On May 3, 1960, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' musical The Fantasticks opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. The reviews weren't great. The money wasn't there. The producer, Lore Noto, had been told to close the show right then.
But in theater, miracles happen. Business started picking up. One year turned into 10 turned into 43. Now The Fantasticks has become the stuff of legend, the longest-running musical in history, which is still going strong in New York City (as a revival at The Theater Center, which opened in August 2006 after the original, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, shuttered in 2002).
It's been 56 years. "But who's counting?" asks Jones, the book writer and lyricist (not to be confused with the singer of "It's Not Unusual"). "Well, I guess we're all counting." At 88, decades after he and Schmidt, now retired and living in Texas, put pen to paper, Jones is still tinkering with his beloved property. Currently, he's working with director Seema Sueko to create a new version of the show for a run at the Pasadena Playhouse (September 2-October 6). And he's even learning a few new things about the show along the way.
At what point did you realize that The Fantasticks had changed your life?
It was such a gradual thing. We really struggled the first summer. Our producer was advised to close it on opening night. We opened in May, and in September, for the first time, we broke even at the box office. That was such a big event. And then we had 100 performances and a big party. Then it was a year and we did the television thing. We went to London, we got our first Broadway show [110 in the Shade], and then, suddenly, we had a lot of money coming in. By the ten-year anniversary, we kind of realized that it had really changed our lives. We went to Beijing to see a production [being done] in Mandarin. Going into our hotel in Xi'an, the Muzak was playing "Try to Remember." And I thought, well, I can afford to have an extra drink tonight.
Are you involved much with productions of The Fantasticks now, like the one at Pasadena Playhouse?
No, not very much. I made contact with Seema Sueko. She had signed up to direct The Fantasticks and she wanted to do it opening on 9/11.
There was a theater she knew about in Southern California that went out of business in the eighties, and the building wasn't turned into something else. The last production they had done was The Fantasticks, and when they went into this ancient and uncared-for place, there was the set. So she wanted to experiment with people, like El Gallo and the Mute, coming into a deserted theater, and re-creating something from another period of time. "Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow…" She wanted to, I don't know how overtly until I see it, call that up in a time when there's so much hostility and division and really scary stuff going on.
Based on that, I've actually done some rewriting.
What have you rewritten for this producton?
We're experimenting in changing Mortimer, the Man Who Dies, from being an Indian, to just being an old Shakespearean actor. That'll be interesting for me to see. It didn't take a lot of changes, because there's very little [in it originally] about him being an Indian. The only reason he was an Indian in the first place was to have him come out, not speak for a long time, and then when he speaks, you realize he's a Cockney.
The other thing…There's a number called "Round and Round" toward the end. It's just a mess. It always has been. The original, they're beating a man in a monkey suit. What does that mean, except as a grotesque image? It doesn't clarify anything about what's happening. I've directed the show for over fifty years and it's so hard for the actors to do it. I realized it's not the actor's fault; it's the writer's fault. It needs work. This is my chance to redo that. This is a wonderful opportunity to see if it is clearer. I'm pleased with it.
Are these changes you'd incorporate into the New York version at some point soon?
I'll try to. I've done so many rewrites that [licensing agency] Music Theatre International is ready to shoot me. I don’t know how much longer we'll run. The problem there, to put it mildly, they don't have a lot of money for operating expenses. It wouldn't be that hard. I didn't rewrite any of the music. Harvey Schmidt is retired and he does not like me to go messing around with the music.
What is your best piece of advice you have for directors who are staging The Fantasticks?
Trust the material. Don't try to do too much. Just make it human, make it simple. Too often people try to be funny or get so caught up in the humor that the whole point of it later on gets lost. About the fourth or fifth year at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, our assistant stage manager was a young man named David Mamet. He wrote a piece later on called "I Was a Gopher at The Fantasticks." He talked about sitting on the steps with the writer Tom Jones listening to the performers do the show and Tom Jones putting his head in his hands and saying, "Why don't they just say the words?"