Downtown moves uptown when “The Fantasticks,” the deceptively “naïve” boy-girl romance by Tom Jones (words) and Harvey Schmidt (music) that ran for 41 years and 17,162 performances from 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!
“There are plenty of people who hate ‘The Fantasticks,’” said a wry, dry Tom Jones. “Particularly among the cognoscenti.”
There are also plenty of people who don’t hate it—hundreds of thousands who have flocked to see 11,000 stagings elsewhere in the United States and more than 700 productions in 68 countries.
The opening-night reviews nearly 46 years ago weren’t all that cordial. Downers. “I still have them,” Jones said. “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, in the original production, sang a song about rape and also had a duet with The Girl in which he sang: “Gay! We’re so gay! Terribly gay!”
Jones, distinguished of moustache (neat white) and beard (short white) and hair (white cropped) and silver-rimmed eyeglasses, almost keeps a straight face as he mentions an ingenue 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 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. Even my wife likes it, and she’s a tough critic.”
Jones’s wife dancer/choreographer Janet Watson staged the musical numbers for this revival.
Jones himself will direct, based on Word Baker’s original staging. “I’ve reached an age where I can’t concentrate for six hours at a crack,” said the playwright/lyricist 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 Canites of Riverside Drive.”
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.
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,” said 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.”
“I can’t believe that producers can be as smart as these guys are and sane.” said the man who with Schmidt also wrote Broadway musicals “110 in the Shade” and “I Do! I Do!” both produced by ingenious ogre David Merrick.
Few 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 had a small part in the show as an actor, the program would list him as George Spelvin.
Well, “The Fantasticks” of May 3, 1960 and August 16, 2006 had a George Spelvin, under the 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.
L-R: Thomas Bruce as Henry, Martin Vidnovic, Douglas Ullman Jr., and Leo Burmester, and Sara Jean Ford as Luisa in the new production of “The Fantasticks,” directed by Tom Jones. (JOAN MARCUS)