“Try to Remember,” the most famous song to have come out of the stage musical “The Fantasticks,” was noted for its autumnal feel, sung by someone reflecting back on youthful days. The happy irony is that Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote that song prior to the show’s original 1960 staging when they were both still relatively young men of about 30, fellows who still had about two-thirds of their lives ahead of them. Schmidt, who wrote the music, died in 2018 at age 88, and Jones, who penned the show’s lyrics and book, died Friday at 95.
Here’s to it having been a heck of a long way from September to December.
When the movie version of the show came out in the fall of 2000, I wrote about it for Entertainment Weekly and said that “for my money, ‘The Fantasticks’ is the best pure live–action movie musical since ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’” Now, if you’re familiar with the stage show but didn’t even know there was a film adaptation, you are not alone in that. It was released into a handful of theaters almost as a closely held secret, five years after it was filmed by director Michael Ritchie. At a time when film musicals were at a historical low ebb, prior to “Chicago,” et al., It was taken off the shelf by United Artists only after Ritchie’s friend Francis Ford Coppola convinced the studio that he could do a re-edit that would make it more realistic and less stagey to young movie audiences. In the end, that was to little avail, commercially, but at least it did put a cap on a four-decade journey from stage to screen.
I spent time talking with both Jones and Schmidt about the history of the show on the set of the film in 1995, reporting for the Los Angeles Times at the time. I found both writers to be as lovely as their classic score, and I was never more rapt than when it came to their recounting of earlier attempts to make a film of “The Fantasticks.” In the category of filmic “what-ifs,” it’s hard to beat a movie “Fantasticks” that might might have had Barbra Streisand and Elliott Gould as the young romantic leads.
As a set-up for the tale of the foiled romance between “The Fantasticks” and Hollywood, it’s important to note that the stage version was long considered the most successful off-Broadway show of all time. And if “off-Broadway smash” sounds like an oxymoron, consider that it ran in the same Greenwich Village theater for 42 years and was turned into a prime-time TV special several years into its run, as well as having its signature songs covered by artists from Streisand, Tony Bennett and Duke Ellington to Gladys Knight and eventually Josh Groban.
As Joel Grey said, “I think there was a five-year period [in the 1960s] where that cast album was played all the time” in homes across America.
As of 1995, when I first spoke with Jones, he said, “There have been over 20,000 productions. There are over 100,000 people who’ve been in it, so there is some kind of name recognition. But it’s still not what you’d call the hottest property in the world.”
When it came to a film adaptation, Jones told me, “There were several attempts in the ‘60s, and actually ‘70s, as well. It’s not that we were closed to the idea. The second thing Liza Minnelli ever did was when she and Elliott Gould did a tour of ‘The Fantasticks’ (in 1964). And he had a vision and wanted desperately to do a film, when he was married to Barbra. At that time, they were with Ray Stark, because of the ‘Funny Girl’ movie. They had the money and everything. But we couldn’t come up with a vision we could all agree on. Elliott is a nice man…
“Then we experimented with Gower Champion,” Jones continued. “And Charles Bluhdorn at Paramount, Gulf+Western, somehow got interested. He said to his minions at Paramount, ‘We want to make a movie of “The Fantasticks”’ — and we went to Sicily. He had this idea we were going to do it in Sicily, (even though) it should be American people instead of Mediterranean.” (Might that version of “The Fantasticks” have been the proto-“Mamma Mia”?) “We just did wonderful power lunches, and they would send us to Sicily with cars and drivers…
“Then they began to get doubtful about Gower, who hadn’t really done many films,” Jones continued. “Then they took it to Franco Zeffirelli, and they said, ‘Zeffirelli, will you make a film?’ And he said, ‘I don’t understand this. What is this all about? This is too American. I can’t understand a word of this.’ Frank Yablans (the head of Paramount) said that Zeffirelli got down on his knees and said, ‘Please, please don’t make me do this!’”
Then, according to Jones, Paramount’s standing interest in “The Fantasticks” was cut short by “the young guy who became head of Variety, Peter Bart [Paramount’s VP of production in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, long before he became Variety’s editor-in-chief from 1989-2009]. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were going through our ritual of being excommunicated. We were being killed off in the scene and didn’t know it.
“Frank Yablans told us, ‘I want to thank you for allowing us to do this beautiful, beautiful piece.’ And we never were able to get him on the phone again.”
Jones was recalling this unconsummated Hollywood courtship with a smile, not a grimace. “I have certainly no regrets,” he told me. “We had a wonderful time in Hollywood. We were invited to Adolph Zucker’s 100th birthday party at Paramount at the time. Jesus, what more could you ask, really? Who needs to make the movie if you can go to Adolph Zucker’s 100th birthday party and meet Mae West, which we did?
“It was optioned once by an awful, awful man… just a terrible person,” Jones added, without naming names. “He actually paid $100,000 for the option. We had all these approvals, none of which meant dick. We were supposed to do the script, A year later, by accident, we came across the script (written by someone else without their knowledge). The opening shot was on 8th Ave. in New York at 5 in the morning, as they’re closing some bars, and there’s a drunken person staggering down and he looks up and there’s a sign that says ‘Hotel September,’ and the music starts for ‘Try to Remember.’” Ah, the New Hollywood.
Michael Ritchie, who ended up directing the film in the mid-‘90s, told me that he had been interested in the ‘70s, when he was cresting with films like “The Candidate,” “The Bad News Bears” and “Smile,” and had been shown a script in 1979. “I had a meeting with a composer who shall remain nameless,” the filmmaker recalled. “The composer sat down at the piano and said, ‘If we’re gonna do this movie, we’ve gotta junk the score, and we’ve gotta get it updated for today’s audiences…’”
Another point of trivia: According to Schmidt, “At one point Billy Friedkin was very interested in doing it” — just in case you need a reminder we’re at the end of an era.
There was good reason to think that a film version could be viable, at least before the bottom fell out for movie musicals around the end of the 1960s. And that reason was the NBC TV special that was made of the stage show in 1964, with a cast made up of Ricardo Montalban as El Gallo, Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway as the fathers, and John Davidson and Susan Watson as the kids, with future filmmaker Herbert Ross handling the choreography.
Schmidt claimed the stage version “didn’t really catch on till the third year, when ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame’ did it on TV. A lot of people who had seen the show didn’t like it that much. It sold out for like the next eight years after that!… If you know the show, you don’t like (the ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame’ special) very much. We weren’t crazy about it… But for people who didn’t know the show and had never heard the score, it was great… We started getting a lot of recordings then, too.”
Those included Streisand having the ballad “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” as an early signature song. Reportedly, she had tried out to be in the original production at New York’s Sullivan Street Playhouse (which ran for 42 years and 17,162 performances). It appeared on her debut LP, “The Barbra Streisand Album,” in 1963. (A live version recorded at the time is also on her recently released archival project “Live at the Bon Soir.”)
“The stage manager turned Barbra Streisand down at the time we were casting the original,” Schmidt recalled. “She had submitted photos, but he felt she didn’t look like the young girl. It’s really ironic she was the first to do songs, because her career was just starting. She did four songs from the show for years, so I’m grateful she forgave us for not casting her.”
But traditional movie musicals, in which the characters break into song off-stage and not just in performance scenes, became anathema after pictures like “Star!” flopped in the late ‘60s. When Joel Grey spoke with me on the set of “The Fantasticks” in ’95, he said, “Having part of maybe the last successful one, it never occurred to me that there wouldn’t be another. But then, hope springs.”
Grey was referring to 1972’s “Cabaret” when he referred to “maybe the last successful one,” and he was close, although that’s forgetting 1978’s “Grease.” There were a few other aberrations and outliers with varying levels of success in the three decades between that and 2002’s “Chicago,” including “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Newsies” and “Evita,” but little to go on that would have convinced very many production executives a film version of “The Fantasticks” would have been a bankable idea in the ‘80s or ‘90s.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, said Schmidt, “There were no musical stars being developed anymore, so they would always propose the hottest rock performer of the moment. The score is not written for rock performers. I hate to mention them, because it sounds like I’m denigrating them, which I’m not… Or, Brooke Shields had just made ‘Endless Love’… ‘Get Brooke Shields.’ It didn’t matter whether she could sing or not. It was that kind of thinking that ran rampant at the time.”
It was Ritchie’s ultimate passion project, making “The Fantasticks” in 1995 on a fairly modest $10 million budget. It was shot largely outdoors on location in the American West, with a small complement of actors singing mostly live on camera, including New Kids on the Block’s Joey McIntyre and Jean Louisa Kelly as the kids, Grey and Brad Sullivan as the dads, Jonathon Morris as El Gallo, and Barnard Hughes and Teller (of Penn & Teller) as circus performers.
The phenomenal arrangements for the film, done with a full orchestra instead of local productions’ traditional two-player accompiment, were by the great Jonathan Tunick. It wasn’t the first time the music of “ The Fantasticks” had been opened up.
“People have come to think of it as a tiny musical,” said Schmidt. “It’s written as big music with big endings. When I wrote it, I always heard the old MGM orchestra in my head. The piano and harp were intended to sound like we had 10 trumpets! It isn’t easy for everybody to play.
“We did a 25th anniversary tour with Robert Goulet” in the ‘80s, Schmidt noted. “Jack Elliott did the orchestrations for that tour. It wasn’t that big — 18 pieces. We figured after 25 years nobody could criticize if we at least tried. It was an interesting challenge, because we didn’t want to violate how people thought of the show.”
Sadly, as great as the song score for the film version of “The Fantasticks” turned out, no soundtrack album has ever materialized.
The film languished on UA’s shelf for five years before Coppola came in to save the day by doing a re-edit he and Ritchie convinced the studio to release in a few theaters and eventually on home video. Apparently one problem test audiences had with the original cut was starting it off with El Gallo singing “Try to Remember” right into the camera, as he rides into town on a wagon leading the circus trains. Hard as it is to believe now after the last couple of decades of fairly successful movie musicals — or as it would have been at the time after MTV had been flourishing for a while — people in test audiences thought it was either confusing or corny to start a film with a song, direct-to-camera. So “Try to Remember” was cut by Coppola from the beginning of the film and saved for the end, and it began instead with some dialogue before the heroine Luisa jumps into her “I wish” song. (If you want to compare the Ritchie and Coppola cuts, there’s a Twilight Time Blu-Ray that includes both, although the original version is non-HD. Warning: I participated in a commentary track on the disc.)
For Jones, the film was satisfying no matter what result it met with. He was especially thrilled with Kelly’s accomplishment as a lead, very near the beginning of her career, before she went on to star in TV’s “Yes, Dear.” “Jeannie gives a performance of Luisa that’s as good as if not the best I’ve seen. It’s right up there. It’s touching and funny. She’s heartbreaking, and also you think, ‘My God, how stupid young people are!’”
Almost a quarter-century after the film “Fantasticks” came out to very little notice, I stand by my take at the time that it was a bold link between movie-musical eras, when the genre was languishing in the desert. But most of all, I celebrate its enduring, 63-year-old score, still underrated itself, even after the tens of thousands of local productions. With Schmidt’s rich melodic gifts and Jones’ fierce wit and uncanny combination of cynicism and sentiment, it will continue to break hearts in high schools and community theaters whether or not the film ever gets its due.
Just how dark Jones’ lyrics and the themes in his libretto get is something that is underexplored when you have teenaged leads and a signature song like “Try to Remember” tugging at the heartstrings of the elders. But the sweet stuff of “The Fantasticks” wouldn’t have the impact that it does if audiences weren’t at least subconsciously taking in the constant, nearly subliminal undertones about just how rough life can and will get for the initially innocent protagonists. Jones snuck a scary amount of life lessons into those two unassuming hours.
I’ll let a “Fantasticks” super-fan, the late Michael Ritchie, have the last word about what Jones and Schmidt pulled off:
“It’s not we have a story with songs, which would sometimes happen with your old Esther Williams movies,” the director said. “The true musicals are ones where the music is absolutely essential to let you into the inner world of the characters. After all, Henry Higgins would never say what he really felt to Colonel Pickering or anybody else. He could only say it in a kind of soliloquy. So ‘The Fantasticks’ has four or five of those very important, revealing moments, the most important being the reconciliation of the boy and the girl when they sing what for my money is one of the most beautiful songs in American musical theater: ‘They Were You.’
“All the attention in the show goes to ‘Try to Remember,’ because it was the big hit that was covered by hundreds of major artists worldwide — obviously it can exist very easily outside the context of the show — and secondary attention frequently goes to ‘Soon It’s Gonna Rain,’ because Streisand made it a big hit, or much more, which was her signature song before ‘People.’ But the song that touches people the most when they see the show is ‘They Were You.’ It has not become as popular because it really has to be felt in the context of the show, because you know the characters and is such a major plot resolution that it’s overwhelming. I don’t cry in movies or theater. I cry when the kids sing ‘They Were You.’”
Tears, now, for Tom Jones, 1928-2023.