Musical team still humming Authors of 'The Fantasticks' hope for another hit with 'Mirette,' the centerpiece of the Goodspeed Opera House season.

July 26, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

EAST HADDAM, Conn. - You might think that Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones are spending their golden years rocking on a porch somewhere, racking up royalties.

After all, this is the team - Schmidt is the composer and Jones, the lyricist - who wrote the world's longest-running musical, "The Fantasticks," currently in its 39th year at off-Broadway's Sullivan Street Playhouse.

Now 69 and 70 respectively, Schmidt and Jones may indeed be hanging out on a porch, but it's the porch of the Goodspeed

Opera House, Connecticut's small, jewel box of a theater dedicated to restoring old musicals and creating new ones. This summer, Schmidt and Jones' latest musical, "Mirette," is the centerpiece of the season.

Based on a 1992 Caldecott Award-winning children's book by Emily Arnold McCully called "Mirette on the High Wire," the musical bears at least one strong similarity to the biggest hit originated by the Goodspeed, "Annie." Like that show, "Mirette" is about a spunky, red-headed little girl who proves an inspiration to the adults around her.

Despite the show's origins as a children's book, Jones says, "It touches on a number of serious themes." Most of these concern the adult character of Bellini, a world-famous tightrope walker who has lost his nerve and seeks refuge in the 1890s Paris boarding house run by Mirette's mother.

"Mirette" came to Schmidt and Jones' attention thanks to playwright Elizabeth Diggs, a friend of McCully's and the author of the musical's book. Chatting in the Goodspeed Library of Musical Theatre between a recent matinee and evening performance, Diggs explained that she called Jones four years ago to see if he or Schmidt knew anyone who'd be interested in collaborating on the show. To her delight, Diggs says, they were.

The three began meeting at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a setting with decidedly good karma for the songwriting duo, whose association goes back to their student days at the University of Texas.

Married couples - and even dogs and their owners - are often said to acquire a certain resemblance over time. But except for the fact that they both sport goatees and glasses, there's little physical resemblance between Schmidt and Jones. Schmidt, the rounder of the pair, has gray hair and a scowling expression that is at odds with his gentle demeanor. Jones is thin, with white hair and a pixie-ish smile.

And though Jones does most of the talking, Schmidt can easily slip in an amusing anecdote. He recalls, for instance, the days when they were newcomers, desperately trying to find investors for a small-scale musical called "The Fantasticks," based on Rostand's "Les Romanesques," and with a score that included "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain." At various backers auditions, he and Jones would perform the entire musical themselves for just about anyone who was interested.

One night a couple dropped off an elderly lady, saying they'd pick her up later. The sole person in attendance, she fell sound asleep a few minutes into the audition, but the songwriters diligently slogged through the entire score. Neither she nor the couple invested in the show.

If it was difficult to find backers for the stage show, it's proved even more challenging to find a berth for the film of "The Fantasticks" - a $20 million movie musical, directed by Michael Ritchie in 1995 and starring, among others, Joel Grey and Teller (of Penn and Teller) - that is languishing in the can. "It's a strange film," says Jones, who describes it as a combination of "MGM and Fellini."

Last winter, Schmidt and Jones appeared in a well-received off-Broadway revue of their work. It was the first new Schmidt and Jones show to play New York in more than two decades. The pair had two minor Broadway hits in the 1960s, "110 in the Shade" and "I Do! I Do!", and ran an experimental workshop theater, Portfolio, in New York from 1969 to 1975.

But their two major efforts of the 1980s never made it to New York. In 1982, their musical "Colette," based on the life of the French author and starring Diana Rigg, closed on the second stop of its out-of-town tour. Five years later, "Grover's Corners," their musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," met a similar fate in Chicago.

Schmidt and Jones had played the onstage roles of co-Stage Managers during the three-month Chicago run of "Grover's Corners," and Mary Martin, who had starred in "I Do! I Do!", was signed to play the Stage Manager for the subsequent tour.

However, as Jones explains, Martin was diagnosed with cancer before she could begin rehearsals, and the rights reverted back to Wilder's estate.

But he and Schmidt never gave up on "Grover's Corners." Two years ago, they regained the rights to the Wilder play, and they are currently negotiating for a regional theater opening.

In the meantime, there's "Mirette," a show they shepherded through two workshops at Robert Redford's Sundance Festival in Utah and a 1996 production at the Goodspeed's smaller, developmental theater, the Norma Terris, in Chester, Conn.

"The one problem is the wire walking," says Jones, referring to the skill practiced by the show's leading male character, who, in TC turn, teaches it to Mirette. At Chester, a series of stationary, wood platforms were used. In the larger theater, there are three heights - the lowest represented by an actual wire and the higher ones by suspended Plexiglas platforms.

These days, producing a musical may seem almost as risky as tightrope walking. But Jones remains hopeful. "I'm ready for a big juicy hit," he says. "Maybe this is it, maybe 'Grover's Corners.' "

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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