LP format.

Although I still try to keep up with the theater music being produced today, my recent return to living in Texas again has now brought me back full-circle to my initial love of symphonic music and this is what I listen to now, expecially on my automobile sound system as I tear across the prarie.

Do you have a favorite memory from your career?

I, of course, have many favorite memories tied to The Fantasticks throughout the past 40 years of its run. But, actually, one of the most hauntingly visual and memorable has to do with I Do! I Do! Mary Martin, the great female star of this Broadway project (directed by Gower Champion and co-starring Robert Preston) had her lawyers include in her contract (with producer David Merrick) a clause which stipulated the composer would be flown first-class to her ranch in Brazil to teach her the songs, a number of weeks before rehearsals were set to begin. She was resting there following a worldwide, whirlwind tour of Hello, Dolly across the U.S., then military bases in Viet Nam of the height of the war, then Tokyo, and then finally the London premiere at the Drury Lane theater. Several years earlier her husband, Richard Halliday, and she had purchased this large working ranch in the state of Goias, the result of a visit to that area to see Mary’s closest friend, film star Janet Gaynor and her husband Adrian, the great MGM costume designer who has retreated there seeking inspiration for his ongoing series of large “jungle” paintings.

My overnight flight from New York ended in the recently created capital city of Brasilia, followed by a day-long drive westward in an open jeep (and no roads!) across high farm plateaus alternating with jungle ravines where monkeys and macaws chattered in the treetops. There was no electricity or telephones in this part of the world at that time, so the last couple of hours were driven in total darkness with only the jeep headings to lead the way. Eventually, we came to a gated entrance and sign, “Nozza Fazenda,” with a Victorian antique brass plaque showing a pair of clasped hands beneath it. I recognized this to be the logo the Hallidays had used for many years as a symbol of their marriage. So, I was relieved to know we must be near. We soon pulled up in front of a black silhouette to of a building, and the driver killed the engine. There was total silence for a moment, then, out of the impenetrable night came this distinctive Peter Pan voice quietly calling: “Harvey? Harvey, is that really you?”

This was the same voice I’d been fascinated with, from afar, my whole life, and now here it was calling my name from the deep darkness, a million miles from nowhere.

I had first heard this voice when I was nine years old, growing up in Sealy, Texas, where all of my friends and I knew every word to Mary Martin’s recording of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” Few people today realize what a huge national hit the record was at that time, especially in Texas where everyone proudly bragged about how this Texas girl was singing a song about her father, that nice judge in Weatherford. Then, I learned to love this same voice even more in the flock of paramount Pictures she appeared in over the next several years. That voice didn’t sound like any other singers or movie stars I was familiar with, and I liked that. Then, later in college, when the first LP of South Pacific came out, I was transfixed, especially by that voice singing “A Cockeyed Optimist.” There was also a local radio station which, every midnight, would play a single with that voice singing two songs cut from South Pacific, (“Loneliness of Evening” and “The Girl Back Home”), both floating hypnotically through the soft Austin night air. When I later arrived in New York, my first job was as a graphic artist for NBC Television and I will never forget the afternoon, at the huge old Brooklyn studio, watching Mary Martin in her Peter Pan costume, sitting cross-legged atop a grand piano, with that voice belting out those fabulous songs, as Jule Styne conducted.

And now, here I was, seated a piano in Brazil, listening to that same familiar, clarion voice belting out music that I’d composed. The piano, which the Hallidays had borrowed from a government official, was said to be the only one existing in all of Goias. It was an old Victorian upright, and to make it more appealing, Mary had attached twin panels of flowers that she’d needlepointed to the front of it. It sat on the brilliant red-orange terra-cotta floor on the veranda of the guest house where I was staying, and where I received a beautiful breakfast each morning, delivered on a tray with blue-and-white Royal Doulton china, prepared by Ernesto, the elegant chauffeur/cook who had previously performed similar functions for the Lunts before joining the Hallidays. When Mary came over to the guest house later in the morning, we would work on the songs for several hours and then break for a light lunch.

In the afternoons, we would often go horseback riding over the hills, or sometimes just sunbathe in the hammocks of a new garden area Richard was in the process of constructing. One afternoon Mary invited me to go with her to Anapolis, the only town near to the ranch, about 30 miles away. Mary was barefooted, in a playful mood, and she decided to drive us there herself in a battered old pick-up truck used by the ranch-hands. On the way, she got to talking about a Texas aunt she’d had who drove a pick-up but who could never manage to keep it on the road. I remember looking down just in time to see Mary’s red-toe-nailed foot pressing on the gas pedal, as she began to do an imitation of the aunt’s madcap driving style, and since there were no roads, we just began careering recklessly across the landscape, laughing hysterically all the way.

When we finally got to Anapolis (remarkably still intact!), I was surprised to find that the shops there had little for sale except bolts and bolts of fabrics. But what fabrics! Bold and brilliant designs all produced locally and all costing almost nothing. Many insisted I buy some for my family, which I did, and so for years afterward my mother in Texas would wear what she called her “Mary Martin dress,” and I still own several ties made from some of those fabrics. Back at the ranch, the Hallidays had built a charming little hut, open-sided to the benign climate, in which sat a sewing machine where one of the ranch women would sew each day creating ever-changing curtains, bedspreads, and other interior décor from the colorful fabrics Mary could not resist bringing back from Anapolis. There were also costumes sewn from these fabrics for the household help, and they were all very fanciful and creative (including turbans!).

From my guest-house windows I would sometimes glance over toward the main house, and if several of the women might have fathered outside in their colorful attire, it looked almost like we were about to begin rehearsals for some big Brazilian production number!

Then, one day, the costume designer for I Do! I Do!, Freddie Wittop, arrived with his bolts of fabric from New York, to begin some preliminary fittings. While he was there, Mary decided both of us might like to see the Adrian place, about a half-hour’s drive away. After his death by heart attack, Janet Gaynor had remarried, and although she still owned the place, she no longer came down, so it was all well-on-the-way to becoming a magnificent ruin. Sitting in its all-white splendor, surrounded by encroaching jungle, it looked like it might have been a Cedric Gibbons set for some 1930s MGM film. It even had its own zoo, the animal cages now long-empty.

There was a farewell dinner that night for Freddie. Evening was always one of the loveliest times of day there, beginning with frozen daiquiris on the big screened porch, with Mary, beautifully dressed, and stretched out against the dying sunset on a chaise lounge directly underneath one of the large jungle paintings by Adrian. Wonderful theatre stories and wonderful fun! And then a superb, simple dinner of Ernesto’s by candlelight. (I forgot; actually everything was always by candlelight!)

The really wonderful thing about this memory of mine is that it ultimately leads to a very happy ending on Broadway with Mary giving a superb performance (some thought her best, even) opposite the also superb Robert Preston in I Do! I Do! Another nice thing is that this show, having been properly launched by Gower Champion, is still around being performed today. And there are moments when encountering certain passages of these songs that I am instantly transported back to that magical time in Brazil, and hear again in my head the unique and incredible voice that I’ve loved my entire life.

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