Tom Jones, the long-running lyricist and librettist of “The Fantasticks,” Passes Away at Age 95

He created the lyrics and the book for a little production that premiered in Greenwich Village in 1960 and went on to become “the longest-running musical in the universe.”

Tom Jones in 2011. He wrote the book and lyrics for “The Fantasticks,” the longest-running musical in history. But he regretted that it overshadowed some of his other work.Credit...Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images
Tom Jones in 2011. He wrote the book and lyrics for “The Fantasticks,” the longest-running musical in history. But he regretted that it overshadowed some of his other work.Credit…Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images

Tom Jones, who penned the script and lyrics for a small-scale musical called “The Fantasticks” that debuted in 1960 in Greenwich Village and astonishingly ran for 42 years, helped in part by its melancholy opening song, “Try to Remember,” passed away on Friday at his home in Sharon, Connecticut. He was 95.

Michael, his son, said that cancer was to blame.

Harvey Schmidt, a regular partner of Mr. Jones’, and he first collaborated while they were both undergraduate students at the University of Texas, Mr. Schmidt majoring in art while Mr. Jones was enrolled in the theatre department’s directing program.

After graduating, they stayed in touch and began writing music together via mail after being drafted into the Korean War. Mr. Jones left first and tried his luck in New York; he was unsuccessful in finding work as a director but succeeded in penning revues for Julius Monk, the showman, and tinkering with a musical with another composer, John Donald Robb.

The play by the French writer Edmond Rostand, which Mr. Robb and Mr. Jones loosely adapted, was titled “Joy Comes to Deadhorse,” and it was performed there in 1956 while Mr. Robb was dean. It was a large-cast production with only a handful of dancers.

The two men’s responses to their output were very different. In an unpublished memoir, Mr. Jones stated, “I felt it was basically wrong.” He believed it to be fundamentally correct. we parted ways.

Mr. Schmidt, who had moved to New York after leaving the military and was enjoying some success as a commercial artist, joined Mr. Jones in continuing to work on the painting. When a friend needed a one-act musical for a summer festival at Barnard College in 1959, they undertook a drastic reworking even though they were still planning on it as a major Broadway production. We “decided to break all the rules,” Mr. Jones wrote, “instead of trying to emulate Rodgers and Hammerstein.”

He continued, “We didn’t comprehend them anyway.

Their condensed musical, which dealt with two young loves and their seemingly at odds fathers, had a narrator, had little staging, and employed other unconventional elements.

Producer Lore Noto, who took it to the Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village where it debuted in May 1960, was one among those who watched it at Barnard. Early in his illustrious career, Jerry Orbach was a part of the company and played El Gallo, the narrator who sings “Try to Remember.”

In a limited capacity, it also featured Thomas Bruce, who was in reality Mr. Jones. He claimed he avoided accusations that “The Fantasticks” was a vanity project by not using his own name.

According to Mr. Jones, the opening night performance, which was attended by critics, was uneven, and everyone involved anticipated the evaluations with apprehension at the after-party. Word Baker, the director, told the gathered group about them once they arrived around midnight, starting with the unfavorable review from Brooks Atkinson.

“All we could hear, any of us, were the bad parts,” Mr. Jones wrote.

In any event, no one could have foreseen the show’s durability at the time. The longest-running musical in history, it ran at Sullivan Street for more than 17,000 performances before ultimately closing in 2002. (The Agatha Christie play “The Mousetrap,” which has been running longer in London, hasn’t run continually in the same venue.)

Later, Mr. Jones and Mr. Schmidt, who passed away in 2018, worked together on additional shows. Mr. Jones created the book and lyrics for “I Do! I Do!,” another collaboration with Mr. Schmidt, which lasted for a year and a half on Broadway in the middle of the 1960s. Mr. Schmidt composed the music for “110 in the Shade,” which premiered on Broadway in 1963 and played for 330 performances.

The men received Tony Award nominations for each of those productions. The song “My Cup Runneth Over,” from “I Do! I Do!,” was covered by Ed Ames, and it got Grammy Award nominations. It peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967.

But “The Fantasticks” dominated the others. After its lengthy initial run, a revival that debuted in Midtown Manhattan in 2006 and featured Mr. Jones once more in the opening night cast in the same supporting role, ran for more than 4,300 performances. In the revival, which ran for more than a decade, actors alternated between the numerous roles much like in the original play. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original program, Mr. Jones, who was 82 at the time, briefly joined the cast in 2010.

Mr. Jones was introduced by an American Theater Wing interviewer who referred to “The Fantasticks” as “the longest-running musical in the universe.”

I’m not familiar with Saturn, Mr. Jones said.

On February 17, 1928, Thomas Collins Jones was born in Littlefield, Texas. His mother, Jessie (Bellomy) Jones, was a stay-at-home mom, while his father, William, was a turkey farmer.

He was born and raised in Coleman, Texas, where he worked as an usher in a theater before taking charge of the weekly talent show that was hosted there on Wednesday nights in between films.

According to Mr. Jones’ autobiography, “sometime during my sophomore year at Coleman High School, I became a ‘character'” by dressing in a straw hat and bow tie to class, smoking a pipe, and writing his newspaper pieces “T. Collins Jones, Esquire.”

Almost 70 years later, he wrote, “I can’t help but pause and wonder what the hell I thought I was doing.” “Even more, I’m surprised by how well the other kids handled it; they were mostly farmers, ranchers, and 4-H girls.”

When he entered the University of Texas’ theatre program in 1945, he discovered that “for the first time, there were other people actually like me.”

Here, wonder of wonders, “everyone was T. Collins Jones, Esquire,” he wrote.

He graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in 1951, and was subsequently drafted. He avoided being sent to fight in Korea by chance and by passing a typing exam; instead, he was given administrative duties in a counterintelligence unit.

He suggested that he produce a guide on how to carry out clandestine operations there. (“The Army loves manuals,” he noted in his memoir. It goes beyond machine guns. greater than medals. His superiors approved of the concept, and he worked on it up until his release in 1953, when the war came to an end.

During the interview with the American Theater Wing, Mr. Jones related the history of “Try to Remember,” the theme song from “The Fantasticks.” In a brief period of time, Mr. Schmidt had created the music during a break in rehearsal. Mr. Jones noticed a chance.

In his own words, “I figured it would be fun to take this simple, long-line song and then play with lots of assonance and near sounds and near rhymes and inner rhymes and sort of encrust it verbally on top of this flowing, really simple, folklike melody.” The process took me weeks. He finished in 20 seconds, whereas I took three weeks.

Eleanor Wright and Mr. Jones’s first marriage ended in divorce. Janet Watson, a choreographer, with whom he had a second marriage, passed away in 2016. He is survived by Sam Jones, another son from that union, and by Michael Jones.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Schmidt appeared to be particularly adept at long runs. Since it was performed on Broadway, “I Do! I Do!” has been staged innumerable times, including one in Minneapolis that ran from 1971 to 1993. David Anders and Susan Goeppinger played the same characters for the whole run.

“Celebration,” which ran for three months on Broadway in 1969 and was directed by Mr. Jones, was one of the numerous productions on which Mr. Jones and Mr. Schmidt worked together. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” was turned into a musical, but the project was put on hold when Mary Martin, who had originated the female character in “I Do! I Do!” on Broadway and was set to star, fell ill.

Although Mr. Jones acknowledged that “The Fantasticks” had dominated his career, he expressed sorrow that it had obscured some of the other work he and Mr. Schmidt had produced in a 2002 interview with The Times.

He remarked, “It’s wonderful to be remembered for anything. I sincerely hope and believe that there will be a moment, most likely after we are gone, when someone will ask, “What are these other weirdo titles?” and they’ll respond, “This is strange; this is interesting stuff.”

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