Spotlight on Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt

by Nancy Rosati        

Jones and Schmidt
Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
Tom Jones wrote the book and lyrics, and Harvey Schmidt wrote the music for The Fantasticks, which closes January 13, 2002, almost 42 years after its opening on May 3, 1960. It is the longest running production in the history of the American theatre.

Jones and Schmidt also wrote two successful Broadway shows, 110 in the Shade and I Do! I Do!, and several small-scale musicals at Portfolio, their theatre workshop. The most notable of these efforts were Celebration, which moved to Broadway, and Philemon, which won an Outer Critics Circle Award. In 1998, Jones and Schmidt starred in a musical revue of their own work called The Show Goes On at The York Theatre. They received an OBIE Award and the 1992 Special Tony Award for The Fantasticks. They were inducted into the Broadway Hall of Fame at the Gershwin Theatre, and their “stars” were added to the Off Broadway Walk of Fame outside the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Roadside Continuing their association with The York Theatre Company, their latest show, Roadside, will open on November 29, 2001. Roadside is a new musical based on the play by Lynn Riggs, whose Green Grow the Lilacs was the source material for Oklahoma!. I met with Tom and Harvey before a recent preview performance.

Nancy Rosati:  I know you met in college but I want to hear a little bit about your background before that. What did you want to be when you grew up?

Harvey Schmidt:  We both wanted to be out of the state of Texas, (laughs) although now I’ve moved back to Texas. I always wanted to live in New York. These little towns in Texas didn’t have anything back then. There’s more now with television but I grew up in the Depression years in the 1930s and all we had were movies, which were glorious when you got to see them. Then there was radio - two very separate things. That was it - our only touch with the outside world.

I wanted so much to learn more about music. I loved the music I heard on the radio. I lived for the symphony broadcasts on the weekend. Some of the entertainment shows at that time had wonderful music and so did the movies. I’ve always played and composed by ear but I never planned to have a career with music because I couldn’t read or write it. Instead I concentrated on art. I sat alone very happily, drawing while listening to Tuscanini conducting on the radio. When I went to college at the University of Texas, it was like going to paradise because there were hundreds of people who did what I did.

NR:  Did you go to school for music?

HS:  No, I went there for art, but then fate, or “Dame Fortune” stepped in and I met Tom. Tom was a drama major a couple of years ahead of me. I was an art major but they needed a pianist for something called “The Curtain Club” so I started accompanying the drama students. LPs were just coming out for the first major Broadway shows like Kiss Me Kate. I learned all this music then and I got so interested in it just trying to accompany these drama students. Because of that, we did a show together. It was a revue of the first 50 years of American music. The director of this revue, a mutual friend of ours who later directed The Fantasticks in New York, Word Baker, asked if I would be Musical Director. I was thrilled. I didn’t know how to be Musical Director but my schooling had been through MGM musicals, so I knew what they should sound like and when you have to do key changes, and when you have the chorus come in real big. I just played Musical Director and it was a smashing success. Tom did all the comedy acts and materials but our channels were separate. We didn’t really work together. A year later we wrote our first musical together. Tom invited me and he was so bright it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

NR:  Tom, how did you get to the University of Texas?

Tom Jones:  I was from a small town in west Texas too and apropos of this show [Roadside], we never had any live theater, except, every summer there was a wonderful tent show that would come up and tour these little Texas towns. They’d put up a tent on a vacant lot and they would play for a full week. They would sell popcorn and cracker jacks with a prize in each and every package, and they would have a drawing at intermission with kewpie dolls for prizes. They would do live shows with some music on the side. It was a mixture of rural drama, comedies, and vaudeville, so between the scenes the actors would play in the band or do something else. All of that is in Roadside, a sort of homage or tribute to those days and those influences.

I don’t know how I knew that I was going to be in the theater, but I knew I wanted to be somebody other than who I was. By the time I was 12 years old, I could get attention by pretending to be somebody else. I performed for anybody. I was an usher at the local movie theater. On Wednesday nights they would have a talent show for local people. I was in high school and after ushering, I would run back and put on my bow tie. I was the MC introducing these acts and then I would do a routine that I stole from the radio. I would do my “Zero Mostel routine” and the audience looked at me as if I were from outer space. It was a very small western Texas town and I wore a sailor straw hat and carried a cane to school. I smoked a pipe and I signed all of my papers, including the column I wrote for the high school newspaper, “T. Collins Jones, Esq.” It’s a wonder they didn’t stop me. They just figured “that’s old crazy Tommy.”

HS:  I would have gotten beaten to a pulp at any of my high schools if I did that.

NR:  How have you stayed behind the scenes in all these shows for all these years? Did you want to be on stage?

TJ:  When you’re little, you don’t know there’s anything but acting. You don’t know there’s writing or directing. When I prepared myself to be in the theater, which I’d never really seen, I went to the University of Texas and there were all these crazy people there. It was glorious. I got very nervous when I performed. After many years of analysis in New York I finally got over that, but I would belch. I became famous as a “belching actor.” I did Doolittle in Pygmalion belching and Kit Carson in The Time of Your Life belching. It occurred to me at some point that maybe I wasn’t doing the audience or my stomach any particular favors. I also realized that the power seemed to be with the director. If you’re the director you get to tell people, “No, let’s do that again” and that was very attractive to me.

NR:  You discovered that fact in college, and that’s when the two of you met?

TJ:  Yes. Neither of us wanted to be writers, even in college. I was a director and he was an art student. We got the chance to do a college musical. I got the chance to direct it. It paid money. The scripts and the scores I got were just terrible and I thought, “I can do better than this. I’ll just get this talented guy (indicating Harvey) on the phone” and indeed we wrote this college revue. It was a traditional title that they did every year called Time Staggers On.

HS:  It was a play on the newsreel Time Marches On.

TJ:  Even though we didn’t want to be writers, our show was such an incredible success that it was just astonishing to us. In all of my years there, I’d never seen anything like this. We were in a 1200 seat house and they sold it out. They sold out the aisles. They sold out the windows. They opened the windows so people could gather outside.

110 in the Shade
110 in the Shade star Inga Swenson outside the theatre of Jones & Schmidt's first Broadway show in 1963

HS:  We’ve never had a bigger hit.

TJ:  That’s right. Our college friends think we’ve been going downhill ever since. Then we went in the Army and we were going on about our own careers. But something about all that just haunted us - the success and the fun of doing it. So we started writing songs by mail.

HS:  Tom would send me lyrics in the Army. He was stationed in the “mysterious East.”

TJ:  Not the Far East - it was the “mysterious Baltimore, Maryland.”

HS:  I hadn’t been to Baltimore so it was mysterious to me. Also, he was in ...

TJ:  ... the Counter Intelligence Corps. I was countering intelligence wherever it reared its ugly head in the Army ... which wasn’t too often.

HS:  He had strange addresses that weren’t real army addresses. If I asked him a question he said he couldn’t answer that. We couldn’t talk on the phone. He started sending me lyrics.

TJ:  (teasing) What you didn’t know was that they were coded messages to North Korea.

HS:  I lucked out after basic training. I’m a very weak person. I went into the Lieutenant’s office, practically in tears. (I wasn’t crying, because you can’t cry in the Army.) I said, “You have made a terrible mistake. I can’t march these troops around,” and he could tell I was serious, so they made up a perfect job for me. I was in charge of training aids at an army movie theater. I had offices in what had once been dressing rooms, which I constantly decorated with army surplus. Everything in the Army you have to steal or beg or borrow. Every morning a Jeep driver took me to the main post at Fort Bliss ... I went sailing by with my own driver to pick up two films for the day. The rest of the day I would draw and paint. Mostly I would do officers’ helmets. They would get promotions and I would have to paint their new insignia on their helmets.

Tom would send me these lyrics and there was a stage there. I’d get out on the stage and I’d sing and dance working on these songs, alone in this theater. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

NR:  Does Tom still write the lyrics first?

HS & TJ:  (simultaneously) We work both ways.

HS:  You get a richer score that way.

TJ:  And very often we sort of “cross pollinate.” In other words, I’ll have a title and part of a song. I’ll give it to Harvey and he will fill it out with the music. Then it will come back to me for lyrics and it will go back and forth.

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