Musicals, or at least so it seemed according to the example set by Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hammerstein, ought to be big, bold, impressive, with elaborate production numbers, fancy costumes, and lighting effects. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt thought so when they became friends at the University of Texas and dreamed of conquering New York.
Even while serving is different army units, they managed to collaborate on songs by mail. Once in New York, they tried to make an elaborate musical out of a one-act spoof on Romeo and Juliette by Edmund Rostand, Les Romanesques. In hindsight, they attempted a Texas version of West Side Story, even including a character and song called “Maria,” but after a three-year struggle they couldn’t make it work.
When Jones decided simple staging on a platform could solve their problem, another Texas alum promised to produce their musical at Barnard College if they could reduce it to one act in three weeks. Discarding everything except the opening song (“Try to Remember”) and the basic idea of adapting Rostand’s play, the two almost effortlessly beat the deadline.
The performances at Barnard (the week beginning August 3, 1959) might have been the end of the story, but producer Lore Noto was in the audience and asked Jones and Schmidt if they could make it into a full-length musical. It opened off-Broadway nine months later. No one could guess that it would run for 42 years.
It must have seemed an oddity. It had no scenery. Actors retrieved props from a large chest at one side of the platform. In place of an orchestra, two pianos, a harp, some percussion and one person doubling on bass and cello provided the accompaniment.
Behind the comic hijinks lay a philosophic meditation on the necessity of winter (or death) for spring (rebirth). “Try to Remember” sets the stage for a story about both the innocence and folly of young lovers and the necessity of suffering to achieve maturity.
Opening to mixed reviews, the play often had very sparse audiences in its early performances. Schmidt remembered, “We’d only have three people in the audience on some nights, but you’d look out and it’d be Tallulah Bankhead, Richard Rogers, and Vivien Leigh.”
Word got around, helped, no doubt, by Noto’s habit of carrying the original cast album around with him wherever he went. He also gambled by releasing stock company and amateur rights after only a few months. It paid off. No other musical ever had 17,162 performances in its original theater before closing.