Maury Yeston has gained great recognition on the awards circuit with Tonys, an Olivier and an Oscar to his name and yet, he has a quiet humbleness that speaks more of an inspired artist than Broadway bigwig. On a visit to London this week, he spoke to The Reviews Hub’s DEBORAH PARRY about his long career as one of the leading composers in musical theatre.
Maury Yeston’s most recognisable work is the musical Nine (1982), which was adapted for the screen by the iconic Anthony Minghella in 2009. A revival of his 1997 hit Titanic (not the one starring Leo and Kate) is currently runningat The Charing Cross Theatre – just off London’s West End, and the UK premiere of his newest work Death Takes a Holiday is due to be performed at the same venue next year.
Meeting Yeston, in the bar of the Charing Cross Theatre, the 1995 film Mr Holland’s Opus springs to mind. Just like Mr Holland – the passionate and inspiring teacher/composer – Yeston exudes a contagious ardour for the arts and he was cited as one of the top 10 professors at Yale University in the 1980s. As a theatre reviewer, I tell him, I always try to justify my critique – rather than merely leaning towards a bias of what I enjoy. He responds instantly and philosophically. “I’ve thought about criticism a lot,” he says, “and I came to the conclusion that, ideally, in the best possible world, the finest criticism aspires to the condition of its subject. That great art criticism allows us to see in a way that we have never seen before. That music criticism allows as to hear in a way we would not have heard. Art sheds light on things and so does criticism.”
In the past, Yeston has spoken at length about his childhood, of being exposed to music from a young age and, in particular, the influence of listening to his grandfather – a Cantor at a synagogue. Did those early experiences allow him the opportunity to gain anunderstanding of the emotional connection between audience and performer? “Absolutely, you become impugned with it. When I listen to music, I am overwhelmed by it.” Is it possible, then, to lead an audience down an emotional path, to predict how they might feel when listening? “Absolutely,” he replies. “With underscoring and light motif. What’s great about musical theatre is that we hear someone thinking, we hear their inner voice.”
He explains further: “Somebody sings a song in the first act, and the song says I really love her, and you are familiar with that tune – then in the second act that same guy is being told by that girl “I’m going to Australia – I don’t know that I am ever coming back!” He doesn’t want her to be upset, so he says whatever was between us, really wasn’t that much; don’t feel like you’ve broken my heart. And as he’s lying to her, the cello is playing I really love her and we know it in the audience- that’s the power of music.”
For composers like me, creating is not something we do, it’s something we are.
Yeston is a musicologist and, from our discussion so far, it seems he was born with a pertinacity to succeed in his chosen profession. So is talent something that’s predominantly nature or nurture? “I think that talent is really two things,” he says. “The first is understanding the craft, the structure of music and so on – but more importantly is the ability to recognise an idea worth working on because, if it’s not, you could spend your whole life throwing your talent away because it’s never going to happen.” And how does he feel this applies to him – was he born with an aptitude for music? “I don’t have a photographic memory but I do have a phonographic one – I think I remember every note I’ve ever heard – I recall it. To put it another way – for composers like me, creating is not something we do, it is something we are.” And with this rare talent, surely he’s had the desire to become a performer himself? “Well, I think I am. I have the natural ability to get on a podium and lecture and be informative and entertaining – it’s like stand-up. You either have that or you don’t. I think I’ve been performing all my life – not on the stage as an actorbut, nevertheless, a performance.”
Talk turns to his musical Nine and Yeston lights up; he sits more poised in his chair and he becomes hugely animated. “I was obsessed. I loved that movie [8½]so much, everything about it. I just got it, I just understood it.” He’s said in the past that he felt drawn towards the character of Guido – that he recognised much of himself, as a youth, in the character of a man who is trying to recapture his own. Aside from those parallels, I ask him if anything within his work literally biographical? “of course, everything is because you’re drawing from your experience.”Grandmother’s Love Letters, a number from his piece December Songs, which was commissioned to be performed at Carnegie Hall in 2004 seems to suggest this;there is particular depth and pathos within the lyrics – and it is easy to imagine that they might have been inspired by a true story. Did his grandmother die and leave love letters? He is about to answer but stops himself and the impression is that this is the only point so far that Yeston has chosen not to be truly candid. He continues: “Even if that happened, or whether it happened on not, I would never tell anyone.”
Many composers have particular rituals when they write, but Yeston’s not one of them. “No that’ll be Mr Sondheim! It has to be a number 2 pencil… For me – anywhere in my head will do.”
For any creative soul, self-criticism and creative blocks can be stifling, but they don’t trouble the 70-year-old. “I tell myself that I’ve been in this situation before, I’ve always worked through it – so why should this time be different? I am so schooled to know the art of writing and rewriting. Don’t be afraid of that.” Early on in his career, Yeston was mentored by My Fair Lady lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. He visited his office once a week to get feedback on his compositions. “Lerner told me, when you’ve written something very good, you should ask yourself – should there be more? So sometimes when I’ve written something I say: ok that’s a good song but maybe there’s a better song.”
His newest musical Death Takes a Holidayis based on the 1934 film (of the same title) and subsequently was remade in the 1990s as the better-known Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. The subject matter is pretty hefty with a plot that invokes big questions about life, love and death and I wonder if Yeston has ever pondered these things himself (in particular, what happens after we die). “I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that,” he says and then he takes a moment to think deeply. “I used to be terribly afraid of that. I think what happens when we die is the same thing as when they give you the anaesthesia before an operation. The only difference is that there’s no recovery – or maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Finally, how would he like to be remembered?“How interesting… you know I’d like to be remembered by so many students that I’ve taught over the years that have become stars and brilliant. I’d like to feel that I had, in some way, done them some good. remembered by them. Artists exhort in their own discovery, teachers exhort in the discovery of others.”
As we part ways, and I think about those final words and it dawns on me that Yeston is probably a rare creature in that he has achieved both.
Death Takes a Holiday opens at Charing Cross Theatre on 16 January 2017 and is currently booking until 4 March 2017.