BWW Interviews: Book Writer and Lyricist TOM JONES Says, 'It's a Celebration of Theatre'

BWW Interviews: Book Writer and Lyricist TOM JONES Says,
'It's a Celebration of Theatre'

The Fantasticks is an amazing show in all sorts of ways. It's the world's longest running musical, 42 years in its original incarnation (1960-2002), and eight years and counting in its off-Broadway revival. Among the actors who've taken roles since its opening in 1962 are Jerry Orbach (who originated the role of El Gallo), Liza Minnelli, Elliott Gould, Glenn Close and Kristin Chenoweth. It continues to enjoy over 250 productions annually around the world.

In talking to Tom Jones, the man who wrote the book and lyrics, you find that it's amazing for reasons one might never guess. For one thing, Jones didn't finish his rewrites until 2006, while planning the revival. "There were a couple of scenes that I felt could work just a little bit better," he says. "During the original run, our producer had refused to allow any changes. He said we were contracted to give our audience the show that we'd opened with. So after it closed, I felt like I finally had the chance to finish it." And then he admits, "About a year later I changed one line, the last line of the play." The final line, when El Gallo tells the feuding fathers they must always leave the wall, "sounded profound, but I really never knew what it meant. So I changed it to 'No. Forget about the wall. It's not about the wall.' Because it's never been about the wall."

So then what is The Fantasticks about, exactly? Jones says that the show often surprises people who think they're in for a silly romantic frolic. "It's been around so long that people think that it's just popular entertainment, but it's offbeat and strange. It's very hard to get all the parts working, the comedy and the drama and the rest of it. It's a harder piece to get right than it looks."

The original inspiration for the musical came from a little-known play by Rostand called Les Romanesques, about a pair of fathers who try to trick their children into falling in love by pretending to feud. "We took this little Rostand play and tried to make it into a full sized musical," he recalls. "Harvey [Schmidt, the composer] and I were totally untrained in musicals and writing. We tried for several years to turn it into this big Rodgers & Hammerstein type of show set in the American West. It never worked. Finally a friend who ran a summer theatre told us that if we could give him something in three weeks, he'd put it up. So we threw out everything we had except [the title song] 'Try To Remember.' We decided that we'd just do things that we liked and were passionate about. Once we did that, it wrote itself in three weeks. And that one-act version was the basis of the show."

The full-length version opened in New York to indifferent reviews, but the show's producer Lore Noto was convinced that this unique pocket musical, with its low-budget but evocative set and innovative score, was worth nurturing. He was proved right in spectacular fashion. "There are several reasons it works," says Jones. "It's a celebration of the theatre, of what is possible through limitations of set and production, and of how they can be releasing. I'd been studying a lot about Shakespeare, especially his imagery, and how there are unifying themes that aren't consciously stated up front, but form the fabric of the piece. That inspired me to take the idea of vegetation and seasonal change and use those images throughout. Meanwhile it's still a lighthearted love story with some beautiful music."

With their career launched, Jones and Schmidt continued to collaborate on shows like 110 Degrees in the Shade, Roadside, Collette, and I Do! I Do! But Jones continued to take an active interest in his breakthrough show, including occasionally returning to the role of the Old Actor, which he'd played for some time in the original production. "I returned to it in 1988 when we did a series of tours of Japan, and in the 2006 revival I stayed in the role for 18 months. For my final performance - you know he crawls out of the prop trunk? - after the show I told the gathered guests that if I continued to do the show I wasn't going to get out of the trunk, the audience would have to travel past me while I said my lines. So if I ever do it again, that's how I'm doing it."

Yet at 86 Jones shows no signs of slowing down at all, and is currently involved in two new musicals, an adaptation of the May-December dark comedy Harold and Maude as well as an original piece inspired by Shakespeare's great late play, La Tempesta. "I feel very good about both them. I feel like this work is the best work in my life, really."

When I compliment him on his unflagging creativity, he quotes an anecdote from the life of the French novelist Collette. "When she was 82 she was asked what she would keep from her life and what she would throw away. And she said 'I would keep it all. It's my property.' You must live like Collette, and say 'it's mine. The good and the bad, the living and the dying.' That was a life lesson for me."

Theater writer John Logenbaugh interviewed Tom Jones for SHOWTUNES on October 9, 2014. Afterwards John gushed, "Just finished up a phone interview with Tom Jones, writer and lyricist of "The Fantasticks" along with a half-dozen other musical standards. 86 years old and still passionately involved in his work, his politics and his life. He was a delight and is now officially my new hero."

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From This Author John Longenbaugh

In addition to writing theater criticism for Seattle Weekly and Backstage, John wrote the "Longenbaugh on Theatre" column for the Weekly from 2006 to 2008. (read more...)

  • BWW Interviews: Book Writer and Lyricist TOM JONES Says, 'It's a Celebration of Theatre'
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