The world has lost Tom Jones, the lyricist/librettist, not the Welsh pop singer. He was 95 years old and taken by cancer.
Jones and his artistic partner Harvey Schmidt are best known for the modest musical, The Fantasticks, which when it opened Off-Broadway in 1960, received mixed reviews (although there were some raves), yet audiences embraced the show and it ran at Sullivan Street Theatre for more than 17,000 performances, finally closing in 2002 as the longest-running musical in Theatre History. Jones played the role of the Old Actor, starting when the show opened in 1960, returning again in 2010. He was credited in the program as “Thomas Bruce”.
The Fantasticks is the most notable, but Jones and Schmidt collaborated on other shows. I especially like their musical version of The Rainmaker, 110 In The Shade, which opened on Broadway in 1963 and ran for 330 performances. Their charming two-character musical about marriage, I Do! I Do! (1966), starring Robert Preston and Mary Martin, ran for a year and a half on Broadway. Their experimental musical, Celebration (1969), was the opposite of The Fantasticks, receiving strong reviews, but with an ever-dwindling audience it closed after 109 performances and lost money. Colette (1970), about the life of the French bisexual writer, closed out of town, and Philemon (1973) was a modest success Off-Broadway.
Schmidt and Jones wrote a musical based on Thornton Wilder‘s Our Town, titled Grover’s Corner, which took the two creatives 13 years to write, only to have the rights rescinded by Wilder’s estate shortly before rehearsals were to begin.
The Fantasticks produced a big hit song, Try To Remember; Ed Ames, Roger Williams, Andy Williams, and The Brothers Four all made the Billboard Hot 100 with their versions. It became a staple for sing-a-longs for Christian youth groups. In 1975, Gladys Knight & the Pips had a Top Ten Hit with their version. Ames’s cover of My Cup Runneth Over, from I Do! I Do! also made the Top Ten.
Young Barbra Streisand was dying to play the ingenue and she auditioned several times without being cast. For revenge, she recorded a lot of the score.
The Fantasticks cast alumni include Jerry Orbach (the original lead), Liza Minnelli, Elliott Gould, F. Murray Abraham, Glenn Close, Lorenzo Lamas, Kristin Chenoweth, Bert Convy, David Canary, Santino Fontana, Stephen Rutledge, and Aaron Carter.
The Fantasticks remains one of the most produced musicals of all time, with more than 3,000 productions around the world each year, mostly community theatres and colleges in 54 countries. It has been translated into many languages including French, German, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Czech, Slovak, Persian, Dari, Pashto, Irish, Italian, Hungarian, Thai, and Mandarin.
A very peculiar film version of The Fantasticks directed by Michael Ritchie was completed in 1995 but not released until 2000. It was a critical and box-office dud. A really good version was shown on television in 1964, with a cast that included John Davidson, Stanley Holloway, Bert Lahr, Ricardo Montalbán, and Susan Watson, who had appeared in the original Barnard College workshop production.
Despite a bright and inventive score, I find The Fantasticks to be a bit twee. This is rather unfair to the show because it has been very good to me. It is the show that I have been in the most productions, five so far in my life (let’s hope I am done, but you never know). I have played all the roles except for El Gallo, the romantic baritone lead, and the male and female ingénues. I am baffled how those roles eluded me.
The first time I appeared in it was in one of the thousands of yearly high school productions of the musical. In 1969, a Spokane Catholic girls’ school chose to do a production (an unusual choice, there is only one female role). The nuns changed the two fathers to two mothers and then cast females in all the roles except the male lead and the role of Mortimer-The Old Indian, which I was extended a special invitation to play. At 15 years old, I already had a reputation for being able to convincingly play older, in this case, much older parts.
The Fantasticks, in our own era, is highly cancelable. There is the whole “Indian” thing, and in Jone’s libretto, the mysterious male lead El Gallo offers to stage the phony kidnapping of the girl, Luisa. He refers to the proposed event as a “rape”, although he makes it clear that he uses the word only in its traditional literary sense (Latin “rapere”) of “abduction”, explaining that many classical works, including Alexander Pope‘s The Rape Of The Lock, use the word in this sense. In his song, It Depends On What You Pay, El Gallo describes different kidnapping scenarios, comic and outlandish, that he classifies as the “Venetian rape”, the “Gothic rape”, the “Drunken rape”, etc.
The Good Sisters of the Holy Names were not keen on the use of word “rape”, and no one should be, and they deemed to change the word to “snatch”, which the nuns found a perfect single syllable replacement for the offending word. The cast had the thrill of singing: “So the kind of snatch depends on what you pay“. I loved singing the new lyric; for me, it was a little bit of theatrical heaven. The play’s abduction is set to music and named in the program’s list of musical numbers as The Rape Ballet, which for this special production became, of course: “The Snatch Ballet”.
In 1990, Jones wrote an replacement song called “Abductions“, which uses the music of the Rape Ballet, along with an edited version of It Depends On What You Pay, they are both now offered as alternatives by Music Theater International, which licenses the show.
Schmidt, who was openly gay, made his final exit in 2018, at 88 years old.