We just read that Harvey Schmidt, co-creator of “The Fantasticks,” the longest running musical in history, has died at age 88.
The last time we chatted with Schmidt, a former Austinite who attended the University of Texas, he was in town in 2010 with his lyricist, Tom Jones, to toast the 50th anniversary of his hit, which ran for nearly 42 years at the 153-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village — 17,162 performances! — before closing in 2002. It returned in 2006 at the Theater Center and ran until its New York total since 1960 reached 21,552.
Word Baker, who directed the show, also attended UT.
In Austin during the 1950s, Schmidt and Jones were part of the Curtain Club, the extracurricular drama group started by critic and scholar Stark Young in 1907. Both “The Fantasticks” and their much less successful “Celebration” relied heavily on their theater historical training at UT.
Two more of their best remembered Broadway shows were “I Do! I Do!,” a two-actor musical about love and marriage that was mostly a showcase for Mary Martin and Robert Preston, and “110 in the Shade,” based on “The Rainmaker.” Their major musicals have been revived here periodically. More evidence hometown loyalty: The Paramount Theatre was one of the few in the country that ever exhibited the ill-fated 1995 movie adaptation of “The Fantasticks.”
Here’s a snip from something I wrote back in 2010 before the UT event: So just how did “The Fantasticks” get its start in Austin? The composing pair closely studied the source material, Edmund Rostand‘s “Les Romanesques,” with (UT professor and director) B. Iden Payne and witnessed multiple student versions of the story about parents who bring their children together by pretending to keep them apart. They collaborated on deliriously popular student revues at UT and creative projects in New York before “The Fantasticks” took off, boosting the careers of Jerry Orbach, Robert Goulet, Glenn Close, Rita Gardner, Richard Chamberlain, George Chakiris, John Davidson and others. (The book to read is “The Amazing Story of The Fantasticks: America’s Longest Running Play” by Donald C. Farber and Robert Viagas.)
This is what I wrote afterwards: We witnessed history. Oct. 15, on the first night of the University Texas’ celebration of the 50th Anniversary of “The Fantasticks,” a perky set of undergraduates performed a sharply contoured revue of songs by Texas exes Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. The portfolio included fewer than two dozen from the composing team’s 1,000+ songs, written over the course of 60 years. Yet it polished up rare gems, like alternative versions of the “I Do! I Do!” title song and the duo’s work as UT students and cabaret composers during the 1950s.
At the end of the show, Schmidt and Jones, now in their eighties, met at the piano. They sang four short songs, but — oh! — it was well worth witnessing the composers of America’s longest running play jazzing it up for the crowd. Two instant hits were “Mr. Off-Broadway,” their self-descriptive salute to the movement they helped popularize, and “Freshman Song,” the first they ever wrote together, 60 years ago for a wildly popular UT student review. How many can say they have witnessed the crowning of such a career at one’s alma mater?
The song’s shy, hopeful lyrics set loose the waterworks for the assembled guests, mostly alumni who packed the weekend of performances, panels and parties. The subsequent reception outside the Brockett Theatre was like old home week for seven decades of theater and dance students.
The eldest member of the Curtain Club — which predated the drama department — spoke of joining in the early 1940s. She was the picture of grace and eloquence.
The next morning, UT playwright Steven Dietz delivered a philosophical keynote speech about theater preparing us “to be.” Texas Performing Arts director Kathy Panoff, with help from music director Lyn Koenning, interviewed Schmidt and Jones for a delightful hour of anecdotes and reminiscences. Both Texans retain a ready wit and literate array of references.
Playwright Kirk Lynn and arts editor Robert Faires then led a discussion of how new work changes theater, dance and training. The panel linked choreographer Kitty McNamee, playwrights Robert Schenkkan, Kim Peter Kovac and Carson Kreitzer. They made a convincing case for the act of making something from nothing.
Costume designer Susan Mickey helped me corral a raucous crew of talents: Bruce McGill (“Animal House,” “The Legend of Bagger Vance”); Todd Lowe (“Gilmore Girls,” “True Blood”); and Brian Danner (Los Angeles fight director). We discussed whether a university arts education was worth nothing – or everything. Other talks and demonstrations honeycombed the Winship Building before a performance of “The Fantasticks.”