downtownexpress.com

Volume 19 • Issue 14 | August 18-24, 2006

Fantastic! From 42 years Downtown to Times Sq.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Thomas Bruce as Henry in the Uptown revival of “The Fantasticks.”

By JERRY TALLMER

Downtown moves Uptown on Wednesday, August 23, 2006, when “The Fantasticks,” the deceptively “naïve” boy-girl romance by Tom Jones (words) and Harvey Schmidt (music) that ran for 41 3/4 years and 17,162 performances (May 3, 1960, to January 12, 2002) as a Greenwich Village landmark at the tiny Sullivan  Street Playhouse, opens in a new production at a new venue — Times Square!

This, after two weeks of previews and some shuffling around thanks to the torn Achilles tendon of a much-loved veteran, wry, dry McIntyre Dixon, who can’t wait to get back into the show as The Girl’s Father.

“There are plenty of people who hate ‘The Fantasticks,’” says a no less wry, dry Tom Jones. “Particularly among the cognoscenti.”

He is sitting in a nice little Italian restaurant on West 50th Street one block’s walk from the 199-seat Snapper Theater Center, itself a new space on the corner of 50th and Broadway — “right up over Duane Reade,” playwright Jones throws in as the restaurant swells to the desperate amours of Edith Piaf, no sweet unscarred young-love songbird she.

There are also plenty of people who don’t hate “The Fantasticks,” hundreds of thousands who have flocked to see it in 11,000 stagings elsewhere in the United States and more than 700 productions in 68 other countries around the world.

But the opening-night reviews, those nearly 46 years ago, weren’t all that cordial. Downers. “I still have them,” says Tom Jones. “They’re like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Except for Michael Smith in The Village Voice, and Emory Smith in Cue — remember Cue? — and Henry Hewes [who died this past fortnight] in the Saturday Review. What saved us was their notices and Lore Noto” – the producer who came out of nowhere to keep the show alive, empty seats or no empty seats, then and for the next 40-plus years.

“Not another person in the entire world would have kept that show going that first summer. Lore did.” And fought everybody, in or out of the show. “A Sicilian first and last.”

Try to remember. Noto is gone now too. So is Word Baker, the first director. So is Kenny Nelson, who played The Boy, So is Jerry Orbach, the first El Gallo, a sort of ringmaster and bandit chief who at one point (in the original) sang a song about rape (“You can get the rape emphatic / You can get the rape polite … ”) and at another had a duet with The Girl in which he sang: “Gay! We’re so gay! Terribly gay!” (Rita Gardner, the most noted of many who played The Girl, can be found alive and kicking right this minute on Broadway in “The Wedding Singer.”)

Tom Jones, distinguished of moustache (neat white) and beard (short white) and hair (white cropped) and silver-rimmed eyeglasses, keeps a straight face — almost — as he mentions an ingenue [not Ms. Gardner] in the role of The Girl who was interviewed by The New York Times years ago. “What’s it like?” the Times asked. “It’s like Snow White and the seven cocksuckers,” the young actress replied without batting an eyelash.

When the women’s movement came in, the rape song blew up in Jones’s and Schmidt’s faces. The Tom Jones of today has once again rewritten those lyrics that he rewrote, denatured, ten years ago. “It’s now ten years later, and it’s been a problem all that time. Just two or three weeks ago I wrote a new version, and I think it’s now finally solved, with a real feeling of fun — much more than the one before, which was a kind of dance music.”  Wishy-washy, he means.

“Even my wife likes it, and she’s a tough critic. It doesn’t use the word rape,” says Jones.

Not once?

“Well, one little time,”

Tom Jones’s wife Janet Watson [he was married once before, to actress/writer Elinor Wright, whom this writer once interviewed] is a dancer/choreographer — “and in fact will be staging the musical numbers of this revival.”

Their son Sam. 21, is at the Tisch School, NYU, studying record production and marketing — “in the family tradition of entering a profession [musical theater, for instance] just as it’s about to go under.” Son Michael, 18, is at Boston University “studying business, with the intention of supporting us all in our idiotic pursuits.” 

Jones himself will direct. The non-musical parts of it, that is, based on Word Baker’s original staging. “I’ve reached an age where I can’t concentrate for six hours at a crack,” says the playwright/lyricist who was born in Littlefield, Texas, February 17, 1928.

He and Janet now reside half the time “in the northwest corner of Connecticut,’ half here in the city at 106th and Riverside. “I have country pursuits now. An old dog named Murphy is a big part of my life. I’ve gotten to know all the other dog people — the Ca-nites of Riverside Drive.”

Also from Texas, of course — they met at the University of Texas — is Harvey Schmidt.  In the good old days of long ago — the five years before Schmidt and Jones knocked out “The Fantasticks” for a summer project at Barnard College, which somebody named Lore Noto came to see — Jones and Schmidt shared an apartment at 74th and West End with two other fellows, future multi-Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Benton, then art director at Esquire, and Off-Broadway producer Robert Gold, who owned the Sullivan Street Playhouse, “which is the reason we ended up there.”

Schmidt hung onto the pad when the other three left. “It was a very nice apartment with three fireplaces. Harvey loves — just loves — books and magazines. They piled up on all sides, so he had to get another apartment, just for the books. By the time he finally moved, in 1990 he had three apartments” — two for the books and magazines.

These days Harvey Schmidt is back in Texas and rarely goes elsewhere. “He’s always been a loner.”

Nobody he’s tied to?

“Nope. Except me.”

It was the highly successful producing team led by Richard Frankel that came to Jones with the idea of bringing “The Fantasticks” to Off-Broadway on Broadway, nearer to tourists and hotels.

“I like them. I didn’t know them. They’re very smart,” says Jones. “Their shows include ‘The Producers’ and ‘Hairspray’ and ‘Stomp’ and the current ‘Sweeney Todd’ and a Trevor Nunn ‘Porgy and Bess’ cut miraculously to two and a half hours.”

Says the man who with Harvey Schmidt also gave us the Broadway musicals “110 in the Shade” and “I Do! I Do!” — both produced by an ingenious ogre named David Merrick —“I can’t believe that producers can be as smart as these guys are … and sane.”

Not many are.

And not many people in or out of the theater today will remember the once ubiquitous George Spelvin. That was an all-purpose pseudonym in hundreds of Broadway cast listings over the decades. If a playwright or a director also had a small part in the show as an actor, the program would carry him as George Spelvin.

Well, “The Fantasticks” of May 3, 1960, just like “The Fantasticks” of August 16, 2006, has (and had) a George Spelvin, under the further pseudonym of Thomas Bruce. The chap plays Henry, the Old Actor. In point of fact, Tom Jones knows this Thomas Bruce personally. Knew him 46 years ago. Inside out, you might say.

Try to remember, and if you remember, then follow. Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow, follow …

 
THE FANTASTICKS. By Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Directed by Tom Jones. Musical numbers staged by Janet Watson.  Now at the Snapple Theater Center, 210 West 50th Street, (212) 307-4100.



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