Spotlight on Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt

by Nancy Rosati        

Jones and Schmidt

NR:  How did you get from the Korean War to New York?

TJ:  I’m older than Harvey. I know it doesn’t look it, but I am. I went into the Army first and I got out of it first. Harvey always had “city intentions.” I didn’t. As a little kid, Harvey had these visions of New York City with glass streets like in an MGM musical.

HS:  Because all the musical numbers were about Manhattan and they were always dancing on black glass floors with skyscrapers in the background, so I thought that was what New York was.

TJ:  I didn’t have those kind of romantic visions of New York but I didn’t know where else I could go with this peculiar thing that I did, which was that I knew something about the stage. I didn’t know anything about movies. There wasn’t any television. I was on television many times before I ever saw television.

HS:  Me too. We both did some shows but I had never seen it.

NR:  You were both on television that early?

HS:  They didn’t have it in Austin. We had to drive to San Antonio. A professor would drive us down on Sunday and we did revues in a tiny room.

TJ:  And the screens were very small.

HS:  I thought, “I will never get a television set because this is so sleazy compared to movies.” No one had a set.

TJ:  Anyway, I knew of no place else to go or nothing else to do. My friend, Harry Rigby, who produced many things like Irene and Sugar Babies, used to say “Producing is the last refuge of the hopelessly inept.” That was sort of my situation. I wasn’t producing but I wasn’t equipped to do anything else except wear a sailor straw hat and carry a cane and do imitations of Zero Mostel.

I came to New York with the intentions of being a director but it became evident right away that you could tell people what a wonderful director you were, but they weren’t convinced. You had to have something to show. On the other hand, if you could write something down, like nightclub things or comedy material ... I had a friend, Tom Poston. He’s been on sitcoms for 50 years now. He wanted to do comedy so I wrote and directed a comedy sketch which got wonderful reviews. Then we were hired at Le Ruban Bleu Supper Club. We were the darlings of New York for two weeks. We opened at Le Ruban Bleu and all of the things that we’d done at the showcase theater at the Mark Hellinger, which had been so deliriously well received, didn’t do as well this time. It was really “anarchy comedy.” We were ahead of our time ... or behind it. It was a disaster, so I realized I had to regroup.

Harvey was due to get out of the Army. My father was a turkey hatcheryman. (David Merrick always thought that was very funny that my father hatched turkeys, given the connotation in the theater.) I went back and got a job candling turkey eggs, which means you wipe the crap off of them with a little piece of steel wool, while listening to the radio all day long. It was one of the more restful jobs I’ve ever had in my life.

HS:  I would have loved it. I love anything where you can work and play the radio and get paid for it.

TJ:  I saved whatever meager money I got from that and waited for Harvey to get out. Our friend, Word Baker, had a wife and two kids and another one on the way. He had gone to teach at Auburn College in Alabama. We had this plan that we were going to put together a revue of comedy songs and material. We would all group together and go to New York and take it by storm. It was a revue called Portfolio. We came to New York but we never could get the financing to do it, although a lot of the material caught the attention of some of these revue people.

Harvey immediately had a very successful career as a commercial artist - one of the top in America. Meanwhile, I was working in book stores and teaching a little drama group at St. Bartholomew’s. We began to do material for Julius Monk's Upstairs-Downstairs and for the Shoestring Revues and things like that.

We began to work on a show called Roadside. We wrote 5 or 6 songs. We couldn’t get the rights to it. I also didn’t have enough skill to solve the problems of the book so we put it aside. We started working on this play based on something by [Edmond] Rostand. We couldn’t get that to work, although we worked on it for several years. It just wouldn’t work. Finally Word Baker said, “I got a job directing three one-act plays at a summer theater that Mildred Dunnock runs, using the stage at Barnard College. She said I could do one of them as a musical. If you can take that Rostand thing you’ve been working on and write it as a long one-act musical in three weeks, I can give you a production three weeks after that.”

The Fantasticks We threw out everything we had except a song called “Try to Remember” and went back to the original play. We’d been trying to do this in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein, which we didn’t know how to do, and which this little innocent play couldn’t sustain. We decided, “What the heck. It’s never going to get put on anyway” so we did all the things we liked in the theater - all the presentation things, the commedia dell'arte, the Shakespeare, the Oriental theater, the invisible prop man sprinkling snow - everything that used the imagination, a celebration of theatricality. We put it on and lo and behold we got offers from three different producers. We chose Lore Noto. It took eight months to raise the $15,000 that it took to put on the show. Then it opened ...

NR:  And look what happened.

The Fantasticks
Rita Gardner and Jerry Orbach in The Fantasticks in 1960.
TJ:  Exactly. It could just as easily have disappeared and been gone forever. It could have disappeared after opening, even though Jerry Orbach was dynamite. The whole company was wonderful but the first couple of notices were cool and there was some real serious talk about closing it on opening night. Nobody would ever have heard of it again. Now, I think if somebody were smart, they would re-issue some of the really good recordings of “Try to Remember.” “Try to remember the kind of September” of innocence. All of that has an amazing resonance and it has it now at the theater. You can just feel it.

HS:  There was a wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal recently. The woman who reviews for them was wandering the streets dazed the day of the bombing, and there were ashes everywhere and she was so depressed. She was trying to get home to Brooklyn and she suddenly found herself on Sullivan Street and saw the sign for The Fantasticks. She was tired of walking so she went in.

TJ:  She had never seen the show.

HS:  She had known it was going to close now so she decided to go in and rest her feet. At the top of the show El Gallo starts singing “Try to remember the kind of September” and she found it terribly moving so she did a long piece on the show.

NR:  What are your thoughts on the closing? Are you ready to let it go?

HS:  Oh yeah. As recently as our anniversary party last spring I was saying, “If this has run 41 years, I think it can run to 50" and Tom said, “Be careful what you say.” Here we are and it’s not running, but I don’t mind. We were young when it opened and look at us now. It’s been a long time. It’s been wonderful to have it. I’d rather it close when I’m still alive.

TJ:  (to Harvey) How are you feeling? You going to make it to January?

I don’t know what I think. I’m thinking about Roadside really. I’m thinking about what’s coming up rather than what’s in the past.

HS:  We didn’t plan these two shows this way. We didn’t know Fantasticks was going to close when we planned Roadside but it’s kind of lovely - the fact that we wrote it before Fantasticks - it’s all so eery and strange.

TJ:  Let me clarify that. We did these six songs or so but we couldn’t get the rights. We put it aside and Dan Shaheen, who works for us, came across an old reel-to-reel of these songs and he played it. He said, “Wow, these are fun. You should listen to these” which we did.

NR:  How long ago was that?

TJ:  About three years ago. We thought it sounded like a good idea so we went back and we were able to get the rights. I felt that I had learned enough to deal with the problems of the book at this point. We’re still working on it of course. Then we began doing a lot of new songs.

Julie Johnson, G.W. Bailey in Roadside
HS:  I don’t think you can tell which songs are from the 1950s and which are new. They’re mixed up in the show. I find it fascinating working on the show because it’s been so long. It’s 50 years working on something. As Tom was saying, sometimes it’s music first and sometimes it’s lyrics first, because that makes it more richly textured, but five decades of working on a piece make it doubly richly textured.

NR:  I’m sure you’ve changed over all these years.

HS:  Yes. We’re both much more knowledgeable. I think we can write things more easily too.

TJ:  We’ve changed but I think the principles that we have haven’t changed. We’ve never in that way been timely. I don’t like to say that we’ve been “timeless” but the stuff that we do has never been specifically au courant. The Fantasticks is not that and certainly Roadside is not that. They’re not locked into time periods.

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