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'Fantasticks' Creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt Continue 50 Years of Collaboration With Premieres of New Show and Revue in Fullerton, Laguna Beach

May 08, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Try to remember the names Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. The team that created "The Fantasticks" will own some prime Orange County marquee space in the near future, with two different West Coast premiere productions on local stages.

First comes "Mirette," a new musical opening Friday at Plummer Auditorium in a production by the Fullerton Civic Light Opera. It is based on "Mirette on the High Wire," a Caldecott Award-winning children's book about a 10-year-old girl and her troubled mentor, a former tightrope great who has lost his nerve and retreated to the oblivion of the 1890s Parisian rooming house run by Mirette's mother.

Then, on July 5, the still very active septuagenarians will arrive not just as creators, but as performers, at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre for a 3 1/2-week run of "The Show Goes On." The revue, first done off Broadway in 1997, covers some two dozen of their songs, including "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain" from "The Fantasticks" and "My Cup Runneth Over" from "I Do! I Do!" Composer Schmidt sings and plays the piano, lyricist-librettist Jones sings (or, he says, tries to) and serves as raconteur. Joining them are three singer-actors who take most of the lead vocals.

Speaking over the phone last Wednesday from his Manhattan home, Jones, 72, clearly had many current events to talk about. Still, it seemed appropriate to ask him to try to remember a day precisely 40 years in his past: May 3, 1960, opening night for "The Fantasticks."

He didn't have to try hard.

Jones said he spent part of that evening crouched in a coffin-like box from which he would make his onstage entrance as the Old Actor--a part he originated. After the show, which starred Jerry Orbach as El Gallo, the cast repaired to a party at the scenic designer's home, where Jones consumed large quantities of Mexican food and more than a few drinks. In the early morning hours, somebody phoned in with the first two hot-off-the-presses reviews. They were mixed, at best, hardly the "money reviews" the creators were hoping for.

Jones and his girlfriend were riding home in a taxi when the combination of food, drink and "horrible, horrible anxiety, the feeling of just being crushed," got to him. He stopped the cab in Central Park, got out, and vomited.

"I picked my spot very carefully," Jones said.

The Show Went On and On

On the 40th anniversary night, Jones said he would be eating in with his wife and their sons, ages 12 and 15, before heading to the same 150-seat off-Broadway theater, the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where he had crouched nervously in that coffin.

Talk about the show going on: "The Fantasticks" never stopped running at the Sullivan.

The anniversary performance, where Jones and Schmidt were to receive a special achievement award from ASCAP, would be the 16,562nd showing there, a world record for longest run by a play in a single theater. The Sullivan Street production alone has grossed $22 million on an initial $16,500 investment, according to the show's producers. There have been more than 11,100 other productions elsewhere in the United States, and more than 700 in 67 foreign countries.

Jones thinks a large part of the charm is its minimalism: the moon is made of cardboard, a sprinkle of confetti stands for rain, and a stick serves as the fence crucial to the fable-like plot of two young lovers getting together and drifting apart. In asking audiences to invest their imaginations, he says, they invest loyally in the show: "They sense they've been a part of the creation."

The other key virtue, he says, is that "The Fantasticks" operates on more than one level.

"It attempts to be a celebration of young love and romanticism while at the same time mocking it. Most productions tend to concentrate on the mockery, but it's also meant to be a genuine, heartfelt appreciation of what it is to be young and insane." Jones based his script on "Les Romanesques," an 1894 play by Edmond Rostand, and borrowed the title from an early 20th century English adaptation.

When "Mirette" was first staged in 1996, Jones voted for a similar sort of symbolic minimalism: given his druthers, he said, there would be no real tightropes in the production, just emblematic platforms on which actors could dance freely and give the illusion of cavorting on high.

The musical so far has been produced in a developmental version at the Sundance Institute in Utah in 1996, the official premiere at the Goodspeed Opera House, a small theater in Connecticut (known as the birthplace of "Annie") in 1998, and a run in Irving, Texas, last fall. The director and choreographer of the Fullerton production is Sha Newman, who directed at Sundance.

Like the other productions, this one uses real tightropes at practice levels--one and five feet--and a realistic stage illusion for the climactic high-wire act, Newman said.

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