REMEMBERING HARVEY SCHMIDT By Peter Filichia
As my friend Josh Ellis said when he heard the news, “Roll up the Ribbons.”
He was citing the penultimate song in I Do! I Do! – the 1966 musical hit about a fifty-year marriage. In it, Michael and Agnes, now senior citizens, are about to leave the only house they’ve known for the last half-century.
And, as Ellis noted, I Do! I Do!’s composer Harvey Schmidt left us on February 28th after more than a half-century in which we became acquainted with his distinctive music.
We don’t have to try hard to remember where we first heard it – in The Fantasticks in 1960. “Try to Remember,” “Much More,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” – all great songs on their way to being recorded by dozens if not hundreds of artists.
So by 1962, when super-producer David Merrick was looking for a new team to write the score for a musical version of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker, he thought of Schmidt and his lyricist Tom Jones. After all, The Fantasticks had by now been running more than two years off-Broadway. Two years! What a run! Maybe it could even surpass Little Mary Sunshine’s three-year run and become the longest-running original musical in off-Broadway history.
(Nobody would have predicted at the time – not even Schmidt or Jones — that that figure would represent less than five percent of the eventual forty-two-year run.)
The team seemed to be right for The Rainmaker, for they were natives of Texas, where the show was set. But would they be right for Merrick? The songwriters knew all about “The Abominable Showman” who tortured writers even when he felt they were doing their best. Merrick wanted better than best.
As Schmidt told me in a 1999 interview, as soon as he and Jones signed their contracts, they started writing, so by the time the show known as 110 in the Shade began its Boston tryout on Sept. 9, 1963, they had literally written in excess of 110 songs. So whenever a new song was deemed to be not working, he and Jones didn’t endure any clock-ticking pressure, but relaxed. They would rise and shine the next morning and hand over a new piece of sheet music.
So in a way, the show’s original cast album could be termed
“The Best of 110 in the Shade.”
Its long-playing record didn’t have room for the overture — or did it? When the compact disc was released in the ‘90s, there it was as the first track. In the decades in-between, there had been much talk of how the overture was scuttled because it contained a bad piece of trumpet-playing. The CD reveals that at the fifty-one second mark, a sour bleat does occur. Nevertheless, it’s still a thrilling overture, which it had to be considering the quality of the score.
The show begins with Sheriff File (Stephen Douglass) frankly acknowledging to the townspeople that it’s “Gonna Be Another Hot Day.” Schmidt made the opening bars as slow as we all are on murderous scorchers – but only for the first two A-sections. Then Schmidt’s B-section has the chorus soar optimistically when they imagine “when the rain comes.”
The show centers on The Curry Family. Paterfamilias H.C. (Will Geer) has sent his adult daughter Lizzie (Inga Swenson) to Sweet River, all in hopes she’ll find a mate. He and his sons Noah (Steve Roland) and Jimmy (Scooter Teague) aren’t all that optimistic, for they all know that Lizzie isn’t a looker and will probably die an old maid. Still, they’ve greatly missed her and are happy that “Lizzie’s Comin’ Home,” a song to which Schmidt provided a rollicking melody.
Indeed, no one in Sweet River took an interest; yet when Lizzie returns, she implores “Love, Don’t Look Away.” It’s one of three lilting showpieces that Schmidt wrote for soprano Swenson, all to convey her inner beauty. (We’ll hear two other fine examples as the show continues: “Simple Little Things” and “Is It Really Me?”)
Lizzie Currie is taken with File, but since his wife left him, he’s sworn off women. Nothing happens between these two until Starbuck (Robert Horton) comes to town. He’s a self-proclaimed “rainmaker” who claims he can end the drought. Jimmy believes in him, and while H.C. has his doubts, he’s willing to take a chance and pay Starbuck’s $100 fee.
Noah is skeptical of his father’s decision, but Lizzie is outright disgusted at this con-man, which she calls Starbuck to his face. Starbuck exploits his enemy’s weakness by citing Lizzie’s lack of husband and child and that she’s nothing but a glorified housekeeper in her father’s home. That leads to a tension-filled melody for the two, as each claims “You’re Not Fooling Me.” When one thinks of Schmidt’s work, delicate piano sounds come to mind. But he could write butch when he had to. For Starbuck’s “Rain Song” and “Melisande” were genuine examples of musical braggadocio. Lizzie’s “Old Maid,” the first-act closer, has grandiose power, too.
However, Starbuck eventually becomes fond of Lizzie. Maybe he can’t bring rain, but he can make Lizzie finally believe in herself. When word gets out that File is coming to arrest him for his bilking citizens in neighboring towns, Starbuck begs Lizzie to leave with him. That’s what File must hear to change him into a suddenly ardent suitor. By the end of the show Lizzie, who all her life couldn’t get one man, has two vying for her. The unbridled joy pours forth in a Schmidt melody for which Jones provided a title that turned out to be truth-in-advertising: “Wonderful Music.”
I’ve always felt that one reason that 110 in the Shade, estimable as it was, didn’t become a household-name, smash-hit musical because of its title. Don’t we hear that nothing’s more boring than talking about the weather? Perhaps a title that refers to it seemed equally dull.
Others have said the musical didn’t run more than nine months because Horton, Swenson and Douglass – although all able performers – weren’t stars. Schmidt and Jones’ next musical was never accused of that, for it had a 100% star quotient: Mary Martin and Robert Preston would constitute the entire cast of two; one, the other or both were on stage every second of I Do! I Do!
Shakespeare wrote of the Seven Ages of Man; Schmidt provided melodies for the Seven Ages of Marriage: 1) the exhilarating “I Do! I Do!” for the wedding itself; 2) the quiet realization of impending parenthood in “Something Has Happened”; 3) the joy when a child arrives is tempered by the work and expense parenting entails in “Love Isn’t Everything”; 4) the pulsating sounds when the two realize that marriage isn’t heaven on earth in “Nobody’s Perfect” followed by Michael’s love-letter to himself “It’s a Well-Known Fact” and Agnes’ rebellion in “Flaming Agnes.” The music becomes genuinely angry in “The Honeymoon Is Over.”
But these two really love each other, and Schmidt’s music reflects the calm that comes 5) after the middle-age-crisis storm (“Where Are the Snows?); 6) the realization that the children are grown and ready to start their own lives in the testy “The Father of the Bride”; and 7) the onset of old age in “Roll up the Ribbons” and “This House.”
In between were two songs that received attention from recording artists of the day: “My Cup Runneth Over,” a delicate declaration of love, and “What Is a Woman?” a lovely ballad whose lyric was right for 1966.
Is there any other original cast album in which each and every song is sung by a Musical Theater Giant? No – I Do! I Do! with Mary Martin and Robert Preston takes an unchallenged first place.
Schmidt wrote one other score that made it to Broadway, but Celebration was in truth an off-Broadway show in the wrong neighborhood. It wasn’t an adaptation of a hit property, as most Broadway hits have been; its characters were symbols as their names attest (Orphan; Mr. Rich; Angel); it had fewer-than-average performers and musicians; it was a parable with a message. That it made it past three months was a bit of a miracle.
It was, however, a true Schmidt-and-Jones show, for they really were much more at home with small ones. They would specifically aim for Broadway one last time in 1982 with their musical biography of French legend Colette. It played Seattle, then Denver, then closed.
No cast album was recorded, so if we want to hear the two times that Harvey Schmidt genuinely adopted a Broadway sound, we have 110 in the Shade and I Do! I Do!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.