Jewish Composer Maury Yeston Discusses His Music and Musicals
Close your eyes when you listen to a Maury Yeston song, and you’ll often be transported — to Italy (Nine), Paris (Phantom), or the docks of Southampton (Titanic). And according to the Tony-winning composer, that’s no accident.
In an interview to discuss the release of a CD of his demo recordings — Maury Sings Yeston — the Jewish composer and lyricist discussed his most famous works. Yeston said his goal is to bring a viewer and listener to a specific time and place, via the music alone. For example, the primary chord in Nine’s “Unusual Way” is meant to evoke a wave in the ocean moving out and in.
“Music can depict everything,” the composer says.
Yeston, who studied composition in Europe, is especially adroit in bringing the sounds of that continent to life in his musicals. Almost all of his most famous works are set there (Nine, Phantom, Grand Hotel, Goya, and Titanic). As Yeston says, “Europe is in the music.”
Most of the interview was spent discussing Yeston’s breakthrough (and groundbreaking) musical Nine, which opened on Broadway in 1982 starring Raul Julia and directed by Tommy Tune.
Yeston had been writing the show for years. After an incredible amount of work, and many stops and starts along the way, the show eventually made it to Broadway, bested Dreamgirls for the Tony award for Best Musical, and launched Yeston’s career.
An earlier version — with a book by Mario Fratti — premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Center’s play development program, directed by Howard Ashman. Yeston wrote some new material for that workshop, including the penultimate song “Getting Tall,” which he wrote a few days before the performance, after spending a sleepless night realizing he had gotten the moment wrong with his prior song. (You can watch Yeston discuss the creation of “Getting Tall” here.)
For lovers of Nine, like myself, you can actually hear the cut song — because Yeston went on to use it in his song cycle December Songs.
I asked Yeston about some of the most famous stories about Nine‘s creation. Was it really true that someone slipped the demo recording under Tommy Tune’s door because they lived in the same apartment building?
Original librettist Mario Fratti had actually attended an awards ceremony where Tune was being honored, and mentioned the show to him. Although Tune at first brushed off the idea, Fratti pleaded his case — and told Tune that they lived in the same apartment building, and that he would leave him a demo recording in case he was interested.
The next morning, Yeston got a call that Tune wanted to direct the show.
Nine was also written for a mixed cast comprised of men and women. But for auditions for the workshop production, directed by Tune, Yeston asked singers to also prepare something European for him. He and Tune were completely dissatisfied with all of the men, but loved the women. Thus, an idea emerged: why not cast the show entirely with women, except for the central role of Guido Contini (and some male child actors).
As Yeston explained it — everything soon fell into place. The women would represent all of the women who had come to dominate Gudio’s life, and we could see firsthand his (often troubled) relationships with these women.
Watching the show now, it seems impossible to believe a cast of all women wasn’t the original conceit. But, as Yeston conceded, this was the form the show was probably calling for all along — it just took him awhile to realize it.
We also discussed how Raul Julia came to be cast. According to Yeston, they had been auditioning men — but none seemed quite right for the show. They all radiated a very American, and un-extraordinary, vibe.
But Guido has to be extraordinary; he is a stand-in for Frederico Fellini, and one of the world’s most successful — and charismatic — film directors. It was Tune who first suggested Raul Julia for the role, and when Julia came in to audition — they knew they had found their man. He radiated charisma, danger, sex — and could easily hold the stage for two hours.
Yeston recalls writing some material specifically for Julia — including the brilliant “Contini Submits” and the Casanova operetta section of the massive Grand Canal sequence in Act II. Listening to the original cast recording after my interview with Yeston, you really can tell how perfectly that material is suited to Julia.
Casting Raul Julia also led to a surprising — but effective — innovation during the recording of the show’s Original Cast Album. When Julia was signed for the role, the producers failed to include a contractual clause that Julia would record the album. By the time they had realized their mistake, his agent requested an exorbitant fee, which meant they wouldn’t have the time to record a cast album in the traditional fashion (recording each song individually, one by one).
Their solution proved very effective: have the cast sit in the same room, and record the show straight through. Therefore, when you listen to the cast recording — you’re not listening to a bunch of tracks all recorded separately. You’re literally in the room for a live performance of the whole show. And the result is thrilling.
Even now, almost 40 years later, you can still experience Raul Julia and the cast’s amazing performances — just as vibrantly as they had been performed on Broadway. I’ve listened to the album well over 100 times, and every time, I feel as if I’m in the room with Gudio, Luisa, Claudia, Lilian, and all the rest. And now we know why.
We barely got to cover much of Yeston’s other work — and most of the demos on the recording — but you can read my review of that here. And I strongly recommend you pick up that recording — as well as some of Yeston’s original cast albums — to be truly transported to another time and place.
David Meyers is a produced playwright, actor, and writer. See his work at www.Bloomywood.com.