Evanston’s Light Opera Works opens its season this month with “The Fantasticks” — 55 years after the show began its record-setting 42-year off-Broadway run.

Originally staged with just a two-piece orchestra, Light Opera Works will present an expanded 1990 touring version of the show featuring a 23-piece orchestra — the first time that version has been presented in the Chicago area.

The artistic director of Light Opera Works, Rudy Hogenmiller, played The Mute on the Japanese tour of “The Fantasticks.” His familiarity with the show makes him, according to Harvey Schmidt, composer of “The Fantasticks,” one of the best people to be staging the musical now.

The story, in the words of the music composer Harvey Schmidt, “ended up being about two neighbors with adjoining backyards who want to join the two families, but have to trick their children into a relationship.” The fable-esque plot features well-known songs like “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain.”

What is less-known about “The Fantasticks” is that it is also a story of a pair of intrepid men who would move heaven and earth to tell a good story. Schmidt, now 85, had a long chat with Evanston Now.

Tom Jones [writer of “The Fantasticks”] and I met at the University of Texas, as students- and this was in 1948. I was an art major. There was an organization at the school called the Curtain Club, for musical stuff. They found out I could play the piano (but only in the key of C and by ear).

They would hand me the LP for a song they wanted to sing and I’d take it to a piano. I would play the record and I’d listen to it many times, and that’s how I learned how to play in other keys. This was a great breakthrough for me.

Tom Jones was very persistent when it came to courting Harvey Schmidt as a composer. Eventually, Tom succeeded in bringing Harvey to work with him, through the Curtain Club.

Tom Jones, a year or two ahead of me, was president of the Curtain Club. Tom called after a revue I put together and was impressed with the show, and he said he was appalled with the quality of what had been submitted to the journalism department and thought he and I could write an original book, lyrics, and music together.

That was a whole other department from [visual] art, way off down there. I still wanted to pursue art. But I couldn’t resist doing these things in the theater — I had lots of careers going on at that time. Tom and I then did the journalism series. Our first show we wrote together was an even bigger hit. Totally sold out.

There was a famous scholar at the school called Payne, he had a theatre reputation and had been there as a consultant and teacher in his elderly age, was a wonderful man. He introduced Tom to “Les Romanesques”, an Edmond Rostand play. They would do scenes from this, and Payne said he thought some of these could be made into a musical…

“Les Romanesques” is a simple play about two potential lovers who are brought together by their fathers. The simplicity of the piece is the core of “The Fantasticks,” and is the main drive that has kept the musical going all these years.

When Tom graduated, he was drafted, and I was drafted a year later. Tom was stationed out East; I was in El Paso. Tom would send me lyrics by mail and I would record- I’d get my Army buddies to help record, everything was so primitive. I know you think we’ve had everything forever but we haven’t. These buddies would sing and we’d make records to send back to Tom. It was so exotic and so much fun and so strange.

After that, when we both got out, Tom asked if I would like to pursue “Les Romanesques” as a musical. Tom and I decided to move up to New York. I wanted a big Broadway musical — I always saw people on an actual horse, real horseback, for the show, since it was set on two ranches. The show finally all collapsed from the weight of all of this Western stuff.

While in New York, in 1959, an opportunity to pare down the musical came along.

A friend, Baker, said there was a chance to do the show at a theatre up at Barnard College as a one-act musical. We were sort of dying from the weight of this heavy thing, so we cut it all back to one act. It’s a lot of what “The Fantasticks” still is as a show, what we did at Barnard.

That’s how — I wasn’t planning on having a career in the theatre, but Tom was so bright, and any time he asked me to do something I was so stunned. And it was by accident that we started writing together in that way.

The story of “The Fanstasticks,” in the words of Schmidt, “ended up being about two neighbors with adjoining backyards who want to join the two families, but have to trick their children into a relationship.” The fable-esque plot features well-known songs and “big Broadway ideas” in a small space.

We stumbled across the title “Fantasticks” in a translation of the original play. Everyone thought that title was sort of strange, but I love the “k”.

I designed a few posters, and it was time to take them to our theatre in the Village, to what became Sullivan Street Playhouse. I had my roughs for the posters, and when it came time I had two very busy posters and needed a third. I did this poster with a piece of black board and I just took a brush with purple paint and wrote “The Fantasticks” in my handwriting, in five minutes. That became the logo and I couldn’t’ believe it. It’s actually my handwriting and it’s been used over all these years. A lot of things happened with “The Fantasticks” like this.

Schmidt seems to prove that there’s hope for the most intrepid artists — even those “who only play by ear.”

“The Fantasticks” runs June 6-14 at Cahn Auditorium. 

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