BWW Exclusive: The Fantastick Tom Jones: Remember Him -- in Light
Remember Henry Albertson? Sure, you do. He's that ancient, arthritic, fragile/agile but eternally game actor who traveled by stage trunk from scene to scene throughout the longest-running musical of all time, "The Fantasticks." You may even remember during one exit, just as the lid was closing, he managed to peer urgently out of the trunk at the audience and implore them, with proper theatrical flourish, "Remember me -- in light."
The lyricist-book writer who conjured up that line 60 years ago and delivered it the first nine months of the show's 42-year run is Tom Jones. It's not a light that has ever failed him, but, at 91, he finds it flickers a bit.
For now, however, Jones is full of wattage and beans, sauntering into Joe Allen for a noontime interview about his "stage comeback." He's almost giddy about it, in fact, even though it is for one night only (a York Theatre Company benefit on April 8) and occupies only a fifth of the evening.
"I Do! I Do!" is the show in question, a Broadway hit which he and his late composer, Harvey Schmidt, musicalized from Jan De Hartog's play about a 50-year marriage, "The Fourposter." Robert Preston and Mary Martin played all the Ages of Man (and Woman) in this by themselves-he won a Tony for it, she a Tony nomination-but, for this concert reprise, Jones has re-imagined and radically revised his original text to accommodate its age-appropriate re-casting and almost every diversity now known to man.
Samantha Bruce and Daniel J. Edwards will execute the consummation portion of the program, followed by marital scrapping from Janet Metz and Peter Saide. The bi-racial, single-sex centerpiece-the New Year's Eve couple-goes to Brad Oscar and Gerry McIntyre, dissolving into a mature Thousands of Flowers episode for Lewis Cleale and Lynne Wintersteller.
Jones caps this saga with the help of another author-performer, Nancy Ford ("I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road"), playing an elderly pair about to leave the marital haven they've had half a century.
"I'm going to have such fun doing that scene," Jones declares with genuine glee. "I'm rehearsing it every morning when I go in and brush my teeth. There's also a line in the segment where they're sitting there, waiting to move out and have another couple move in, and he says, 'Y'know, you live in a house a long time it's full of ghosts.' I just love saying that line."
There are ghosts in "I Do! I Do!" as well, but Jones, a notorious re-writer, is ever on the case, trying to bring the show up to contemporary speed and make it a more accurate reflection of domesticity as we now know it.
"There are parts of 'I Do! I Do' that I love a lot. Then, there are parts that always, from the very beginning, left me a bit uncomfortable and unsatisfied because they didn't deal with the marriage. It's too much one kind of note. It's pleasant, and it's got fun things, and it's skillful to be able to pull off a show with two people, so I'm proud of us. But marriage needs to have a few more complications, and that's what I've been working on.
"One scene in particular I've been focusing on is when they nearly break up because he's having an affair. I felt that needed to be more real. While they talk about breaking up, they never mention the children. You can't do that to them, so in this edition they really nip into each other a bit. Then it means something if they're able to pull it together and somehow survive."
"The Fourposter" won the Tony for Best Play of 1952 and proved to be a highly successful vehicle on Broadway as well as on tour for real-life marrieds Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. "I saw it in Baltimore when I was in the Army. It was a wonderful production directed by Jose Ferrer."
A less felicitous film version followed in 1952 with Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, who were married at the time. "If you were to search the entire world, you could not find worst casting," insists Jones. "They reminded me of that couple in 'The Dance of Death.' If you want a real laugh, watch them playing the shy wedding night. He must have been 50 at the time."
The bulk of Jones' professional output is centrally located Off-Broadway. "I'm not a 'Broadway Baby,'" he is quick, and happy, to say. "In fact, we even wrote this song, 'Everybody Calls Me Mister Off-Broadway.'"
However, they did make it to the Main Stem twice: first with "110 in the Shade" from N. Richard Nash's "The Rainmaker," and then with "I Do! I Do." Both shows got them Tony nominations, but these came with a fat price tag: having to work with a perpetual thunderstorm of a producer.
"David Merrick entered our lives surreptitiously," Jones recalls. "He was dating a girl who was in 'The Fantasticks,' and we'd see them at parties. He was very quiet, very demure, even shy as far as I could tell. But once we began working for him, he became a monster. Thing was: Hitler didn't have any sense of humor; David Merrick at least had a sense of humor.
"His office was above the Sardi's building. It was all red wallpaper, red carpet, and then he had this big desk, and there were no other chairs, so, when you took a meeting there, everybody had to stand up except him."
The artistic collisions between the producer and the creatives routinely reached Vesuvius levels but were much too one-sided for Merrick's taste and lots of work for him to maintain. Schmidt and Jones received his rages blankly like Texas tar-babies, absorbing the punches without reacting.
"I never stood up for anything," Jones beams with no small measure of pride, "and Harvey did even less than me. I remember one day David exploding at Harvey, and Harvey pretended it wasn't happening at all."
When "I Do! I Do!" began out-of-town tryouts, the chaos spiked markedly. Richard Halliday, Mary Martin's husband and 24/7 protectorate, brought in his TV-writing friends to inspect and assess the show during its last week in Boston, where it had earned mixed but generally good notices.
Schmidt and Jones were working on rewrites for Philadelphia when The Merrick Call came in. "David said, 'We're taking it out of the two-act form and making it three acts.' The original play is all indoors, and they wanted to take it outside. This ran counter to our original concept, but we did as we were told. When we opened in Baltimore, we got horrible notices we'd not gotten before. David called us all up to his suite and told us he was closing the show in Baltimore. We united with Richard, saying 'Oh, great! That's wonderful! We can get somebody else to do it.'" It was a tactic that gave Merrick pause and second thoughts, and he opted not to close it.
Schmidt of Big D, Jones of Littlefield and Martin of Weatherford make an easy, compatible, lifelong Texas triumvirate. In fact, the role she was set to do before she died was the stage manager in "Grover's Corners," their musicalized "Our Town." (Jones took over the part for its Chicago launch.) But it was "I Do! I Do!" that left him with his best memories of Martin.
"We rehearsed in what is now The Richard Rodgers on 46th Street, and she lived in a penthouse on 52nd Street, overlooking the East River, right across from River House. She had a bed-frame out on her terrace, and in the summer she'd often go sleeping out there, as you might in Texas."
He remembers her as a vivid crisscross of big-city and country. "Mary was so sophisticated and super-classy she'd have the Rolls-Royce bring her lunch in a little basket. The rest of us were having hamburgers, and her crowd would go to her dressing room and have a tablecloth and iced tea. Then, they would eat what she would have eaten in Weatherford, Texas.
"She had it written into her contract with David he'd spend $23,000 to redo her dressing room. It had mirrors the color of walls and made everybody look younger than they were. Out in front of her dressing room, people came by she casually knew and she'd say, 'Why, thank you.' Then, she'd go inside and have Noel Coward and people like that in there.
"Robert Preston had a big dressing room, too, and absolutely nothing in it. It had been the chorus boys' dressing room, and it had, like, 20 chairs, and just his little makeup thing, and he had a one-gallon thing of scotch. And that was it. Mary would put flowers in his dressing room every night.
"My memories of him are not as colorful as my memories of her. He was terrific, great, very sweet guy. He came and did his thing and left, y'know."
Jones and Schmidt made it to the millennium and called it a collaboration with their 16th show, 2001's "Roadside." Schmidt retired and spent the rest of his days in Tomball, TX, but Jones has pressed on with other composers (Nancy Ford and Offenbach for "The Game of Love," Joseph Thalken for "Harold and Maude"). His latest team effort is with Andrew Gerle, "La Tempesta," a musical version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
He gets a little rhapsodic about the latter: "'La Tempesta' is what I dreamed of being able to do almost all my career. It's my best work. I hope we can get a production. It's very hard to get a production when you're my age, let me tell you. We want to have a premiere in Tokyo and make a video of the piece for producers back here. I'm very big in Tokyo."
(He actually is, too, having brought that rickety thespian Henry Albertson there in the '90s in a super-successful touring sweep of the Far East.)
Between shows, or even hints of shows, he toils over his autobiography, which is titled (with a Tom Jones-type of twist) "Trying To Remember."
It lightly details how growing up Texan and poetical can produce a very special spectacle: "When I was in high school in this little old ranch town, I wore a big straw hat to school, I wore a bow tie, I carried a cane, I smoked a pipe and I signed all of my papers T. Collins Jones, Esq."
But let no man write his epitaph. He's already taken care of that quite beautifully: "Maybe if I have a headstone-if I go that direction when I die-maybe I'll have them write 'Remember me--in light.' We will see."