He’s known for exactly three shows – there are others, but they’re rather obscure – 110 in the Shade, I Do I Do and The Fantasticks. That last one is the longest-running musical that ever was. People were so shocked that it closed after 42 years – New York no longer seemed like New York – that a revival opened uptown and that ran for eleven years, closing just last June. Now, one could cynically look at the economics: extremely cheap show to produce managed to fill a tiny theatre on Sullivan Street until it could advertise itself as the longest-running musical in town when My Fair Lady closed. But looking at The Fantasticks through the economic lens minimizes what’s extraordinary about it. Harvey Schmidt’s tunes were like none ever heard before, and Barbra Streisand’s recording of Soon It’s Gonna Rain let the larger world know there was something rather special to be heard down in the Village.
If I use the phrase “harmonic palette” please do not skip this paragraph. We’re discussing a composer here (also a painter) and I’ll attempt to explain what makes a Schmidt song sound different from anyone else’s. The 1950’s saw the flowering of a particular kind of jazz. Listeners to popular music now appreciated all sorts of chords that hadn’t been used much in previous decades. “Jazz piano” was enjoyed, in part, for the kicky way fingers fell off keys – a “grace note” – in which a sound is briefly heard, something like a mistake, and then, more strongly, the next note on the keyboard sounds. The piano is a percussive instrument, so unexpected rhythms, often on a heavy left hand, became popular. And another thing – block chords – which use more notes, closer together, a cluster where the pianist might use all five fingers. There’s an ugliness to these, and so there’s a fresh surprise when a pianist manages to make them pretty.
It’s long been my observation that, in music, harmony marched forward. Every age innovates, somehow. Gershwin does things Irving Berlin never thought of. Bernstein took composing a step further. And, after Harvey Schmidt, well, I’m afraid that, for the most part, the harmonic palettes failed to get more colorful. Here, I blame rock, often the production of untrained young folk strumming guitars. Their fingers didn’t reach out towards the more complex chords and audiences got used to the I-IV-V and progress halted. (Sorry to sound so bleak.)
Another thing that halted in the sixties was Harvey Schmidt’s Broadway career. After Celebration, an experimental musical that was a touch too weird to enrapture audiences on The Great White Way, the master jazzman made no further forays to The Street. His first decade was so glorious, one might have looked forward to a steady stream of great Schmidt scores over the subsequent five decades, but, damn, the stream got dammed.
This is pushing the metaphor too far, but I once appeared in a Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt show involving a lack of water, 110 in the Shade. I was all of 16 and was particularly impressed by what was happening in the chords on Another Hot Day. The first five notes send us straight up a major seventh chord, and I love major seventh chords. They use four pitches in the major scale in what sounds, to me, simultaneously happy and poignant. (And is found infrequently in pre-Schmidt music.) Then, he goes right into another major seventh chord, establishing a pattern. But, on the words, “not a sign on the horizon” the ear is surprised. Instead of hearing the major seventh, we hear the note just below it, the sort of unanticipated detour that characterizes the blues. The title line keeps hitting the minor third where the major is expected. I fear I may have gotten too technical here, but that’s the blues for you.
And Texas. Jones and Schmidt were both from Texas, both preacher’s sons from small towns. It seems a no-brainer that David Merrick would choose them to adapt The Rainmaker. One number exemplifies Schmidt’s flair for the theatrical. Every time you hear the title, Old Maid, you’re hearing block chords, pulsing dramatically, and some of these are major sevenths. Plus, the song ends with a large quote of Another Hot Day. When we first heard it, it was a pleasant, if laconic, way to set the scene. Here, the drought is a force of evil, so that once-pleasant song is now heard as sinister.
They tried and failed to get Mary Martin to do 110 in the Shade, but then David Merrick succeeded in signing her for the next Jones & Schmidt bon bon, I Do, I Do. I think about this show all the time, because it’s a two-performer musical that focuses on a marriage, and that’s what I’m writing now. So, I ask myself, how do I keep this interesting for an audience? How can I remain true to my characters but throw in the maximum variety in the score? If I keep writing songs and then decide to cut them, it seems I’m in Schmidt’s footsteps, because he and Tom Jones wrote 114 songs for 110 in the Shade. I Do, I Do also has some intriguing discards you can hear on one of Bruce Kimmel’s Lost In Boston albums. But one that was kept was much on my mind last month. For Valentine’s Day, my Facebook status was the entire lyric to I Love My Wife. Seeing it on the page, as “just” words, doesn’t do it justice. Schmidt set it to peppy jazz, with that trademark grace note, and so it plays as fun rather than sentimental. If you don’t know the song, I suggest you read the lyric before listening to Robert Preston.
(One of my ongoing anxieties is the idea that a two-character show can only work with prodigiously talented, always-interesting performers. Maybe I Do, I Do succeeded because people really wanted to see Mary Martin and Robert Preston and I need to get their equivalents. O.K….)
But I wanted to leave you with an anecdote about Schmidt you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. As I Do, I Do was in rehearsals, a reporter confronted him about he could write about marriage since he was a lifelong bachelor. “WELL…” mock accusingly, the pressman pressed him as to why he’d never married. Harvey Schmidt jibed back, “I’m waiting for the reviews.”