Tom Jones, Lyricist-Librettist of Record-Breaking The Fantasticks, Dies at 95 | Playbill

Obituaries Tom Jones, Lyricist-Librettist of Record-Breaking The Fantasticks, Dies at 95

Mr. Jones' numerous works also included 110 in the Shade, I Do! I Do!, and Harold & Maude.

Tom Jones

Tom Jones, the legendary lyricist and librettist, who with the late composer Harvey Schmidt created the longest-running musical in theatre history, The Fantasticks, died August 11 at the age of 95.

Mr. Jones passed away at his home in Sharon, Connecticut, from cancer, his son Michael Jones told The New York Times.

Thomas Collins Jones was born in Littlefield, Texas, February 17, 1928. He was raised in Coleman, Texas, and attended Coleman High School. It was at the University of Texas/Austin, however, where Mr. Jones met Mr. Schmidt in the late 1940s—they were both students. It was also at UT that the young Jones came across Edmund Rostand’s short play, Les Romanesques, a parody of Romeo and Juliet, which he would develop into the musical Western Joy Comes to Dead Horse, and which eventually evolved into The Fantasticks.

Under the title Joy Comes to Dead Horse, their show was originally conceived as a Western in the style of Oklahoma!, with an Anglo boy in love with a Latiné girl named Maria. When West Side Story opened with a similar plot, the project seemed doomed for a time, but when director Word Baker came to Jones and Schmidt and offered them a spot on a no-budget summer theatre program he was programming at Barnard University in the summer of 1959, they stripped out the elaborate costumes, sets, and special effects—everything that might cost money—and presented a one-act, bare-bones version of their show as The Fantasticks.

Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt, director Word Baker and producer Lore Noto

Expanded to two acts, the resulting minimalist musical opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village May 3, 1960, to mixed reviews. Mr. Schmidt asked producer Lore Noto to try keeping it open until the weekend so his family could come up from Texas to see it. The show stayed open for the next 42 years. In fact, the musical ran until January 13, 2002, playing 17,162 performances—the longest continuous run of any show in American history, and the longest continuous run of any musical in the world. A 2006 revival ran for 4,390 performances at the Jerry Orbach Theatre in midtown Manhattan.

Mr. Jones' connection to the record-breaking musical extended beyond his writing; he also created the role of Henry (The Old Actor), under the stage name Thomas Bruce, in the original production. He would return to the role numerous times, including in 2010 in the revival as it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

In a 2011 interview with Playbill, Jones spoke about his original inspiration for becoming a lyricist as well as some of his favorite productions, both classic and new.

"My big turn-on for theatre was Shakespeare," Jones said at the time. "The structure seems like music. And I love the presentational aspects. My ultimate dream in the theatre is musicals that would be like Shakespeare. Beyond that, I think Guys and Dolls is probably my favorite musical. So skillful, so character-driven, yet everything pays off like gangbusters. I love that ebullient fun that can be in musicals. I hope whatever we do, we don't get so serious we lose some of that. I also love My Fair Lady, the original Candide, because it was very funny but deeply moving at the end. They felt the ending was sentimental, so in the revivals they tricked it up, which was a shame. In more recent times, M. Butterfly felt like a musical to me. I liked Bring in `da Noise, Bring in `da Funk. It did something I didn't think could be done: take tap dancing, keep the entertainment quotient, and still have a sociological, historical punch, while keeping it in the context of plain old showbiz tap dancing. I was stunned by that. Angels in America was like a musical, with arias. Very daring, very theatrical. With these great, gushing spoken arias that were like music."

Inga Swenson and Robert Horton in the original Broadway production of 110 in the Shade

After The Fantasticks, Jones and Schmidt seemed to have a bright future as writers of experimental musicals. Snapped up by producer David Merrick, they finally got to write their musical Western, 110 in the Shade in 1963. (It was revived on Broadway in 2007, with Audra McDonald as Lizzie, the role originated by Inga Swenson.) The two were prolific writers. In 1966 they wrote I Do! I Do!, a rare musical for two characters, for two of the biggest stars on Broadway, Robert Preston and Mary Martin. Celebration would prove to be the duo's final Broadway show, in 1969.

In the early 1970s they focused their energies on several experimental smaller musicals presented in a converted church they rented on West 48th Street, which they dubbed “Portfolio.” Among projects that emerged from the Portfolio period were The Bone Room, about a middle-aged museum worker who faces a midlife crisis; Portfolio Revue, which offered a retrospective of the team’s work; and Philemon, a musical about a street thief in ancient Antioch who is transformed by his first contact with early Christianity. Starring Dick Latessa, Philemon was the only Portfolio project to get a commercial run for Schmidt and Jones. They spent most of the next two decades working on two big projects, Colette (a.k.a. The Garden of Earthly Delights and Colette Collage) and Grover’s Corners (a musicalization of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town), which never got the full-scale Broadway productions they envisioned.

Jones and Schmidt had a late-career burst of creativity, writing two new musicals and assembling a revue of their work over the course of five years: Mirette (1996), The Show Goes On (1997), and Roadside. The latter two were produced by the York Theatre Company, which served as an artistic home for the team in their later years.

Harvey Schmidt, James Morgan, and Tom Jones in 2017

When asked to define what constitutes a Jones and Schmidt musical, Mr. Jones told Playbill in that 2011 interview, "We like a kind of celebration of theatricality itself. Certainly it's true of The Fantasticks. That's what it is, a celebration of what the theatre can do. It's true even of the domestic comedy I Do! I Do!, where the characters come down … and do monologues on married life. Roadside is set in an old-time traveling tent show—which was the only theatre I saw growing up in Texas. I don't like things that pretend to be totally real. I like some kind of celebration of the theatricality of theatre, which is fairly consistent in our work. I think we're unjustly accused of being overly sentimental. There's often a duality of sentiment or sentimentally mixed side by side with a mocking of sentiment for an ambivalent feeling.…Very many of the shows are specifically about romanticism and 'reality.' That's what The Fantasticks is about: the boy and girl give up their romantic illusions to settle down."

After Roadside, Mr. Schmidt retired to Tomball, Texas (he passed away in 2018), but Mr. Jones kept on working. In fact, in 2005 New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse presented the premiere of Harold & Maude, featuring a book and lyrics by Mr. Jones and music by Joseph Thalken. The musical, based on Colin Higgins' 1971 film starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort, concerns a 79-year-old widow who has an unlikely romance with a 19-year-old. The cast was led by Oscar winner Estelle ParsonsEric Millegan as Harold, Donna English, Danny Burstein, and Donna Lynne Champlin.

And, in 2012 the aforementioned York Theatre Company presented Musicals in Mufti: The Tom Jones Festival, a special edition of its long-running series presenting musicals in staged concert performances. The spring 2012 offerings included limited runs of The Show Goes On, Roadside, Harold & Maude, Colette Collage, and The Game of Love. In a statement at the time York Artistic Director James Morgan said, “We are thrilled and excited to showcase the works of our dear friend, Tom Jones, who has given us so many significant musical theater gems. This year we thought we would once again present a series honoring a single writer, but present more shows than we ever have before because Tom’s body of work is so rich. It’s a celebration I think everyone will enjoy. It’s also noteworthy that three of these shows had their premieres at York.”

Neil McCaffrey and Jeremiah Porter in the 2022 revised version of The Fantasticks Mike Naddeo

In recent years Mr. Jones penned a new version of his classic musical The Fantasticks—in collaboration with Flint Repertory Producing Artistic Director Michael Lluberes—which premiered in June 2022 at the not-for-profit professional theatre company in Michigan. The LGBTQIA+ focused rewrite features two young gay men, Matt and Lewis, at the center of the story, instead of a young man and woman (the original characters were Matt and Luisa).

“Transforming the boy and the girl into two boys (Matt and Lewis) is an idea I’ve had for a long time,” said Lluberes at the time. “Rethinking the show through the lens of two young gay men reveals so much about first love, identity, and self-discovery.” Mr. Jones added, “I knew that to be done properly it would require a lot of rewriting, especially of lyrics. The more I thought about it, the more interesting it seemed. And when I actually began working on it, I became more and more enthusiastic. I had great fun doing it. I hope people have great fun viewing it.”

Because his lyrics were written in such a pure, heartfelt manner—especially for the many classics that came out of The Fantasticks—they've never felt dated; in fact, they seem to acquire more resonance as the years have passed. 

Mr. Jones, who devoted most of his life to the theatre, also spoke about its importance in his 2011 interview with Playbill, explaining, "Theatre is very important. More important than religion. The artist can capture things people feel but can't quite hold onto. It clarifies and makes it possible in a communal way to have a group affirmation that is transcendent. That's true of both laughter and the serious parts. But the most important thing of all is to open yourself to experience, good and bad."

Tom Jones is survived by sons Michael and Sam Jones from his second marriage to choreographer Janet Watson, who passed away in 2016.

Exclusive: A Treasury of Rarely Seen Photos of The Fantasticks

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