Cancel your picnic. Enjoy a banquet of song on Saturday at 2 PM. Flashback: Years ago, seeing The Fantasticks was meaningful for each of them. Being IN its cast during its legendary decades-long off-Broadway run is an even richer memory for which Carole Demas and Sarah Rice are eternally grateful. In their glorious act Thank You for Your Love, they look back and look at the score and more musicals by The Fantasticks’ fantastically talented writers, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.
What a pleasure it was to sit down with Carole and Sarah and their producer Stuart J. Allyn to talk about this presentation of memories and songs and insights they are so invested in. This is no ordinary “And then they wrote—” or “I love this next song–” tribute to a composer and lyricist/bookwriter. Oh, they know the history, but they also know the writers and what makes them special and know how to bring the audience into their fond memories and fact-filled montage. Songs are well chosen to represent many shows, scoring points with each score, with selections that work out of context successfully or are given sufficient context to do so. I loved hearing their thoughts and being led into their process of how and why they put the show together. While sometimes they finished each other’s sentences because they’ve been working and re-working the show and discussing it for so long, every now and then, one would respond to a question and the other would say, “I never knew that.” Just when they thought they’d already discussed it all with one another! Occasionally an old memory would pop up about an actor they wondered if the other had worked with during their comings and goings.
The show is at the Laurie Beechman Theatre under the West Bank Cafe at 407 West 42 Street in NYC. And the 2:00 PM show this Saturday, October 7 is the only remaining performance announced so far, but it would be unthinkable that this songfest/love-fest would not be back again and again. And again. And again. Like I did with The Fantasticks over the years, I’d want to return on a regular basis. This melange of life-affirming songs that glow in the talents and heartfelt performances of these two women is like being refreshed and having faith renewed. You really do “try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow.” Life is good, life is rich, and life is real and love is all those things, too, in the songs of Schmidt and Jones—especially when these two women sing them with such passion and belief and commitment.
Over coffee, Carole Demas recalls for me the first time she heard the songs from The Fantasticks: She was at the University of Vermont and someone who had the cast album–then new– told her, ‘You have to hear this.’” She listened. And remembers, “I was almost paralyzed with joy” listening to the beautiful songs. There is only one female character in the piece. “You will play this one day!” her friend and teacher predicted. It doesn’t sound like a stretch now, but back in 1960 Carole was just beginning, wasn’t the professional who’d go on to star as the original Sandy in the premiere production of Grease or even co-star in the well-remembered (not so hard to “try to remember!?”; it ran for 12 years!!) children’s TV show The Magic Garden. Her talented partner in that series, Paula Janis, was then not only someone she worked with in her day job—teaching kindergarten— but someone who’d been her closest friend since the age of 14. Their close connection continues to this day, decades later, and the popularity of the TV show and recordings continue among loyal fans of the generation that grew up with their voices blooming in their own (now inner) child’s garden of verses.
The generous spirit of her TV presence of yore reached out years ago to yours truly, when we barely knew each other; Sarah, whom I knew from the cabaret world for her work there was doing a benefit and she crossed paths with Carole, who was making a belated foray into cabaret at the same venue their joint show is at this Saturday afternoon. Carole heard I was having some health problems (now long blissfully resolved) and that I was working on an original show involving Mother Goose characters for my intergenerational theatre company, Play Nice. I started getting chatty “get well” e-mails and soon I was given the Carole & Paula CD Mother Goose Is on the Loose— the one recording of theirs I had not tracked down, though I have long had the other two by these two—on vinyl—now selling as collector’s items for $50 each. Carole often fondly mentioned Paula in our communications then and now again in 2017, telling me about a key summer experience after the kindergarteners graduated and her own “How I Spent My Summer Vacation Story”:
The Demases and Janises —the BFFS were joined by their respective brothers— sang together at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater where Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival finds flocking fans for free shows. They found themselves happily hired, harmonizing, entertaining the throngs in half-hour concerts before the main stage show. You might say they were William Shakespeare’s opening act! This went on each summer for a few years. It was the mid-1960s.
Meanwhile, Sarah Rice was eyeing her own career, ravishing soprano voice on tap, but not always seen as the typical ingenue. “People sometimes saw me as an off-center Madeline Kahn type,” she told me, referencing the comedienne with the operatic sound (Seen here: Sarah in a 2015 cabaret tribute to the much-missed Kahn, photo by Maryann Lopinto). While Carole was in the NYC area, Sarah was still was still in another part of the country, with the scores of The Fantasticks still on her mind and on her turntable, as she awaited her own turn to play that girl who wants “to swim in a clear blue stream where the water is icy cold, and go to town in a golden gown.”
Sarah, later to make theatre history as the originally Johanna, daughter of the title character in Sweeney Todd on Broadway in the original production, first saw The Fantasticks in a community theatre productions in Phoenix, Arizona. “I loved it,” she states, but didn’t think she’d ever get the role herself. She’d been doing theatre and singing, but was often cast as characters who were “a little off-center.” The two insist that at auditions for the legendary show, the powers that be would match the head sizes of the girl and whoever would be playing opposite her. That mattered!
Before too many years went by, the prediction made for Carole when she’d had her “fortune told” (the “You will play this one day!” prediction) came true and she was The Girl in The Fantasticks for a whopping $45 a week —“with a bump when there was a full house; we’d get $78.” Years later she went into the role again, going in because the actress playing the role had her tonsils coming out. The girl’s name was Sarah Rice.
Composer Harvey Schmidt and wordsmith Tom Jones, meanwhile were busy as their little show that inspired so many completed its first decade of its phenomenal run. (Jones was also in the original cast of The Fantasticks, using a stage name, as the Old Actor, a role he’d return to, just as he returned to Sarah and Carole’s side as a surprise guest in Thank You for Your Love when I saw it!) The songwriters, in addition to more off-Broadway fare, were more than fairly successful on Broadway in the rest of the 1960s, with Celebration, 110 on the Shade (revived in recent years) and I Do! I Do!, the two-person musical about marriage that starred Mary Martin and Robert Preston. That score’s sentimental favorite was “My Cup Runneth Over,” one of the many highlights heard in Thank You for Your Love, a show I urge you to runneth over to on Saturday before its run is over. (A late conversation with dedicated producer Mr. Allyn assures me that they do intend to bring the show back at some point, but don’t assume you’ll be in the right place at the right time; I’d go now to be sure not to miss this triumph.)
MUCH MORE IN PART 2 OF MY INTERVIEW—WATCH THIS SPACE