Maury Yeston is not just a Tony-Award-winning composer/lyricist: he’s a passionate teacher and advocate of new musical theatre writing. Forget the aphorism that “those who can’t, teach”: his first two shows on Broadway – Nine and Titanic – both secured the Tony for Best New Musical, and both shows continue to delight audiences. He is also famously known as the composer of the other Phantom – a character study of a tortured artist that was overwhelmed by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s juggernaut of a show, yet a show that has still enjoyed over 1,000 productions around the world.
But Yeston’s contribution to modern musical theatre extends well beyond his own creations thanks to his role as a mentor at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York. (“The best way to learn something is to teach it,” as Yeston says.) There are few contemporary musical theatre successes that have not been in some way been influenced, guided or encouraged by Yeston, who himself is a BMI alumnus and wrote Nine under the tutelage of the founder, Lehman Engel.
It’s primarily because of his role as a show doctor that Yeston is in London at the moment. Grand Hotel, currently playing to great acclaim at the Southwark Playhouse, was famously salvaged by Yeston and crafted into an award-winning show. Originally adapted from Vicki Baum’s 1929 book and the 1932 movie of the same name by Robert Wright and George Forrest (the partnership best known for the 1953 musical Kismet), it wasn’t until Yeston was called in by producer Tommy Tune to rescue the stricken project, and write a number of new songs, that it was acknowledged as a hit and won five of its 12 Tony nominations.
This latest production of Grand Hotel by Thom Sutherland – whose much-lauded chamber production of Titanic at Southwark in 2013 revitalised the show and confirmed its status as a modern classic – is certainly in no need of rescuing: it’s a four- and five-star hit that co-creator Yeston thoroughly approved of. From the comfort of a genuine grand hotel – the Covent Garden in London’s Seven Dials – Yeston spoke to about his appreciation of Sutherland’s vision for this show.
Congratulations on Grand Hotel – what was going through your mind last night when you saw this production for the first time?
As I watched the show, I literally relived the work I’d done on it. And some of it I’d forgotten about. I was thinking, “Oh my god, I forgot I wrote that!” And I was so into it because it was presented so successfully. It was completely different to the Broadway version in terms of its design and its direction, which thrilled me to death because that means that other people were able to invest their own creativity and their own originality into something that I had written. I learned something more about my work just by their generosity in giving their energy to it.
How did it differ from the Broadway version?
Thom made the audience be the paintings on the walls that could see everything that was going on. Talk about being a fly on the wall – we were the flies on the wall opposite these characters. He did a great job, didn’t he? Isn’t it fantastic that he made a hotel? He put the audience in a hotel corridor of luxurious design, and did it with a single chandelier. What this adds up to is a man with an incredible gift of knowing how to lasso the imagination of the audience and help him make that illusion on stage. It’s incredible how he does it. We were all just watching a hotel. We just bought it completely
I guess if you can recreate the Titanic on a small stage, you can conjure up a hotel...
Titanic was vast on Broadway, and the reason they were able to do it at Southwark was because I completely redid the show in terms of the number of characters and the shape of the show so that it could be done with 20 people and six people in the orchestra. The key to making the orchestra work was choosing which six people. As it turned out, in that small space, the live percussion – the excitement of hearing the timpani slammed and a cymbal crash – enlarges the dimensions of the orchestra. And you heard that last night at Grand Hotel: there are only seven people in the orchestra but it sounded like a 20-piece jazz band. Once you do that, you give a director like Thom Sutherland the freedom to say, “Alright, now I know I can do this in a small space, I’m going to have to summon your imagination and make you see the largest ship that was ever built.”
There are interesting parallels aren’t there? Titanic is basically a Grand Hotel at sea: neither are particularly plot driven, and the dramatic irony is the approaching iceberg as opposed to the approaching Nazis…
Funnily enough, there are parallels. Titanic was my show, my idea, while Grand Hotel I was brought in on when it was in trouble. But they’re shows that have multiple characters interacting, joined by being in the same circumstances in the same time.
You should be able to say in a couple of phrases what the show is about. Titanic is about our dreams. The dream is that human life is so precious that they want to build ship that can’t sink. And that dream had a certain amount of hubris attached to it; we put too much faith and too much pride in the infallibility of our own technology. But that doesn’t undermine the fact that it’s the same impulse to dream that got us into space, the dream of creating a vaccine to prevent polio, of building railroads, flying in an airplane. Not to mention the fact that Titanic carried the dreams of the people coming to a new land to improve their lives.
Grand Hotel is about broken dreams. It’s set in a country that’s just been humiliated by war, there’s abject poverty everywhere, and they’re in shock after World War I, which basically converted a generation of men into hamburgers. They lost an entire generation of their youth, and they were in shock from the experience of an incalculable amount of death. Everybody in the show is still reacting to that, moving as fast as they can, drinking as much as they can, cutting their hair off and being as radical as they can, like a train running off the rails, speeding away from that appalling circumstance and turning life into a party just to numb the pain. The doctor’s constantly injecting morphine to keep the pain at bay and the rest of them are dancing so fast, they don’t have to think. They’re heading into disaster. I said this to Thom at the beginning: “All of those people in Grand Hotel are themselves unwittingly sailing right into an iceberg.”
How did your relationship with Thom and the Southwark Playhouse develop?
There was something I wanted to present in London and somebody introduced me to [producer] Danielle Tarento. After about 20 minutes, she asked if I had anything that she could use to kick off their season. I said, “I’ve got this version of Titanic that only needs 20 people and a band of six, is this too big for you?”, and she said “No, let me get back to you.” She called me the next morning and said, “We’re doing it!”
The guys at Southwark are wonderful at taking things from the past and reconfiguring them – doing Mack and Mabel for example – and my work is inspired by the values of those past musicals. Even though my work is absolutely now, it’s also got a timeless quality about it. So when it comes to what I want a show to do and what they want musicals to do to you – we’re all on the same page. My material seems to lend itself to their vision.
How does one go about adapting material like Grand Hotel for the stage?
You have to completely rethink it, otherwise you might as well just raise the curtain and read the book to the audience. It’s such a wonderful process. It sounds easy, just turning a book into a play or a musical, but if you go back and look at the original material, you’ll see that it’s totally different. In the same way that if you look back at a book of short stories called Tales of the South Pacific and see what Rodgers and Hammerstein did, well, goodness gracious, they merged plots, they combined characters. But you have to be true to the material in a poetic sense. It has to feel like the same thing but you also have to be true to the values of musical theatre, in which you’re singing for an hour and you’re giving the information to the audience in a completely different way. You’re making them feel the same things but in a completely different manner, in a deeper way.
You also have to give credit to Vicky Baum, who wrote the original book of Grand Hotel. The job of those who adapt that material – as with any form of borrowing – is to pay it back with interest. So we’ve borrowed that material and paid back with as brilliant a show as we can give you.
What’s your process for creating a song for a show?
What happens is that I get an idea, and from that idea the rest follows. So, for example, wouldn’t it be interesting if a man gets shot and instead of dropping dead on stage, we can see what goes through his mind as his whole life flashes before his eyes? Well, that becomes the song. So that’s neither music first nor lyrics first – it’s the idea first, which then leads to the music and lyrics.
Sometimes you can sit there and think, “Can I write a song that says hello but means goodbye?” or “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a girl is breaking up with a guy but effectively the song is his proposal to her?” People are complicated - sometimes you say one thing but mean another, and a song can do that. A song can say, “these are the words somebody’s speaking but listen to the melody and how they’re saying it… they’re lying.” That’s what’s so great about theatre.
Is this something you learned at the BMI Workshop?
Yes. It’s a wonderful group in which young writers can practise and bring their work in and get it criticized by the group. It’s incredibly helpful. I was lucky enough to study with Lehman Engel, who began it, and in my class with me was Alan Menken, Ed Kleban [lyricist, A Chorus Line], Carol Hall [The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas]… Then later, in my own seminars, I taught the likes of Gerard Allessandrini, who created Forbidden Broadway, Andrew Lippa, Stephen Flaherty [Ragtime], Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez [Avenue Q], Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkie [Next to Normal], Michael John LaChiusa [The Wild Party], Glenn Slater [lyricist, The Little Mermaid, Sister Act], Kristen Anderson [Frozen], Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich [Ever After]. There’s been a flood of shows, and these people have won Tony Awards, Pulitzers… I take no credit for it – I was just the moderator at the head of the room – but it was a joy to be part of the process and watch their talent flower.
You created Nine as part of your time at BMI, didn’t you?
Yes. I was teaching at Yale and couldn’t work on it full time. It took a tremendous amount of time to get the permissions [for the rights to the movie 8½] from Federico Fellini. What was thrilling about that was when the show became a hit, he invited me to spend a week with him in Rome, which I did! A whole week! It was one of the greatest weeks of my life.
It then took 15 years before we got Titanic. Musical theatre seems to be a long game...
Well, what happened was that, just after Nine, I was asked to do Phantom – the one before Andrew. Anyway, everybody knows that story. As soon as Andrew announced that he was writing his version of the show, he had the backing and commitment and we said, “Well, there’s not going to be two Phantoms”. But I kept my pencil sharp. Three years later, I wrote a show with Larry Gelbart, a take-off on the Bible [entitled 1-2-3-4-5], and two years after that, I was asked to write a project for Placido Domingo, which became the concept album Goya. Then in 1991, somebody said, “Hey, I’d like to put your Phantom on the stage,” and that happened. I was also commissioned to write [the song cycle] December Songs. After that, I said I wanted to write Titanic, and that took about five years. So, it would be fair to say that there’s a hit every 15 years [laughs] but I never stopped writing!
You’ve got an impressive hit rate: your first two shows to play on Broadway both won Tony Awards for Best Musical – the first time since Richard Adler and Jerry Ross won for their first two shows [The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees] in the mid 1950s, I think…
Yes, and Grand Hotel ran for 1,300 performances – an amazing run – and then Michael Grandage garnered the Olivier for his production at the Donmar. And now we have production this at Southwark. There’s something historic about it. It’s capturing such attention and such accolades. The timing’s just right, too, and people are really relating to it. It’s making me think, “Is this what’s happening to us now and we just don’t know it?”
You’ve set a lot of your shows in the early part of the 20th century. What so appeals to you about this era?
It’s one of those periods when all of the old-fashioned restrictions have been lifted and people are going wild. The next period like that was the 60s, with LSD, free love and rebelling against the old strictures. The 1920s had just thrown off the Victorian world, and World War I had broken all the crystal spheres. It was a new world. The stock market was up, women were bobbing their hair, everyone was dancing the Charleston and drinking, driving fast cars and riding in airplanes. And movies! Movies were all the rage, and we got the first movie stars. Before then the only stars were sports stars, and then the movie stars appeared. And anyone could become one. The world was moving so fast. Radio came into the equation, the electric microphone got invented, and the phonograph. It was a party that was never going to end. So it’s a great period to write in because of that.
Do you think this period mirrors today’s fast paced world?
I think it does - perhaps this is why it resonates with us. Here’s the thing about musical theatre. There’s nothing wrong with writing a musical that takes place in the here and how. We can write a show about two people at the Covent Garden Hotel, and we’d be sitting here or in the street outside, singing away. But if you’re in another place or another time, it’s easier to say. In music theatre, the further away we get from the exact reality now, the easier it is to accept or buy the convention that we’re singing. So I’m in Thailand with the King of Siam, or in Austria with a family that likes singing. That’s why the setting of Grand Hotel in 1920s Germany is particularly alluring.
It’s also quite cinematic...
I think the meme here is that film completely replaced opera as the international vernacular of that kind of dramatic presentation. Why is there an opera house in every major city in the world? Because 150 years ago this was the international form of entertainment that combined all of the arts. And it was truly international: French opera, German opera, Italian opera, Hungarian opera… Everybody wrote operas. That was the big thing. It united all of the arts. But once there was this thing called film, it absolutely trumped opera. The movies replaced it, and you had French movies, German movies, Italian movies. Again, truly international.
Every city now has a movie theatre or multiplex, and everybody sees the same movies in the way that everybody used to see the same operas. It’s the new vernacular. You can film an opera and it will still be a movie, but you can’t show a movie in an opera theatre and have it be an opera. The larger and more inclusive artform can encompass the others. Film is the most dynamic and universal form at the moment. This may turn into something else in the future, something more interactive–
Like videogames, maybe?
Yes, or virtual reality. I’m a big science-fiction nut, and Ray Bradbury wrote about this, interacting every day with people who are projected into the room. Virtual reality will ultimately trump film. Imagine a virtual reality musical - you’d actually be in it! It would be awesome.
Where does your love of musical theatre come from?
Well, as a child, I loved music, and I loved writing songs and writing lyrics. And my parents took me to see My Fair Lady when I was very young – I saw the original with Rex [Harrison] and Julie [Andrews] – and that just stunned me. Even then, I thought “this is what I want to do, I want to make that.” I just related to it. Being a composer is really a calling, just like being an author. I started composing music when I was six. I’m here to write music; that’s my charge in life, my gift. Yes, I won a prize for a cello concerto but I also wrote lyrics and loved musical theatre and I thought, “I don’t just want to write concert pieces. I want to invest my musical energies putting things on stage.” It’s my life project, what I’ve devoted my life to.
Who are your musical theatre idols?
Oh, certainly Frank Loesser. I just love his work. I love Guys and Dolls and love so many of his plays. He’s able to get under the skin of a character and really bring you the humour and pathos of that character. He has such a melodic gift, and give us such witty lyrics. He’s so smart, and respects – and appeals to – the intelligence of the audience.
I love all of the music from the golden era: Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Larry Hart, Irving Berlin, Kander and Ebb, Leonard Bernstein. And I grew up in the 1960s, so I’ve always been a fan of jazz and pop. I’ve absorbed it all. When you have this kind of vocabulary, when you’re fluent in it, you can access it whenever you need it. If somebody said to me, “Okay, we’re doing a show set in Delhi”, I’m so familiar with that kind of music, I know I can find a way to have it come into the picture. A lot of what we do later in life comes from the dreams and imaginings of our childhoods.
If you could give your students just one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t quit! If you believe in yourself, persevere. Never give up. The one guarantee is that if you stop writing, there’s no question that you won’t be a writer! I know it’s tautological but it’s the truth [laughs]. I’ve seen so many brilliant writers under my tutelage succeed because they kept at it.