Spotlight on Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt

by Nancy Rosati        

NR:  What are audiences going to see if they come to Roadside? Tell me a little about it.

(L-R) Julie Johnson, Jonathan Beck Reed, James Hindman in Roadside

TJ:  Hopefully they will see a loving tribute to a kind of theatrical entertainment that’s wide open and fun. Hopefully they’ll see a love story where there will be music and they’ll be interested in these two unique and distinct characters. I think it takes a little while for people to get their ears attuned to the Southwestern thing. It’s almost like an Irish play. Although it’s very much set in the Southwest with the idiom and the language and the characters, in the back of my mind I keep thinking it’s like an Irish play. He’s done what we would think of as a horrible thing - he comes in and tears up a town, but all these people think it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever heard of and he’s made into a hero. It turns out that he only does those heroic things when he’s drunk, until he finds this woman and he’s able to transcend that. Hopefully by the end they transcend the reality of their own time. The end is a tableau vivant where they’re in heaven. She’s got the baby in her arms and they’re looking at the sun. The wagon is flying through the sky and the clouds are floating by and so forth.

NR:  Is there any chance that you will continue this past the scheduled run?

HS:  That will depend upon how it’s received. We’ve had a wonderful association with the York. This is the third of our original shows here. It’s a nice, comfortable feeling of home to come back here.

The Show Goes On TJ:  We love the space. We performed here ourselves three years ago in a show called The Show Goes On.

NR:  I have a question about Grover’s Corners. I keep hearing that Our Town has so much more resonance after September 11th. I’m wondering if we might get a chance to see that.

TJ:  We don’t have the rights anymore. They’ve reverted to the estate.

HS:  They wanted a certain important production and it came close with us but it never actually happened. Once the estate had Hello, Dolly! ...

TJ:  Just like the Lynn Riggs estate. It’s very tricky. The only other thing they had from the Lynn Riggs estate was a little thing called Oklahoma!. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people that everything you do doesn’t turn into Oklahoma!.

NR:  I'd like to hear more about your Portfolio Studio.

I Do I Do HS:  That was a wonderful period. Right after we’d done I Do! I Do! we had quite a bit of money rolling in with regular royalties and things, so we decided to do an experimental workshop where we would do everything - write, direct and I would design.

TJ:  It’s called “egomania!” Or hubris which is punished by nemesis. So we had both hubris and nemesis - act 1 and act 2.

HS:  We looked all over New York. It’s very hard to find a space in New York that doesn’t have columns. Anything that’s remotely large enough to make into a theater, it’s very hard to find. One day we stumbled on this building. It had a wonderful location on 47th Street, just a few doors west of Eighth Avenue, so it was just on the fringes of the New York Broadway area. From the street it looked like a traditional brownstone, but when you went up the stairs and past the first room, suddenly there was this gorgeous space with no columns. It had been built as a wedding chapel for immigrant marriages back in the 19th century and it made a fabulous theater with very little redoing. We added some seats and we painted everything raw umber, which is my favorite color.

TJ:  Harvey designed a basic set which was a modified “enter above, enter below.”

HS:  It was like Shakespeare. We did everything on that. We love to do minimal things anyway. Roadside is very minimal.

Celebration We had three or four floors above it. The whole top floor was our costume room. When we did Celebration, we wanted to do a musical as cheaply as you can do it, even if it was a big show that eventually moved to Broadway. We got all the costumes free. They were things that people gave us.

TJ:  (laughing) It was called “thrift shop Broadway.”

HS:  Yeah, but it was a very elegant show.

TJ:  It was very elegant.

HS:  I decided the only way to make this look good was to do it by colors. There were five or six different sections in the show, so whatever we would get, I would do all the blues up here and nail them on the wall, and reds were over there. It was very exciting and the whole look of the show began to start happening that way. It was a real playhouse. It was great to show people through it. They were just dazzled. The building was more interesting to them than any of our shows. (Tom laughed in agreement.)

NR:  What happened to it?

TJ:  In five or six years, we did four shows that we showed to the public. We did a lot of others ... Of course this was during the period of the “artsy-fartsy” ‘60s. We would have exercise classes and circus classes for our actors. There were belly dancing classes and clown mask classes. We were paying for all of this ourselves.

HS:  Nobody could complain about what we did because we were paying for it ourselves. What was really great was that at the back of the theater, there was a balcony with a railing, very high up, and it opened onto this big second floor room. That was my studio where I worked all the time. I had all these musical instruments and when we did these weekly workshops, I would improvise while the actors were improvising. There were no mistakes - the more pagan the better. I would have all these instruments lying around and while I was in the throes of dramatically playing this music, I was always knocking heavy musical cow bells off. Sometimes when we had an audience we came close to killing some people. It had a “Phantom of the Opera quality” to it, with all of this dark raw umber and this person up there playing this mad music.

TJ:  In all those sections, we would begin with improvisations and mask things, and then we would close with ... . (to Harvey) oh my God, how much Gallo wine did we drink? We would all sit in a circle and drink wine and it was like a group session. We’d talk about our lives.

NR:  Did you run out of money or did it just go out of style?

HS:  We had done everything we’d gone there to do. One of the shows, Philemon received very good reviews.

TJ:  Probably the best reviews we ever got in our lives.

HS:  Then it was done on the west coast by Hollywood Television Theatre. They took our cast and filmed it out there.

TJ:  It got the Outer Critics Circle Award, but it’s a hard show to do well. It’s a show I like but it’s very demanding. The first part is very comedic, but the second part goes to a full human sacrifice at the end, with the same people who’d been comedic in the beginning, and then to a transcendence beyond that.

HS:  I feel it was the nicest use of that building for a show. Some of the church windows that were on the side, which we had covered and painted, had platforms under each window and a different character would be standing there. It was a very formal show and very beautiful.

NR:  What’s in that building now?

HS:  It’s been turned into swanky apartments. I wish I had bought it but we could never find out who owned it. It got more and more mysterious.

TJ:  The owners were in prison eventually.

HS:  Somebody would call and say, “Meet Bobby in a phone booth at 47th and Broadway and give him the money for the rent.” Then we also got a bill one day for electricity that went all the way back to 1938. It was $95,000 and they were threatening to put us in prison.

TJ:  But it wasn’t addressed to us. It was addressed to the owners who were in prison.

HS:  And the back wall was about to fall down, so we decided it was time to leave.

TJ:  One of the shows we did there was called The Bone Room, a middle-aged musical about male menopause. It was about a guy who glued bones at the Museum of Natural History and he was having this nervous breakdown in his life. We had this real human skeleton, so one of the last things we packed up as we moved out was this character. Also in this scene, there was a fake human skull with teeth that chattered and made a sound like maniacal laughter. Unbeknownst to any of us, it had gotten in there with the skeleton. We packed it all up. It was all taped and just as we were ready to move everything, we heard this maniacal laughter coming from the trunk.

HS:  Mocking our whole existence!

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