They Were You the songs of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
Today I found the answer to the title of our review, Where do all the good songs go?
Exactly fifty-six years ago Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote their first show, The Fantasticks.
Who would have thought that a little show set on a nearly-empty stage, with a cast of seven, no chorus, no orchestra, just a piano and harp, I think, and a hope and a prayer would turn out to be the longest-running musical play ever. In the world.
And now, all these years later, director Aubrey Berg has assembled a nifty revue with (count’ em) forty gems from the Schmidt and Jones’ trunk of treasures.
Lyricist Tom Jones and songwriter Harvey Schmidt, ever restless and not at all happy to repose on their laurels and live off their royalties, went on to write Celebration, 110 in the Shade, The Bone Room, Colette, Mirette, Philemon, Roadside, and I do! I Do!
Writing for the musical theatre is a perilous enterprise not fit for the faint of heart, in which each new show is a throw of the dice.
Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Cole Porter, and, from earlier generations, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin wrote during the years in which a song from a musical could top the charts when sung by a Sinatra or a Crosby or an Ella or a Rosemary Clooney.
Schmidt and Jones soldiered on valiantly during a transitional era in New York theatre.
As off-Broadway production costs became increasingly prohibitive, musicals got pushed in the direction of Broadway. And if you turned on the radio you were more likely to get Elvis or the Beatles than Tony Martin.
Bigger casts, bigger orchestrations, bigger production values. crashing chandeliers, descending helicopters, singing felines began to dominate Broadway stages, and the chamber musical, a direct descendant of the European cabaret, became a theatrical equivalent of the horse and buggy.
Paraphrasing Noel Coward’s prophetic words, “The cafe society was becoming the Nescafe society”.
But, mercifully, not all is lost because Aubrey Berg has lovingly assembled a brace of songs by Schmidt and Jones and grouped them thematically in eight cohesive sections.
Songs of Love is the first grouping. That is easy. Aren’t all songs ultimately about love?
On the contrary, they can be about Battle of the Sexes, Marital Bliss… That is still in the neighborhood of Love.
But what about Songs of Disillusion, Learning Who You Are, The Natural World, Songs of Experience, The Human Spirit?
Those are the eight sections of the show.
Schmidt and Jones songs range from the deeply moving to the hilarious, to the reflective, to the satirical, to the ironic. In short, songs about the human experience.
The lyrics are urbane, the rhymes unpredictable, the melodies free-flowing…Very good songs, indeed. Don’t they write songs like those any more? Every songwriter finds his own way. I just wish more of today’s songwriters could land such felicitous rhymes and such singer-friendly melodies.
The revue format allows for a song taken out of context, plucked, as it were, from its natural dramatic habitat in whatever show it belongs, to take a life of its own and allow one to isolate everything else, all the paraphernalia, all the trappings, all the baggage…and for a few very special minutes to partake of its existence, just you and the song and the singer as the messenger.
Aubrey Berg facilitated that experience. He gave six fabulously talented messengers a bare stage with a poetic set by Thomas C. Umfrid – a painted canvas with a sky that could be day, night, sunrise, sunset and an orb that could be earth or the moon…just a few hand props…no real costumes, just jeans and sweaters for the guys and pretty dresses for the ladies.
All that, and subtle, lovely lighting by Parker Conzone.
Avoiding the maudlin and the overwrought, Berg made theatrical magic happen, greatly aided by Katie Johannigman‘s endlessly inventive choreography.
Stephen Goers and Luke Flood are two protean pianists who might as well send the next orchestra with which they have a gig on a well-deserved break, as the two of them can make two keyboards sound like a pit full of players.
There’s no need to single out any one of the six outrageously gifted young artists in the cast. Let me merely give you their names and entreat you to make mental note of them, with the assurance that, sooner than you think, you will be hearing these names: Gabe Wrobel, Emily Fink, Stavros Koumbaros, Aria Brasswell, Karl Amundsen and Michelle Coben.
As for Tom Jones, as gracious a person as he is an enormously gifted lyricist, let us thank him and his writing partner Harvey Schmidt for a great legacy of unforgettable songs.
And thanks again to Aubrey Berg for astounding us yet one more time.
Rafael de Acha
October 10, 2016