Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
Tom Jones is the book-and-lyrics half of the team that created The Fantasticks, 110 in the Shade, I Do! I Do!, Celebration, Philemon, Colette Collage, and more.
DL: Let’s start right at the beginning. Before you met Harvey Schmidt, what were you doing? How did you guys get to know each other?
TJ: We were both students at the University of Texas. I was studying drama, studying to be a director, not a writer. Harvey was studying to be a commercial artist, as he eventually became very successfully, as I’m sure you must know. I tried to make as much money as I could by picking up directing jobs, directing the melodrama at the local civic theatre, so forth and so on. But there was the annual college musical, put on by the fraternity connected with the journalism department to raise money. They paid the director, and they paid a very modest fee for the book and score. I got the job directing it, and the scripts that I got and the songs that were sent to me were so terrible that I contacted Harvey, whom I knew through a group called the Curtain Club, and I said, “Look, would you like to write an original musical with me? We’ll write it in three weeks or so, and it will be put on a month after that.” He said yes, and we did.
DL: What was it about Harvey that he was the one who sprang to mind?
TJ: Well, he played the piano. And he also composed. The organization we belonged to called the Curtain Club had just done a revue called Hipsy-Boo! (That’s Hipsy-hyphen-boo-exlamation point.) in which some girls in little pants and mesh stockings and bras came out on a runway… actually, it was a revue of American popular theatre music from 1900 to 1950, it took place in 1950. Harvey arranged music from all of these different periods of time, and played it. And he also wrote an original piece of music called “Hipsy-Boo!” – a wonderful, terrific, sensational, sleazy piece of music. I loved it so much. I was connected to the show writing and directing the comedy material involved. That’s how I met him and knew his talents as a composer, really just through that one song.
DL: So this first show you put together completely, what was it about?
TJ: It was a college musical, an absolute rip-off of On The Town. It opened early in the morning the first day of school before anybody’s arrived, with two cleaning women singing what would in effect be “I feel like I’m not out of bed…” And then this freshman boy arrives, and then for no reason anyone could understand, he’s joined by two other kids. Then there’s this registration ballet with all this jazzy music – it was an absolute rip off! It was comedic, and it was funny – it really was funny, particularly if you were there. The plot involved an idealistic young person learning to sell out, always a fashionable plot, particularly for the young.
DL: So, how did you go from that first partnership to saying, “Let’s work together for the next forty years”?
TJ: We didn’t. We went back to our little cozy cocoons, I planning to be a great director of Shakespearean drama, Harvey planning to be a great artist. Then the Korean conflict, or whatever that thing was, came along, and I was drafted first, because I’m older than Harvey. And wiser. And I went in the service. Then a year later, when Harvey’s time came he was drafted into the service. I wound up in Baltimore in the counter-intelligence corps, countering intelligence wherever it reared its ugly head, which wasn’t often, so it gave me some spare time. Harvey wound up painting signs on latrines and officer’s helmets in Ft. Hood in El Paso, giving him some time. The first show, Hipsy-Boo!, was in a 400-seat theatre, off-Broadway you might say. It was spectacularly successful. Our director was Word Baker, the same director who would direct The Fantasticks in New York. He built a runway long before Hello, Dolly!, out around the orchestra pit, and gave free seats to bald-headed men in the first row, so you could see the spotlights gleaming off of their plush domes. It was so successful that people were shaving their heads, including girls, to get to those seats – it was sold out, so otherwise you couldn’t get in. The other show, the original book musical we did, was in a 1200 or 1400 seat house, like big-time Broadway. And that was even more successful, so much so that not only could people not get in, people would gather by the windows in clumps and tell the people behind them what was happening on stage! And this thunderous laughter and applause and a kind of hot ebullience… it’s kind of hard to get this out of your mind once you’ve got a taste of it. It’s like when a bull gorges a matador, you kind of get a taste for it after a while. Even though we never intended to do that, it kept tweaking us. So I started sending Harvey some lyrics through the mail from my army camp to his army camp. And he started getting some of his buddies together. There was somebody in that town who had actually been to New York and actually had a primitive recording studio in his garage. This was an early, primitive time when there were no small tape recorders. There weren’t even many big tape-recorders. This guy was doing big old wax things. Harvey would record these songs and send them to me, and we began a correspondence. I came to New York ahead, again because I’m older than Harvey. No one wanted to give me a job directing Shakespearean classics, at least as far as I could tell, and there wasn’t any way to prove to them that I knew how to do that. But I found that I could write comedy material, and there was a market for it at the time. And I guess there still is. So I started writing comedy stuff, and Harvey and I started to write comedy material for Julius Monk, Upstairs at the Downstairs, and for Ben Bagley’s Shoestring Revues. There was a market. There was no money in it, but it was a chance to get things on. We began to conceive this idea to do a revue, and Word Baker could come in with his family, and we’d all do this revue and get rich and become famous and live happily ever after. That revue was called Portfolio Revue, and it never did get put on. Many of the elements in it found their way into other things of ours. The design of it, which Harvey did, was to have a simple wooden platform with four wooden poles and two side poles, if that sounds familiar. And the name Portfolio eventually became associated with our workshop, and our music publishing company is Portfolio Music. In fact, when we first did our revue at our workshop, it was called Portfolio Revue, which was very well received by the Times and the Tribune (which existed at that time), and a lot of the elements in that revue wound up in The Show Goes On, which we later did.
Even though we still planned these other careers, we were still sort of drifting towards doing some writing.
DL: So how did you make the step from having an unproduced revue to having your first actual show get up on its own legs?
TJ: It took five years. During that period of time, I continued to work in bookstores of various kinds and teach a little drama in a group called St. Bartholomew’s Community Club in New York. Meanwhile, Harvey’s career as a commercial artist soared. He became one of the most successful commercial artists in America. Very successful. It’s not just painting girls with Coca-Cola bottles. He’d get assignments like Standard Oil, for their anniversary, asking him to go and paint twenty-five paintings of anything he wanted to paint in the state of New Jersey. They’d publish a few, Harvey would retain the others, and they were bought by the state to hang in the capitol! He got assignments from Sports Illustrated to go skin diving… Harvey, who’s never seen a baseball game in his life, got an assignment to cover the World Series, and he spent all his time painting midgets and misshapen people selling pennants outside the stadium. He became sufficiently successful, while I was living literally hand to mouth. Then he very generously agreed to take off a year, because we had been off-and-on working on this Rostand piece for several years, and it wasn’t going very well. He agreed to take off a year and try to fish or cut bait – either make it work or give up the whole thing. We continued to work on it, and it was just so bloated. It was based upon this very slight little piece, a confection by Rostand called Les Romanesques. All we knew, all anyone knew at that time, was Rodgers and Hammerstein. That was the absolute formula for everything, so we were trying to take this little piece and make it into a Broadway show in the manner of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was like a seventy-five pound weenie, totally indigestible in any form!
DL: What tipped you off that you should maybe try it another way?
TJ: Finally, Word Baker, who had had a career of ups and downs, a couple of wild successes and a couple of wild failures – just as Harvey’s career had gone straight up and my career had gone straight down, Word in the middle was going up and down, so we covered the territory. Mildred Dunnock, the actress, was going to run an Equity summer theatre, using the facilities at Barnard College in New York in the summer of 1959. She wanted to do three one-acts, and she knew Word had done some work at the Actors’ Studio. She had two plays, and Word wanted to do the third one as a musical. She said that was all right with her, so Word called us and said, if you guys can take that Rostand piece and simplify it, and make it into a long, one-act musical, and write it in three weeks, I’ll give you a production in three weeks after that. And that’s what we did. We threw out everything except “Try To Remember.” It was the most liberating thing of all time. I thought nothing’s ever going to come of this anyway, so what’s there to lose? I had all these passionate feelings about a certain kind of theatre that nobody was doing, what you might call presentational theatre. I thought, I’m just going to put in everything I love about the presentational theatre, I’m going to throw it all in there, and I’m going to go back to the bare-bones of the story and just use that, whenever I get lost to go back to, and I’m going to bounce free from it. So, I went back and I took the Commedia of the two fathers, the zanies, the old actors, I took direct address to the audience from a variety of presentational traditions. Originally, the whole thing was to be set in a wagon, like the Seventh Seal. It was all to be a lot of direct address to the audience, it was to be all in verse – which it mostly is – and I took the invisible prop man from the Oriental theatre, and the conventions of showing you the cardboard moon and so forth. And I took a lot of Shakespearean conventions, which I had studied at some length, about using language to make scenery and so on. And it all just came pouring out.
DL: That’s really interesting, since the final structure of The Fantasticks really epitomizes the two-act play. How did it work in one act?
TJ: We had the essence of what we have now, but when we started in the second part of disillusion, we went more quickly into the boy and girl having a fight, and the girl runs off in a different song, a really pretty bad song called “Have You Ever Been To China,” where he takes her to different places around the world and winds up disillusioning her, and she and the boy get back together in a sort of truncated form. The old actor had no appearance in the second half.
DL: I’m sure at the beginning, you had no idea what the show will spawn. Now that you’ve seen a forty year run, world-wide productions, a television adaptation, a film version… what do you think was so special about this property to give birth to all this?
TJ: Well, it’s a combination of things, I think. It’s dangerous to think too much, but inasmuch as I do think about it, I think it’s a story that’s very easily grasped, and it can be taken on different levels. It can be taken on a very simplistic level, and unfortunately some of the reviewers only see it on that level. But it can be taken on a more complex level, too. It can be enjoyed by young people on the surface, but it can be enjoyed by a more sophisticated audience as well, because there’s an awful lot of theatrical in-references and things like that. It’s very much a pure, theatrical piece. The audience helps create it, when it’s well done. It’s very rare that it’s well done, because it’s very hard to do. It’s very hard to sing, it’s very hard to play well, and to be naïve and innocent, and at the same time have a certain degree of comment. What they all do is comment too much, point at everything as if to say “isn’t this funny?” and destroy any emotional impact. The magic of the theatre that’s used is a primitive recreation that the audience responds to. I think it’s like being by a fire, you know? It connects with you in a very primitive way. It’s not an efficient way to heat anything – simple heating is much more efficient, but it doesn’t do the same thing. Of course, now they have videocassettes of fires and fireplaces, but that doesn’t do it. And they have videocassettes of primitive drama, and that doesn’t do anything either. Using these limitations, these ancient things, you’re creating something together, and part of what’s underneath it is a very primitive element in terms of what the story is saying.
DL: How did you come to also be a performer in the original production?
TJ: Well, you know, I started off as a performer once upon a time. We tried to get Ellis Rabb to do it, but that same exact summer he was starting the APA (Association of Producing Artists), which had quite a big impact a few years later. He wasn’t available, and of the people we auditioned, we couldn’t find anybody that we really liked. And during auditions, I was reading it, and finally everybody, including the director and Harvey but also Jerry Orbach and others said, “You’re not going to find anybody. This works fine.” So I said okay, and I did it under an assumed name because there was a lot of writing at the time about vanity productions – people who were producing or directing or writing at the time so they could act in them. The critics were out sharpening their knives for that. Ironically, non-existent Thomas Bruce got better notices than Tom Jones.
DL: Have you acted since?
TJ: Oh, occasionally. Like when we did The Show Goes On. I don’t make a practice of it. We did a Grover’s Corners [their musical adaptation of Our Town] for three months at the Marriott Lincolnshire in Chicago, and I did The Stage Manager there. And we’ve done a number of English-speaking tours of The Fantasticks in Japan, and so I’ve played the Old Actor for those with Harvey at the piano. It makes the Japanese very happy, because they like to have some remnants, like it’s archeology or something. We love doing it there. Unfortunately, the economics have changed so much they can’t afford to bring over American companies any more.
The very first tour that we did there, in 1988, we did ten cities at that time. Our last tour, we did thirty cities! But on that first tour, we came back to Tokyo, and we went to a theatre where we played on the same stage with the same set, alternating with a company that had been doing the play in Japanese on that stage for seventeen years. We would play a performance, then they would play a performance.
DL: A couple times in the last forty years, you’ve gone back and added some elements to the show. The most obvious additions were the new “Abductions” song replacing “It Depends on What You Pay” and, for the thirtieth anniversary tour with Robert Goulet, the new song “A Perfect Time To Be In Love” and a chorus. What motivated these changes?
TJ: Well, “A Perfect Time To Be In Love” was simply to give Goulet another song and make him feel good that he had something written especially for him.
The abduction song has a fairly long history, so I’ll try to keep it short. The Rostand piece, called Les Romanesques, was translated into English first by a woman writing under a male pseudonym of George Fleming. She wrote it in rhymed couplets, ala the French method. It was her conceit to take this passing reference to abductions and change it into the word rape, like “The Rape Of The Lock” or that sort of thing. That translation, from 1904, was used by the college professor who introduced me to the piece, and he staged it in 1908 with Mrs. Patrick Campbell playing the boy’s role. So I knew this piece with that speech, this kind of rape, that kind of rape – not the exact same words, but very similar. I never questioned it; it was just always part of the package. When we went into rehearsal, there was no song, but we had Jerry Orbach who was just dynamite in the role. He was so wonderful in the role, just fabulous. We said, oh hell, we should turn this into a song for Jerry. I never thought a thing about it. But over the years, my consciousness was raised – not just because a number of people felt conscious about it, but I began to feel it was a cheap laugh. I begged Lore Noto to let me change it downtown, but he said no, he felt it was his job to do the piece basically as written. So we made a compromise, where I wrote a different “goesinto” where they say, “He doesn’t mean real rape,” and I changed a number of the lyrics in the basic song that we had, so sometimes they say, “An abduction that’s emphatic, an abduction that’s polite,” so you get some relief from the relentless use of the word rape, although he still says “A literary rape” and so on in the song. Even though it’s not as exciting as a number, it’s more satisfying to me in terms of not feeling bad about it.
The first warnings, which I certainly didn’t take seriously: we got a letter, the second or third year of the rentals in the early sixties, from a Catholic girls school. The mother superior, whoever it was in charge of drama, said, “Of course we couldn’t use that word, so we found a substitute which we thought was perfect, and we’d like to suggest that you consider changing it in your production downtown. We simply changed the word to ‘snatch.’” You can get the snatch emphatic, you can get the snatch polite, it depends on what you pay!
Of course, there have been other modest changes. I have to be watched for wanting to change more, and Lore and to some extent Harvey are on the other side, wanting to keep it as it was. It’s a reasonably good balance.
DL: How did you make the leap from a tiny little off-Broadway show like The Fantasticks to your next project, a big Broadway musical produced by David Merrick?
TJ: David Merrick was dating one of our Luisas early on. We met him at a few parties, and we couldn’t believe this sweet, charming, mild little man was the ferocious David Merrick. Later on, we believed it. You’d better believe we believed it. He acquired the rights for The Rainmaker, and Richard Nash, who wrote the original, was set to write the book. They had tried a number of different composers and lyricists, and they weren’t happy. David suggested that Richard see The Fantasticks, which he did, and although he found it interesting, he questioned whether we could write in a western idiom. So we said both of us were from Texas, and we had done some work on a Western piece called Roadside. So we played him five or six songs, and on the basis of that we were signed to do 110 in the Shade.
DL: The story is that you’ve written over 100 songs for the show, and certainly the world has heard a number of those now…
TJ: Yes, thanks to Bruce [Kimmel, who recorded a handful of the songs in the Lost in Boston series]!
DL: How long did it take you to actually come up with the score you opened with out of town?
TJ: I don’t know why we wrote so many songs; nervousness, I think. A lot of it was Harvey, as a commercial artist, had this method which had served him enormously well, and he was so successful at it, I never thought to question it: when he had a painting to do, he would do five and let the person pick. That was to show how talented he was, and to avoid making the decision himself. We got into the habit of writing four or five different songs for each spot to show to Richard Nash, and to use them as a basis for discussion of which one he liked, which one we liked, should we combine the two, did none of them work… which was fine, because there were so many.
DL: It sounds like an awful lot of work.
TJ: It was.
DL: Do you still do that?
TJ: Oh God no! I think it’s insane! At the same time, the result was good. The only sad thing is that there are a lot of good songs that died, never to be heard again, except thanks to Bruce [on the Lost in Boston albums], but never given a life in the show. However many we wrote before we went out of town, I don’t know, quite a few. A lot. When we were out of town, we wrote two or three new songs even after all that. “A Man and A Woman” we wrote in one day in Boston, and Hershey Kay orchestrated it in one night. The next day it went in the show with the Assistant Stage Manager holding up cue cards in the orchestra pit, so Inga Swenson and Steve Douglas coming downstage center to read the lyrics of the song as they sang it. It stopped the show, partly because it was a good song, but partly because I think people are always grateful when people just come downstage center and stop and sing – wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, you know?
DL: That’s another show that you revised for a revival, at the New York City Opera a few years ago.
TJ: We did another song, I personally thought we already had an awful lot of good songs for that spot, but we had some notes for a song that hadn’t been completed at that time. Scott Ellis who directed it (and very well), seized upon that. I think one of the reasons he did the show was to investigate some of these songs.
DL: What was David Merrick like on that show?
TJ: David Merrick was down on the show. He got involved with Robert Horton, just because he wanted to spite Richard Rodgers, who had cast Robert Horton in a show. Then he got very angry at Inga, and he was so frustrated that she got all these incredible notices, so he couldn’t fire her. Inga was so brave. David was hard of hearing, and he was the first person to put mics on stage with Carnival. It got very extensive later on with Hello, Dolly! As his hearing got worse, the sound got louder and louder. Inga refused to wear a microphone. She was just livid. She said to him, “Mr. Merrick, if they can’t hear me, fire me. I want to control my own performance.” What a great thing to say. It was so classy, and she was so classy. He never forgave her. People just didn’t stand up to him like that. The show was not as big a hit because the New York Times pissed on it, really. A crazy guy reviewed it at the time – absolutely insane! If you want to go read an insane review, look it up. The reviewer talked about how salacious the show is, how suggestive! He was implying that “Little Red Hat” was talking about her virginity! Really! That critic only lasted one year as a critic, although he still works for the Times. For David, the end of that same year Hello, Dolly! came in, so he couldn’t care less about us. This was what he had been waiting for all of his life.
DL: I imagine you had a good enough relationship with him, since you reteamed for I Do! I Do!
TJ: Well, we didn’t have a very good relationship with him. Gower Champion had come to us. Early on, Gower was one of the early supporters of The Fantasticks. He had asked me if I would be interested in working on Carnival, but it would have meant working without Harvey, which I didn’t want to do. So after Hello, Dolly! Gower came to us and said, “I want to do a show with you guys. Let’s find something.” And he said, “I will tell you, I’m a benevolent dictator. I have the final say about everything. If you can’t live with that, don’t do it, but if you can, I’ll do my best to be fair.” We admired his work, so we agreed. We started working with him on a show he had optioned called A Street Where The Heart Is. That didn’t work out, but while we were working on that, we were in Italy where Harvey had taken a house, when Gower called and said, “What about a musical version of The Fourposter?” That’s how we got on that, and he just said, “I’ll handle David Merrick.”
DL: At the time of I Do! I Do!, the concept of a two-character musical must have been pretty daring. Was there ever any pressure to add other characters or a chorus?
TJ: Not with us. Occasionally, we would get that. It was certainly easier when we got stars the magnitude of Mary and Bob. The real problem, unforeseen by us, was that having just two people… Mary was a notoriously slow study, even at that time, and it’s such a killing show to do. You’re on stage the entire time, and when you’re not on stage, you’re also on stage, because you’ve got three people dressing you, putting on wigs, whatever! So even as we were getting pressure to do rewrites, and we were rewriting, the new material wasn’t going in! You can’t bring in the chorus and do a number when there is no chorus. And you can’t fire the ingénue. Usually, when a musical’s in trouble, you fire the ingénue, at least for openers. Looking around, looking at the pecking order… if you’re having some bumpy times, which we had, you’ve got your David Merrick, your Gower Champion, your Mary Martin, and your Robert Preston, and then your Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Who do you think would be walking the plank? We’d be out of town in Washington, getting in an elevator and there’d be Jerry Herman or Comden and Green…
DL: When did Mary Martin and Robert Preston enter the project? Was the piece always being written for them?
TJ: That was the concept right at the beginning. We had written about five or six songs and played it for Mary, who had flown us over from Italy, but she decided to do Walking Happy instead. And then she began to have second thoughts about that decision. Meanwhile, Harvey and I continued to work on the book and the score under Gower’s general guidance, but pretty much on our own back in Italy. We did a lot more work on it, and by this point, Mary was doing Hello, Dolly! on tour for and with Gower, in preparation for taking it to Viet Nam. So we flew out to Cleveland and played her the full score, considerably revised from the first five songs she had heard before. She was very enthusiastic at that point, but she wanted a full year both to finish what she was doing, and to study the score and the script, with the stipulation that the composer (not the lyricist) be free to fly down to Brazil to her ranch she had down in the jungle to work with her on the songs. Then it was a question of trying to ensnare Robert Preston. He had just done The Lion in Winter with Rosemary Harris on Broadway the previous year, and she got all the notices. He was very leery about doing something with a strong woman performer at this point. He kept saying that he thought maybe Broadway was tired of him. So he turned it down, said he was going to “stay off the street” for a year. We continued to search for other people who we thought would be right as well as being acceptable to Mary. This was the ideal match, though, these two. When you’re doing a two person show, you need that.
The most interesting story to me, to get him, is that Mary went down to her ranch in central Brazil, it’s really something to get to. They had no telephones and no electricity, although it was a big operation down there. David Merrick and Gower decided on someone who they thought might be a possible lead, but they had no way to reach Mary, and she had approval. So Lucia Victor, who was Gower’s right-hand woman, flew to Rio, and then flew to Brasilia, and then took a jeep ride to Anapolis, Brazil, and then, I think the last part was even by horseback or something, into the savannah where there were jungle animals. She finally reached the ranch and said, “Hello, Mary,” and suggested the name of the person; Mary said, “No, absolutely not,” so Lucia Victor got back on the horse and the jeep and the plane and the plane… Whenever we would play for Bob Preston, if we’d play something like “Flaming Agnes,” he’d say, “Well, I can just hear what Mary’s going to do with that number.” He was reluctant. Finally, David Merrick, who never gave up, cornered him at a cocktail party, and for whatever reasons, Robert Preston said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Ironically, he was the one who got the Tony Award for it, she didn’t. He said, “Okay, I’ll do it. I don’t need lawyers, I don’t need agents. I just want what she gets.” And he knew he’d be well taken care of.
DL: Much like 110 in the Shade, I Do! I Do! also had a number of songs that didn’t make it into the show. Was that a show that changed on the road, or was it more a matter of adjusting the score while you were shuffling around the casting ideas?
TJ: It didn’t change because of the casting. Any show changes. We kept trying out title songs for a long period of time. There’s a long section of our revue The Show Goes On about the rewrites of songs for that, about the title songs and so forth. So we did do writing out-of-town on that show, but it was regular, except for the fact that you couldn’t put a new number in very quickly. They were working very, very hard, and Mary particularly was a slow study anyway. They didn’t have the rehearsal time, they didn’t have the energy. We were writing new stuff, but it wasn’t getting in, and David Merrick was getting more and more frustrated. To compensate for that, although we were scheduled to play in Boston and Washington, D.C., Gower added two more weeks in Cincinnati, which was great. We did a lot of good work in the end of Washington and in those two weeks in Cincinnati. We had gotten enough ahead of the game that we were able to catch up, get some new stuff in, do our final rewrites. It caused a lot of Sturm and Drang because we had the opening night set, they had the theatre party ladies, so forth and so on. David Merrick just said “screw it” and cancelled it and opened two weeks later.
DL: It’s interesting, because were that to happen today, everyone would be talking about the death of the show, it must not be good… was that not the case then?
TJ: I think there was as much bitchy stuff then as now. I don’t really know, and I was out there on the front lines and didn’t know that much what was happening. But there wasn’t as much fanaticism about shows then as there is now. For one thing, there were a lot more shows, so the gossip got spread around, and almost all of them went out of town, and without exception had troubles. Fiddler on the Roof had troubles out of town, Hello, Dolly! had troubles out of town. So people didn’t take it that seriously. In fact, I think a show was much more in danger if it got really good reviews out of town. It set up the New York critics to tear them down.
DL: After I Do! I Do! you created your Portfolio Studio, where you and Harvey retreated to create experimental musical theatre. What inspired that?
TJ: Well, megalomania, probably, as much as anything else. God knows we wanted to be big successes and make a lot of money, but we also wanted to have something, to put it in a very positive light, something personal, like an auteur, or to say it slightly more skeptically, something where we had all the power. We had it in our minds that we could produce these shows in a workshop situation – and you have to understand, this was before anyone did workshops – and we would write them, design them, direct them, and produce them in early stages. And as if that weren’t enough, we decided that we would do originals, which are notoriously difficult, and for which I don’t have any particular gifts to speak of. I’ve managed to do it a few times, but like they say, if you put monkeys at a typewriter for a number of hours, eventually they will write War and Peace by the process of elimination. That’s sort of the way I am with originals. I need to make every mistake that’s conceivable to make. And then, not only did we want to do originals, but we wanted to do them in new forms that hadn’t been tried before. We set ourselves up for a very crude and rude awakening.
DL: During that time, were you approached to do traditional Broadway shows? Did you turn projects down?
TJ: Oh yes. We were, and we did.
DL: Celebration was one of the first projects you did at Portfolio, and that went on to have something of a commercial life afterwards.
TJ: It was our plan, we had hoped that this thing was going to be so innovative and so brilliant… what we hoped for, was what happened a year after we did our thing with A Chorus Line. That’s exactly what we had in mind, but we didn’t have enough Broadway skills at hand. We were good at certain things, but razzle dazzle, in that Broadway way, we needed someone else to kind of help out with that department. And a few years after we did Celebration, Bob Fosse did Pippin, which has a lot of things similar to Celebration in it, but he gave it a patina of tits and ass and a jazz thing that took it to the next stage and made it acceptable for a Broadway audience.
DL: The York Theatre did a concert version of Celebration this year. What was it like to see that show performed again?
TJ: It was terrific! I’ve seen it performed a few times, and it’s always been a very glum experience for me, because I’m so aware of the problems. I did some rewriting of the book, which has always been the major problem. Our director, Drew Scott Harris, did a wonderful job of staging it, with very little time – one week to put the whole thing up. And we had a terrific musical director, and they did it with three instruments: two pianos and a great percussionist, with eleven percussion things, xylophones and tympanis and such things. And without all the masks, it seemed less pretentious and easier to follow, and more exciting. It was probably the most successful feeling of that show I’ve ever seen. Except maybe in Norway. It all sounded brilliant in Norwegian. Lyrics do have a tendency to sound deeper and more brilliant in Scandinavian languages than perhaps they really are.
DL: What were the other shows to come out of the Portfolio years to have legs?
TJ: Philemon. And we did that Portfolio Revue which got wonderful notices. Philemon got the best notices of anything we ever wrote, really.
DL: How did the television version of Philemon come about?
TJ: Well, Hollywood Television Theatre called us and said, “Can we do it and use your same actors?” They did a weekly play. Norman Lloyd was the producer. Very rarely, if it was small, they might do a musical, but very, very rarely.
DL: When you eventually decided to stop working at Portfolio, why did you decide to close it down?
TJ: It was expensive, first of all. It didn’t seem to me that we were necessarily being more productive than we were before this. We had sort of done it, in a way, you know? We did other works there as well, most notably a piece called The Bone Room. We did lots of experimental scenes and songs and improvs, all that stuff that was hot at the time.
DL: So after Portfolio, you began the long journey that led to Colette Collage. How did that project get started?
TJ: First there was the production of a play, Colette, for which we just had a few songs. Harvey played the piano to the scenes, and we wrote three songs for Zoe Caldwell. It was a very successful production. When this came up, they said, “Oh, can you do a few songs?” and we actually wrote eight or nine. They seemed quite good, so we thought we should take this to the next step and see if we can make a musical about Colette, which took a long time. A long, long, long time to do. We were trying to do very difficult things. We were interested in the scope of her life, and all the different things she did. That made it very hard to compress into dramatic form. To go from age 17 to 81, it took a long time to figure out how to find a form for it. First, we did a big, Broadway musical version which Diana Rigg did on the road. Half of it worked, but the other half of it didn’t. Zoe had been wonderful in both halves, just unbelievable, dynamite, you know? Diana Rigg was absolutely wonderful in the second half, with the older, somewhat tougher, sexy, charming, somewhat cynical Colette. What was not good was the first half, the young, vulnerable Colette. Being vulnerable was just not her thing. That show closed out of town.
Then we did another version of that, an off-Broadway version called Colette Collage, which was beginning to find its form, really. It took so long to find the right thing. That actually got good notices, but I knew it wasn’t quite right, so we did another – these were really off-off-Broadway, kind of like workshops. We did one more of those, and there it really found its form. Except again we had the same problem of finding an actress who could actually do both halves of Colette’s life as we split it. So in the recording, which Bruce did, for the first time we did what we should have done at the very beginning: we put two actresses, one for the younger Colette and one for the older Colette.
DL: So do you feel that you’ve now said all that there is to say about Colette? Is this recorded version the final version?
TJ: I think absolutely. If anybody will… I don’t know how many theatre groups actually know this piece. I’d like to think some musical theatre aficionados would check it out. There are not many productions. And I’m prejudiced, but I’m also critical, and I think it’s a terrific score, I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful recording. I think the orchestrations are good, the cast is terrific, and it gives a very interesting feeling about the show.
DL: Grover’s Corners has become legendary because of your inability to do anything with it now. It seems like an obvious property for a musical, how did you and Harvey get involved in it?
TJ: For years people had tried to get the rights, and Thorton Wilder never wanted it to be a musical. There was a television version with a few songs by Sammy Cahn, and Thorton Wilder felt that was not in the spirit of the play he had written, with Frank Sinatra as your hometown stage manager. Once Wilder died, and the estate was under the control of his sister Isabel, with whom he lived and was very close, she again turned down offers, from I think Rodgers and Hammerstein and others. Somehow Peter Neufeld and Tyler Gatchell were able to get the rights for a musical version for Broadway, and they came to us. We said yes, we’d like to work on it. We did a workshop, and they were counting on the Shuberts, with whom they worked often, to put up the money. But there were disagreements among the Shuberts, and while I don’t know all the infighting that was going on, the bottom line was that when the workshop was over, they said no. It sort of floundered around, looking for another direction, which it never found. Then the rights were dropped. Then a newly formed organization, The Alliance of Musical Theatre Producers, which is all the musical theatre houses around the country, was looking for new properties for which they wouldn’t be totally beholden to New York producers to put things in their houses. They set us up to do it for three months at the Marriott Lincolnshire in Chicago. We had the chance to do some good rewriting. I played the stage manager and Harvey played the piano – almost like a backers’ audition that comes to life. These producers, of course, wanted to fill their big 2,000-3,000 seat houses, and that meant finding a big star. We couldn’t find the big man star they wanted, because the kind of name they were looking for… well, our A-list was all dead, and our B-list had all made enough money playing golf and did not want to go tour around the country. Then the idea came up of having Mary Martin do it. She heard it and loved it, and she agreed to do it. We ran an ad in Variety and booked fifty-two weeks just like that. Our Town, Thorton Wilder, Mary Martin and our names was a good combination for what they wanted. Right after they booked the tour, Mary found out she had cancer and had to drop out. By this point, it lingered for a while, but it developed a negative momentum. No matter what people heard, when they heard the music they might even be moved, but they thought there must be something wrong with it since it’s been around and it hasn’t been done. At that point, the rights expired and the estate said, “Enough already, he never really wanted it to be a musical in the first place.” I think if Thorton Wilder were alive, he’d be supportive of this piece. It very much honors him… and I’m not saying the estate doesn’t think it honors him, they’ve been very fair and reasonable through this whole thing, but they’ve just been worn down by it.
DL: So without the rights to perform the show, does that mean we’ll never even get to hear these songs on a record?
TJ: That’s right, unless someone persuades the estate. The door could always be opened a little bit, but you never know. I think the time will come when it all will just open itself, reveal itself like the Mississippi River on an early morning in the summer.
DL: Well, at some point their rights expire. I don’t know how long Thorton Wilder has been dead…
TJ: They would have expired in about a year or so, but then Congress added thirty years onto all the old copyrights.
DL: Mirette is another example where you have a complete show that people haven’t seen. Why is that?
TJ: It’s based on a very lovely children’s book, and it came with a bookwriter involved, somebody who actually lives with the person who wrote the children’s book. Somebody who’s a playwright, but who has never written a musical. We worked on it at Sundance Playwright’s Lab, and then we did it at Goodspeed-at-Chester, where it went very, very well by general consensus. There were no critics, although Alvin Klein of the New York Times saw it and told me he thought it was terrific. It went so well that they went ahead and booked it for the next year, for the main stage. But there were disagreements as to the direction of the show between some of the creative elements. So the director, Drew Scott Harris, who had done such a good job with The Show Goes On, was dumped in favor of a so-called cutting edge director, who turned the children’s tale into a dark, foreboding, so-called cutting edge something… with an interpolated opening scene of a juggler, half-naked, is juggling bloody body parts. It was like a Comden and Green sketch of a nightmare. It got slammed by the critics, including the guy who loved it the year before at Chester. It got blasted, with people saying “What could they have been thinking of?” There was a loophole on our part and our attorney’s part about a film which wouldn’t be based on our musical version. That has been under option for a while, but it’s presumably about to expire, in which case the whole thing opens up again, and hopefully there will be some productions. It’s a beautiful, beautiful children’s book, and what we did in the first place has really got some nice stuff.
DL: Now you’ve got Roadside running in Texas, which is really interesting because you wrote it a long time ago.
TJ: Well, we wrote a few songs for it in the 1950s. We didn’t have the rights, so we didn’t really work on it that much. I had done it [the Lynn Riggs play on which their musical is based] for my college masters thesis directing project. So there were five or six songs. After The Fantasticks, we just sort of put it aside and pretty much forgot about it until somebody who works for us came across a tape of these songs a couple of years ago. He said, “These are great fun, where’s the rest of this?” We showed him what we had, and he said, “Well, you guys ought to do this and finish it off.” So we acquired the rights and set about solving some structural problems in the script and in the original material that had never been really dealt with. We finished the score, which at the moment has 18 songs. We did a reading last spring at the York Theatre, a one-time-only reading, and then we did a production at a college in Texas in November, and now it’s in this theatre in a suburb of Dallas. It’s going to go from there to a little opera house in Dallas. There’s been a very positive response from the audience and the critics, so there’s a thought about trying to move to the next step.
DL: Why didn’t you get the rights back in the 1950s?
TJ: When we first were working on the show, we were still unknowns so we couldn’t get the rights. Then after The Fantasticks, Dick Nash came to us with 110 in the Shade, a western musical which is based on an absolutely great book, where everything dovetails and connects and reveals itself just wonderfully. Roadside has some marvelous hanging characters and wonderful language, but it also has a book full of things unclear on what it was even about – real structural problems.
DL: Now that you have the possibility of a new show perhaps going to New York… What do you think of the state of musical theatre today?
TJ: I’m really not a good person to offer many deep and profound pronouncements about it. It’s obviously been going through a change in the past year or two. There are fewer of those British, sung-through things with emphasis on lots of scenery. That’s interesting. I think perhaps there’s a diminution of Sondheim clones, because he’s so brilliant and he’s always taking changes in the avant garde that the young people have always been inevitably attracted to him, even as he’s getting older, he’s still up at the forefront. Unfortunately, they are not him, they are themselves. There’s a wonderful line in Flora, The Red Menace, which is almost my favorite Kander and Ebb show, “I am not Myrna Loy. Myrna Loy is Myrna Loy.” They are not Stephen Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim is Stephen Sondheim. What it lead to for a while was overly-complex, nervous, uncentered things. They tended to pull away from the entertainment aspect of musicals, which Sondheim very rarely ever did. With a few possible exceptions like Passion and so forth, he’s got The Number. He gives you the number for Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd. He not only gives you the big ballads, he gives you the sock-o show-stopping numbers.
I’m wandering a little bit, but what I do think is this. It’s great in many ways to have more complexity than used to be the case, but the danger is that in the course of doing that, I hope and pray that we don’t lose the old American popular song form. AABA, you know? The compression in that that made it possible to contain enormous humor and emotion and make it graspable and immediate is a wonderful things. It’s for our theatre what iambic pentameter was for Shakespeare in a way. It’s a great tool, and I think it’s possible to keep that and add to it in various ways, without giving it up.
If people find themselves moving more towards opera and away from the popular form that’s always been the essence of the American musical, they’ve shot themselves in the foot. Or worse.
I’ve never thought of myself particularly, except in very recent years, as a writer per se. I think of myself as a “theatre person.” I’ve acted and directed and whatever. In the same way, I’ve never thought of myself as just a musical theatre person, although that’s what I like the most. But the influences, the places I like to look for inspiration for that, Shakespeare for example, in the stagings of Giorgio Staler, sometimes Peter Brook… Whatever I know, which isn’t much… I did write a book two or three years ago, which is still in print, called Making Musicals. These same old things I’ve been saying to you as if they were spontaneously are mostly probably in that book, along with a few other things, my view about where things may be going, this and that and whatever.
DL: I can’t let you go without asking about The Fantasticks movie, since it’s finally out on video after all these years. I know that you were involved, writing the screenplay. Now that the ordeal is over, looking back over the whole process, what are your ultimate thoughts?
TJ: I have very mixed feelings on it. Part of it I like a lot, and a lot of it I don’t like. The part I like a lot is when it really seems to have taken The Fantasticks and moved the same kind of things into movie terms. The Fantasticks is, by its very nature, celebrating the limitations of the stage. That’s part of what it does. But I figure, oh, what the hell, it’s been sufficiently established for forty-one years, with twelve-thousand productions, so people know what it is. I think they do, I hope they do. So we wanted to open it to the possibility of seeing it another way. Our original hope, which nobody would buy, was to make a film sort of like Ingmar Bergman’s version of The Magic Flute, which would begin on a small stage and then move into a world which you wouldn’t know if it was real or not real. I am very drawn to the visual of this film, I think it’s very beautiful, and being from the west, this little carnival out there in the middle of nowhere (and it really was in the middle of nowhere, too – my God, there wasn’t a telephone pole for forty miles!). A lot of the scenes take place on roads, and that becomes a film metaphor for a lot of things The Fantasticks is about.
DL: One hundred years from now, when people look back on the career of Tom Jones, what would you like them to get out of it?
TJ: Well, I don’t know. I don’t feel I’ve done what I’m supposed to do yet. I still dream of one or maybe even two things that do what I specifically can do, that haven’t been done. I tried to make my own little motto, like Shakespeare – in this way at least, they said he had little Latin and less Greek, and that’s me in a nutshell – but I tried to make a motto for myself: de minimus multimus, out of little, much. I think that’s a vision of what I believe and what we’ve tried to do. I believe there’s a great potential coming from restriction, from compression. I believe it’s related to the origins of theatre art and the origins of people. I think there are tales to be told in that form that we’ve just hinted at, that I hope somebody will tell in real sound, in limited resources but great imagination, that will clarify for everybody and unite them.
DL: Is there anything else you want to say to the world before we wrap up?
TJ: Keep those cards and letters coming in. Go buy them records.