Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks, this week embarking on its 41st record-shattering year, finally had "legs" after mixed-to-scathing reviews, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. The composers had their eyes set on Broadway.
"Out of the blue," recalled Jones, "the phone rang. It was David Merrick, who loved The Fantasticks. He felt, since we were from Texas, we'd be ideal to write the score for 110 In The Shade, a musical in a 'western' vein.'"
Inga Swenson, a Shakespearean and TV actress, won out over Streisand for the role of Lizzie; Stephen Douglass, of Damn Yankees fame, was cast as Sheriff File; TV heartthrob Robert Horton replaced Hal Holbrook as Starbuck; and Leslie Ann Warren, straight out of high school, won the role of Snookie.

"Merrick was a double-edged sword," said Schmidt. "Because of his mega-successes, doors opened for record deals and theater parties. But he was so hands on, not much escaped him. We didn't see 110 as a dance show; he did. He brought in Agnes DeMille." "We told her how we felt," said Jones, "and she replied, 'Great. That's exactly what I want.' Then it really became a dance show!"
"A couple of numbers ran over ten minutes," said Schmidt. "They were wonderful ballets, but not much room remained for the story and songs."

The composers didn't want 110 to be a warmed-over Oklahoma!, but something more earthy. They constantly clashed with Merrick. "It was a tumultuous time!" Jones reported. "All sorts of shenanigans and yelling over casting. Here was a show about the dust bowl, and Merrick was screaming for a chorus of pretty girls."

Worse than the undercurrent of mistrust and tension was Merrick's shifting back and forth on creative decisions. After Boston, where the musical got mixed-to-positive reviews, he decided the show, like the original play, would have three acts. "I was close to suicidal!" Jones reported. "After our negative reviews in Philadelphia, Merrick threatened to close. Harvey and I said, 'Great!' We were relieved. It would be better than to go on like that. As we were about to walk, he said, 'Wait. I'll give it one last chance.' We went back to two acts and put in other changes. It made a huge difference. Things started to click. Audiences were loving it."

But in a season (1963-64) of blockbusters, such as Hello, Dolly and Funny Girl, the majority of critics found much to cheer about; especially Jones and Schmidt's surviving 16 songs. The show did modest business and received four Tony nominations, including one for score. "However," said Jones, "it was never a 'must see' and Merrick's energies were more focused on Dolly. He never got behind us. We closed after 330 performances. He made our lives and the lives of everyone involved a living hell."


Key Subjects: 
110 in the Shade, David Merrick; Tom Jones; Harvey Schmidt
Nassour, Ellis
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Dec 2000
Jones & Schmidt Remember David Merrick