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Tom Jones, the ingenious lyricist and librettist who penned the words for the unassuming yet astonishingly enduring musical "The Fantasticks," passed away at age 95 on August 15, 2023 at his home in Sharon, Connecticut. His son Michael mentioned the cause of death was cancer.
Jones first crossed creative paths with his frequent collaborator, the composer Harvey Schmidt, as students at the University of Texas in the late 1940s. While Jones pursued directing in the drama department, Schmidt indulged his passion for music and art on the side.
After college, wartime military service interrupted their artistic ambitions, but Jones and Schmidt reconnected by mail, writing songs together while deployed in Korea. Following his discharge, Jones tried unsuccessfully to find work directing in New York. Instead, he wrote for nightclub revues and collaborated on a musical with another composer.
Jones and Schmidt began their decades-long creative partnership in earnest when Schmidt moved to New York after his own military service. Though envisioning a traditional large-scale Broadway musical, in 1959 they crafted a radical streamlined version of their show for a college festival.
This pared-down musical, "The Fantasticks," broke from the Rodgers and Hammerstein formula with its minimalist staging, narrator device, and other inventive touches. The boy-meets-girl tale charmed Greenwich Village audiences when it opened off-Broadway in 1960. Thanks to its heartfelt score, highlighted by the melancholy melody "Try to Remember," the little musical about young love and feuding fathers defied the odds.
Running for over 17,000 performances, "The Fantasticks" emerged as the longest-running musical ever. Its original Sullivan Street production finally closed in 2002. A midtown revival ran another ten years, and Jones briefly returned to the cast in 2010 to celebrate the show's 50th anniversary.
Though Jones and Schmidt collaborated on other musicals like "110 in the Shade," they never quite matched their debut success. The signature song from their 1960s hit "I Do! I Do!" became a charting pop single, but "The Fantasticks" overshadowed everything. Hoping future generations would uncover their obscure "weirdo" shows, Jones believed Schmidt's music and his lyrics aspired to theater that defied conventions.
Jones' ingenious words elevated Schmidt's music to timeless theatrical magic in "The Fantasticks." Though proud of their runaway hit, Jones longed for their experimental shows to receive recognition. In the end, his libretto and lyrics made this modest musical a long-running legend.
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