March 27, 2001
TOM JONES (Part Two)
This is the second half of a two-part interview with the creator of The Fantasticks, 110 in the Shade, I Do! I Do!, Celebration, Philemon, Colette Collage, and more. To read part one, click here.
DL: At the time of I Do! I Do!, the concept of a two-character musical must have been pretty daring. Was there ever any pressure to add other characters or a chorus?
TJ: Not with us. Occasionally, we would get that. It was certainly easier when we got stars the magnitude of Mary and Bob. The real problem, unforeseen by us, was that having just two people... Mary was a notoriously slow study, even at that time, and it’s such a killing show to do. You’re on stage the entire time, and when you’re not on stage, you’re also on stage, because you’ve got three people dressing you, putting on wigs, whatever! So even as we were getting pressure to do rewrites, and we were rewriting, the new material wasn’t going in! You can’t bring in the chorus and do a number when there is no chorus. And you can’t fire the ingénue. Usually, when a musical’s in trouble, you fire the ingénue, at least for openers. Looking around, looking at the pecking order... if you’re having some bumpy times, which we had, you’ve got your David Merrick, your Gower Champion, your Mary Martin, and your Robert Preston, and then your Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Who do you think would be walking the plank? We’d be out of town in Washington, getting in an elevator and there’d be Jerry Herman or Comden and Green...
DL: When did Mary Martin and Robert Preston enter the project? Was the piece always being written for them?
TJ: That was the concept right at the beginning. We had written about five or six songs and played it for Mary, who had flown us over from Italy, but she decided to do Walking Happy instead. And then she began to have second thoughts about that decision. Meanwhile, Harvey and I continued to work on the book and the score under Gower’s general guidance, but pretty much on our own back in Italy. We did a lot more work on it, and by this point, Mary was doing Hello, Dolly! on tour for and with Gower, in preparation for taking it to Viet Nam. So we flew out to Cleveland and played her the full score, considerably revised from the first five songs she had heard before. She was very enthusiastic at that point, but she wanted a full year both to finish what she was doing, and to study the score and the script, with the stipulation that the composer (not the lyricist) be free to fly down to Brazil to her ranch she had down in the jungle to work with her on the songs. Then it was a question of trying to ensnare Robert Preston. He had just done The Lion in Winter with Rosemary Harris on Broadway the previous year, and she got all the notices. He was very leery about doing something with a strong woman performer at this point. He kept saying that he thought maybe Broadway was tired of him. So he turned it down, said he was going to “stay off the street” for a year. We continued to search for other people who we thought would be right as well as being acceptable to Mary. This was the ideal match, though, these two. When you’re doing a two person show, you need that.
The most interesting story to me, to get him, is that Mary went down to her ranch in central Brazil, it’s really something to get to. They had no telephones and no electricity, although it was a big operation down there. David Merrick and Gower decided on someone who they thought might be a possible lead, but they had no way to reach Mary, and she had approval. So Lucia Victor, who was Gower’s right-hand woman, flew to Rio, and then flew to Brasilia, and then took a jeep ride to Anapolis, Brazil, and then, I think the last part was even by horseback or something, into the savannah where there were jungle animals. She finally reached the ranch and said, “Hello, Mary,” and suggested the name of the person; Mary said, “No, absolutely not,” so Lucia Victor got back on the horse and the jeep and the plane and the plane... Whenever we would play for Bob Preston, if we’d play something like “Flaming Agnes,” he’d say, “Well, I can just hear what Mary’s going to do with that number.” He was reluctant. Finally, David Merrick, who never gave up, cornered him at a cocktail party, and for whatever reasons, Robert Preston said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” Ironically, he was the one who got the Tony Award for it, she didn’t. He said, “Okay, I’ll do it. I don’t need lawyers, I don’t need agents. I just want what she gets.” And he knew he’d be well taken care of.
DL: Much like 110 in the Shade, I Do! I Do! also had a number of songs that didn’t make it into the show. Was that a show that changed on the road, or was it more a matter of adjusting the score while you were shuffling around the casting ideas?
TJ: It didn’t change because of the casting. Any show changes. We kept trying out title songs for a long period of time. There’s a long section of our revue The Show Goes On about the rewrites of songs for that, about the title songs and so forth. So we did do writing out-of-town on that show, but it was regular, except for the fact that you couldn’t put a new number in very quickly. They were working very, very hard, and Mary particularly was a slow study anyway. They didn’t have the rehearsal time, they didn’t have the energy. We were writing new stuff, but it wasn’t getting in, and David Merrick was getting more and more frustrated. To compensate for that, although we were scheduled to play in Boston and Washington, D.C., Gower added two more weeks in Cincinnati, which was great. We did a lot of good work in the end of Washington and in those two weeks in Cincinnati. We had gotten enough ahead of the game that we were able to catch up, get some new stuff in, do our final rewrites. It caused a lot of Sturm and Drang because we had the opening night set, they had the theatre party ladies, so forth and so on. David Merrick just said “screw it” and cancelled it and opened two weeks later.
DL: It’s interesting, because were that to happen today, everyone would be talking about the death of the show, it must not be good... was that not the case then?
TJ: I think there was as much bitchy stuff then as now. I don’t really know, and I was out there on the front lines and didn’t know that much what was happening. But there wasn’t as much fanaticism about shows then as there is now. For one thing, there were a lot more shows, so the gossip got spread around, and almost all of them went out of town, and without exception had troubles. Fiddler on the Roof had troubles out of town, Hello, Dolly! had troubles out of town. So people didn’t take it that seriously. In fact, I think a show was much more in danger if it got really good reviews out of town. It set up the New York critics to tear them down.
DL: After I Do! I Do! you created your Portfolio Studio, where you and Harvey retreated to create experimental musical theatre. What inspired that?
TJ: Well, megalomania, probably, as much as anything else. God knows we wanted to be big successes and make a lot of money, but we also wanted to have something, to put it in a very positive light, something personal, like an auteur, or to say it slightly more skeptically, something where we had all the power. We had it in our minds that we could produce these shows in a workshop situation – and you have to understand, this was before anyone did workshops – and we would write them, design them, direct them, and produce them in early stages. And as if that weren’t enough, we decided that we would do originals, which are notoriously difficult, and for which I don’t have any particular gifts to speak of. I’ve managed to do it a few times, but like they say, if you put monkeys at a typewriter for a number of hours, eventually they will write War and Peace by the process of elimination. That’s sort of the way I am with originals. I need to make every mistake that’s conceivable to make. And then, not only did we want to do originals, but we wanted to do them in new forms that hadn’t been tried before. We set ourselves up for a very crude and rude awakening.
DL: During that time, were you approached to do traditional Broadway shows? Did you turn projects down?
TJ: Oh yes. We were, and we did.
DL: Celebration was one of the first projects you did at Portfolio, and that went on to have something of a commercial life afterwards.
TJ: It was our plan, we had hoped that this thing was going to be so innovative and so brilliant... what we hoped for, was what happened a year after we did our thing with A Chorus Line. That’s exactly what we had in mind, but we didn’t have enough Broadway skills at hand. We were good at certain things, but razzle dazzle, in that Broadway way, we needed someone else to kind of help out with that department. And a few years after we did Celebration, Bob Fosse did Pippin, which has a lot of things similar to Celebration in it, but he gave it a patina of tits and ass and a jazz thing that took it to the next stage and made it acceptable for a Broadway audience.
DL: The York Theatre did a concert version of Celebration this year. What was it like to see that show performed again?
TJ: It was terrific! I’ve seen it performed a few times, and it’s always been a very glum experience for me, because I’m so aware of the problems. I did some rewriting of the book, which has always been the major problem. Our director, Drew Scott Harris, did a wonderful job of staging it, with very little time – one week to put the whole thing up. And we had a terrific musical director, and they did it with three instruments: two pianos and a great percussionist, with eleven percussion things, xylophones and tympanis and such things. And without all the masks, it seemed less pretentious and easier to follow, and more exciting. It was probably the most successful feeling of that show I’ve ever seen. Except maybe in Norway. It all sounded brilliant in Norwegian. Lyrics do have a tendency to sound deeper and more brilliant in Scandinavian languages than perhaps they really are.
DL: What were the other shows to come out of the Portfolio years to have legs?
TJ: Philemon. And we did that Portfolio Revue which got wonderful notices. Philemon got the best notices of anything we ever wrote, really.
DL: How did the television version of Philemon come about?
TJ: Well, Hollywood Television Theatre called us and said, “Can we do it and use your same actors?” They did a weekly play. Norman Lloyd was the producer. Very rarely, if it was small, they might do a musical, but very, very rarely.
DL: When you eventually decided to stop working at Portfolio, why did you decide to close it down?
TJ: It was expensive, first of all. It didn’t seem to me that we were necessarily being more productive than we were before this. We had sort of done it, in a way, you know? We did other works there as well, most notably a piece called The Bone Room. We did lots of experimental scenes and songs and improvs, all that stuff that was hot at the time.
DL: So after Portfolio, you began the long journey that led to Colette Collage. How did that project get started?
TJ: First there was the production of a play, Colette, for which we just had a few songs. Harvey played the piano to the scenes, and we wrote three songs for Zoe Caldwell. It was a very successful production. When this came up, they said, “Oh, can you do a few songs?” and we actually wrote eight or nine. They seemed quite good, so we thought we should take this to the next step and see if we can make a musical about Colette, which took a long time. A long, long, long time to do. We were trying to do very difficult things. We were interested in the scope of her life, and all the different things she did. That made it very hard to compress into dramatic form. To go from age 17 to 81, it took a long time to figure out how to find a form for it. First, we did a big, Broadway musical version which Diana Rigg did on the road. Half of it worked, but the other half of it didn’t. Zoe had been wonderful in both halves, just unbelievable, dynamite, you know? Diana Rigg was absolutely wonderful in the second half, with the older, somewhat tougher, sexy, charming, somewhat cynical Colette. What was not good was the first half, the young, vulnerable Colette. Being vulnerable was just not her thing. That show closed out of town.
Then we did another version of that, an off-Broadway version called Colette Collage, which was beginning to find its form, really. It took so long to find the right thing. That actually got good notices, but I knew it wasn’t quite right, so we did another – these were really off-off-Broadway, kind of like workshops. We did one more of those, and there it really found its form. Except again we had the same problem of finding an actress who could actually do both halves of Colette’s life as we split it. So in the recording, which Bruce did, for the first time we did what we should have done at the very beginning: we put two actresses, one for the younger Colette and one for the older Colette.
DL: So do you feel that you’ve now said all that there is to say about Colette? Is this recorded version the final version?
TJ: I think absolutely. If anybody will... I don’t know how many theatre groups actually know this piece. I’d like to think some musical theatre aficionados would check it out. There are not many productions. And I’m prejudiced, but I’m also critical, and I think it’s a terrific score, I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful recording. I think the orchestrations are good, the cast is terrific, and it gives a very interesting feeling about the show.
DL: Grover’s Corners has become legendary because of your inability to do anything with it now. It seems like an obvious property for a musical, how did you and Harvey get involved in it?
TJ: For years people had tried to get the rights, and Thorton Wilder never wanted it to be a musical. There was a television version with a few songs by Sammy Cahn, and Thorton Wilder felt that was not in the spirit of the play he had written, with Frank Sinatra as your hometown stage manager. Once Wilder died, and the estate was under the control of his sister Isabel, with whom he lived and was very close, she again turned down offers, from I think Rodgers and Hammerstein and others. Somehow Peter Neufeld and Tyler Gatchell were able to get the rights for a musical version for Broadway, and they came to us. We said yes, we’d like to work on it. We did a workshop, and they were counting on the Shuberts, with whom they worked often, to put up the money. But there were disagreements among the Shuberts, and while I don’t know all the infighting that was going on, the bottom line was that when the workshop was over, they said no. It sort of floundered around, looking for another direction, which it never found. Then the rights were dropped. Then a newly formed organization, The Alliance of Musical Theatre Producers, which is all the musical theatre houses around the country, was looking for new properties for which they wouldn’t be totally beholden to New York producers to put things in their houses. They set us up to do it for three months at the Marriott Lincolnshire in Chicago. We had the chance to do some good rewriting. I played the stage manager and Harvey played the piano – almost like a backers’ audition that comes to life. These producers, of course, wanted to fill their big 2,000-3,000 seat houses, and that meant finding a big star. We couldn’t find the big man star they wanted, because the kind of name they were looking for... well, our A-list was all dead, and our B-list had all made enough money playing golf and did not want to go tour around the country. Then the idea came up of having Mary Martin do it. She heard it and loved it, and she agreed to do it. We ran an ad in Variety and booked fifty-two weeks just like that. Our Town, Thorton Wilder, Mary Martin and our names was a good combination for what they wanted. Right after they booked the tour, Mary found out she had cancer and had to drop out. By this point, it lingered for a while, but it developed a negative momentum. No matter what people heard, when they heard the music they might even be moved, but they thought there must be something wrong with it since it’s been around and it hasn’t been done. At that point, the rights expired and the estate said, “Enough already, he never really wanted it to be a musical in the first place.” I think if Thorton Wilder were alive, he’d be supportive of this piece. It very much honors him... and I’m not saying the estate doesn’t think it honors him, they’ve been very fair and reasonable through this whole thing, but they’ve just been worn down by it.
DL: So without the rights to perform the show, does that mean we’ll never even get to hear these songs on a record?
TJ: That’s right, unless someone persuades the estate. The door could always be opened a little bit, but you never know. I think the time will come when it all will just open itself, reveal itself like the Mississippi River on an early morning in the summer.
DL: Well, at some point their rights expire. I don’t know how long Thorton Wilder has been dead...
TJ: They would have expired in about a year or so, but then Congress added thirty years onto all the old copyrights.
DL: Mirette is another example where you have a complete show that people haven’t seen. Why is that?
TJ: It’s based on a very lovely children’s book, and it came with a bookwriter involved, somebody who actually lives with the person who wrote the children’s book. Somebody who’s a playwright, but who has never written a musical. We worked on it at Sundance Playwright’s Lab, and then we did it at Goodspeed-at-Chester, where it went very, very well by general consensus. There were no critics, although Alvin Klein of the New York Times saw it and told me he thought it was terrific. It went so well that they went ahead and booked it for the next year, for the main stage. But there were disagreements as to the direction of the show between some of the creative elements. So the director, Drew Scott Harris, who had done such a good job with The Show Goes On, was dumped in favor of a so-called cutting edge director, who turned the children’s tale into a dark, foreboding, so-called cutting edge something... with an interpolated opening scene of a juggler, half-naked, is juggling bloody body parts. It was like a Comden and Green sketch of a nightmare. It got slammed by the critics, including the guy who loved it the year before at Chester. It got blasted, with people saying “What could they have been thinking of?” There was a loophole on our part and our attorney’s part about a film which wouldn’t be based on our musical version. That has been under option for a while, but it’s presumably about to expire, in which case the whole thing opens up again, and hopefully there will be some productions. It’s a beautiful, beautiful children’s book, and what we did in the first place has really got some nice stuff.
DL: Now you’ve got Roadside running in Texas, which is really interesting because you wrote it a long time ago.
TJ: Well, we wrote a few songs for it in the 1950s. We didn’t have the rights, so we didn’t really work on it that much. I had done it [the Lynn Riggs play on which their musical is based] for my college masters thesis directing project. So there were five or six songs. After The Fantasticks, we just sort of put it aside and pretty much forgot about it until somebody who works for us came across a tape of these songs a couple of years ago. He said, “These are great fun, where’s the rest of this?” We showed him what we had, and he said, “Well, you guys ought to do this and finish it off.” So we acquired the rights and set about solving some structural problems in the script and in the original material that had never been really dealt with. We finished the score, which at the moment has 18 songs. We did a reading last spring at the York Theatre, a one-time-only reading, and then we did a production at a college in Texas in November, and now it’s in this theatre in a suburb of Dallas. It’s going to go from there to a little opera house in Dallas. There’s been a very positive response from the audience and the critics, so there’s a thought about trying to move to the next step.
DL: Why didn’t you get the rights back in the 1950s?
TJ: When we first were working on the show, we were still unknowns so we couldn’t get the rights. Then after The Fantasticks, Dick Nash came to us with 110 in the Shade, a western musical which is based on an absolutely great book, where everything dovetails and connects and reveals itself just wonderfully. Roadside has some marvelous hanging characters and wonderful language, but it also has a book full of things unclear on what it was even about – real structural problems.
DL: Now that you have the possibility of a new show perhaps going to New York... What do you think of the state of musical theatre today?
TJ: I’m really not a good person to offer many deep and profound pronouncements about it. It’s obviously been going through a change in the past year or two. There are fewer of those British, sung-through things with emphasis on lots of scenery. That’s interesting. I think perhaps there’s a diminution of Sondheim clones, because he’s so brilliant and he’s always taking changes in the avant garde that the young people have always been inevitably attracted to him, even as he’s getting older, he’s still up at the forefront. Unfortunately, they are not him, they are themselves. There’s a wonderful line in Flora, The Red Menace, which is almost my favorite Kander and Ebb show, “I am not Myrna Loy. Myrna Loy is Myrna Loy.” They are not Stephen Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim is Stephen Sondheim. What it lead to for a while was overly-complex, nervous, uncentered things. They tended to pull away from the entertainment aspect of musicals, which Sondheim very rarely ever did. With a few possible exceptions like Passion and so forth, he’s got The Number. He gives you the number for Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd. He not only gives you the big ballads, he gives you the sock-o show-stopping numbers.
I’m wandering a little bit, but what I do think is this. It’s great in many ways to have more complexity than used to be the case, but the danger is that in the course of doing that, I hope and pray that we don’t lose the old American popular song form. AABA, you know? The compression in that that made it possible to contain enormous humor and emotion and make it graspable and immediate is a wonderful things. It’s for our theatre what iambic pentameter was for Shakespeare in a way. It’s a great tool, and I think it’s possible to keep that and add to it in various ways, without giving it up.
If people find themselves moving more towards opera and away from the popular form that’s always been the essence of the American musical, they’ve shot themselves in the foot. Or worse.
I’ve never thought of myself particularly, except in very recent years, as a writer per se. I think of myself as a “theatre person.” I’ve acted and directed and whatever. In the same way, I’ve never thought of myself as just a musical theatre person, although that’s what I like the most. But the influences, the places I like to look for inspiration for that, Shakespeare for example, in the stagings of Giorgio Staler, sometimes Peter Brook... Whatever I know, which isn’t much... I did write a book two or three years ago, which is still in print, called Making Musicals. These same old things I’ve been saying to you as if they were spontaneously are mostly probably in that book, along with a few other things, my view about where things may be going, this and that and whatever.
DL: I can’t let you go without asking about The Fantasticks movie, since it’s finally out on video after all these years. I know that you were involved, writing the screenplay. Now that the ordeal is over, looking back over the whole process, what are your ultimate thoughts?
TJ: I have very mixed feelings on it. Part of it I like a lot, and a lot of it I don’t like. The part I like a lot is when it really seems to have taken The Fantasticks and moved the same kind of things into movie terms. The Fantasticks is, by its very nature, celebrating the limitations of the stage. That’s part of what it does. But I figure, oh, what the hell, it’s been sufficiently established for forty-one years, with twelve-thousand productions, so people know what it is. I think they do, I hope they do. So we wanted to open it to the possibility of seeing it another way. Our original hope, which nobody would buy, was to make a film sort of like Ingmar Bergman’s version of The Magic Flute, which would begin on a small stage and then move into a world which you wouldn’t know if it was real or not real. I am very drawn to the visual of this film, I think it’s very beautiful, and being from the west, this little carnival out there in the middle of nowhere (and it really was in the middle of nowhere, too – my God, there wasn’t a telephone pole for forty miles!). A lot of the scenes take place on roads, and that becomes a film metaphor for a lot of things The Fantasticks is about.
DL: One hundred years from now, when people look back on the career of Tom Jones, what would you like them to get out of it?
TJ: Well, I don’t know. I don’t feel I’ve done what I’m supposed to do yet. I still dream of one or maybe even two things that do what I specifically can do, that haven’t been done. I tried to make my own little motto, like Shakespeare – in this way at least, they said he had little Latin and less Greek, and that’s me in a nutshell – but I tried to make a motto for myself: de minimus multimus, out of little, much. I think that’s a vision of what I believe and what we’ve tried to do. I believe there’s a great potential coming from restriction, from compression. I believe it’s related to the origins of theatre art and the origins of people. I think there are tales to be told in that form that we’ve just hinted at, that I hope somebody will tell in real sound, in limited resources but great imagination, that will clarify for everybody and unite them.
DL: Is there anything else you want to say to the world before we wrap up?
TJ: Keep those cards and letters coming in. Go buy them records.
We've asked our writers and performers to name one album they wouldn't want to be without... their "desert island disc." Today's answer comes from the elusive Guy Haines, star of the latest Fynsworth Alley offering, Haines His Way.
What a strange and difficult question this is. What one disc would I have
to have if I were stranded on a desert island. First of all, what I like
about the idea of being stranded alone on a desert island is that no one
could vote me off. But only one disc - what an impossible situation. Damn
you, David Levy. I mean, does one choose a pop album, a classical album, a
show album, a gospel album, a spoken word album, a Klezmer album? Would it
be Happy Hunting? Would it be the Ricky Nelson album with "Poor Little Fool" on it? Well, I suppose it would have to be an album that I never tire of - and that means that every selection is perfection. Li'l Abner? Close, but, maybe not. What album would calm me, soothe me, get me through the day?
Mahler's 6th? No, that would make me kill myself. Rachmaninov's 2nd? It's
pretty great, and I probably could choose that one. But I won't, because I
wouldn't be able to choose which performance I like best. Follies? Well,
if it were Follies it would have to be the OCR and that just isn't complete
enough, which would bug me. Wait, how about a film score? Maybe The Best
Years of Our Lives by Hugo Friedhofer. But I don't like the way it's
conducted on the recording and the original soundtrack isn't available. Too
bad, that would have worked fine. Bill Evans' Conversations With Myself -
that would be fine, but it's solo piano and since I'd be a solo person that
just wouldn't do at all, as great as that album is. So, what is it? Okay,
I'm going to go out on a limb here and choose Claus Ogermann's Gate of
Dreams. I know you're all scratching your heads and wondering "What???".
My friend and confidante Mr. Kimmel introduced me to this album and I have
never been the same since. It is kind of an orchestral/classical/jazz
thing, and it is one of the best listening experiences I've ever had, and
whenever I need to clear my head (often) this is the album I listen to. It's so calming, so beautiful, so... perfect, that if I had to have just one,
this would most likely be it. Now, if I were allowed to pick one for each
genre, that would be ever so much easier. Pop: Bookends Show: Follies (yes, the abridged OCR) Vocal album: Haines His Way - only kidding - Male -
Richard Harris A Tramp Shining (I know, I know, but I love, love, love this Jimmy Webb penned album) / Female - Dawn Upshaw Knoxville: Summer 1915 (simply one of the most ravishing pieces of music ever written and sung with crystal simplicity by Ms. Upshaw - the rest of the album is pretty swell, too) Classical: Rachmaninov Sympony #2 Jazz: Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra (Claus Ogermann, cond.)
There you have it. I do hope I haven't played by the rules.