Composer, lyricist, educator
Composer/lyricist Maury Yeston’s Broadway track record is so far perfect. Two of his works have come to Broadway—Nine in 1982, and Titanic in 1997—and both have won the Tony Award for best musical and best score. Yeston also made significant contributions to the Tony-nominated musical Grand Hotel in 1989. Yeston’s musical version of the novel The Phantom of the Opera —not to be confused with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version—called Phantom has yet to reach Broadway but has been presented at hundreds of theatres around the world. “[Yeston] has written some of the most formally structured music in recent musical theatre. But he also has the gift for creating ravishing melody—once you’ve heard ‘Love Can’t Happen’ from Grand Hotel, or ‘An Unusual Way’ from Nine, or ‘Home’ from Phantom, or any number of other Yeston songs, you’ll be hooked,” wrote Paula Vitaris in Show Music magazine.
Maury Yeston was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1945. His English-born father, David, founded the Dial Import Corporation, an international importing and exporting firm. Yeston’s mother, Frances, helped run the family business. Both of Yeston’s parents enjoyed music. His father sang English music hall songs around the house and his mother was an accomplished pianist. “My mother was trained in classical piano, and her father was a cantor in a synagogue. A lot of musical-theatre writers have something in common. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill—each one had a cantor in the family. When you take a young, impressionable child and put him at age three in the middle of a synagogue, and that child sees a man in a costume, dramatically raised up on a kind of stage, singing his heart out at the top of his lungs to a rapt congregation, it makes a lasting impression. Something gets in your blood,” Yeston told Playbill.
At age five Yeston began taking piano lessons from his mother and by age seven had won an award for composition at a local community center. Attending the Yeshiva of Hudson County from kindergarten through grade eight, Yeston was further exposed to Jewish religious music. Yeston’s interest in the musical theatre began at age ten when he was taken to see My Fair Lady, then the biggest hit on Broadway. During his high school years at Jersey Academy, a small private school in Jersey City, Yeston broadened his musical horizons beyond classical and religious music and Broadway show tunes to include jazz, folk, rock and roll, and early music. He took up folk guitar, played vibraphone with a jazz group, and participated in madrigal singing.
Music was not Yeston’s only interest. As an undergraduate at Yale University he majored in music theory and composition and minored in literature, particularly French,
Born October 23, 1945, in Jersey City, NJ; son of David Yeston (an international importer and exporter) and Frances Haar (a business administrator). Married to Julianne Waldhelm; children: Jake and Max. Education: Yale University, New Haven, CT, B.A. 1967, Ph.D. 1974; Clare College, Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, M.A. 1972.
Composer and lyricist of Broadway musicals Titanic, 1997’, and Nine, 1982. Contributed music and lyrics to the Broadway musical Grand Hotel, 1989. Other musicals include Alice in Wonderland, 1971; OneTwo-Three-Four-Five, 1987; Phantom, 1991. Also wrote Goya: A Life in Song, a concept recording, 1989; December Songs, a cabaret song cycle, 1991. Publications include The Stratification of Musical Rhythm, 1976, and Readings in Schenker Analysis (editor), 1977. Recordings of his work include Nine, 1982; Goya: A Life in Song, 1989; December Songs, 1992; Grand Hotel, 1992; Phantom, 1993; and Titanic, 1997.
Awards: Antoinette Perry Awards for Best Score and Best Musical for Titanic, 1997, and Nine, 1982; Drama Desk Award for Nine, 1982.
German, and Japanese. Yeston’s love of language is one reason why he writes for the musical theatre. “I am as much a lyricist as a composer, and the musical theatre is the only genre I know in which the lyrics are as important as the music. I write my own lyrics for the same reason I write my own music. They are equal avenues of self-expression,” Yeston told Mary Kalfatovic of Contemporary Musicians.
Graduating from Yale in 1967, Yeston won a Mellon Fellowship to attend Clare College at England’s Cambridge University. While at Cambridge he earned a master’s degree, belonged to Footlights, a well-known dramatics organization, wrote several classical pieces and a musical version of Alice in Wonderland. The latter was eventually produced at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut in 1971. He also did some serious thinking at Cambridge about what course his life should take. Yeston told Show Music, “I was given the time and the luxury to make a life decision at Cambridge, and the decision was this: That is, it is just as noble a life pursuit to try to write one perfect solo melody that lives a thousand years, as it is to try to write a composition for 85 instruments that last an hour and a half. You don’t have to be Gustav Mahler to realize your artistic goals as a composer.”
After Cambridge, Yeston returned to the United States to accept a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship which included a teaching position at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the country’s oldest traditionally black college. At Lincoln, Yeston taught music, art, philosophy, religion, and western civilization, and started a course in the history of black music. Yeston enjoyed academia and the formal study of music but he also wanted to write musicals. In order to keep a foot in both camps, he enrolled in the doctorate program at Yale and joined the BMI musical theatre workshop in New York City. While studying music theory and working on his dissertation at Yale, Yeston travelled to New York City once a week to study musical theatre, including how lyrics function and how songs are integrated into a plot.
In 1974, Yeston completed a doctoral dissertation on the stratification of musical rhythm. His work was so impressive it was published as a book by the Yale University Press and Yeston was asked to join the Yale music faculty. He eventually became an associate professor, director of undergraduate studies in music, and was twice elected by the student body as one of Yale’s ten best professors. Meanwhile, Yeston continued to attend the BMI workshop where his major project was a musical inspired by Italian director Federico Fellini’s film 8 1/2. As a teenager Yeston had seen the 1963 film, about a film director suffering a midlife crisis and a creativity drought, and was completely taken up by its themes. “I looked at the screen and said ‘That’s me.’ I still believed in all the dreams and ideals of what is was to be an artist, and here was a movie about an artist—an artist in trouble. It became an obsession,” Yeston told Carol Lawson of the New York Times in 1982. Yeston called the musical Nine. “When Fellini made 8 1/2 he already had done seven films and a documentary, so he called his next movie 8 1/2. I thought, if you add music, it’s like half a number more,” Yeston explained to Lawson.
Directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune, with a book by playwright Arthur Kopit, Nine opened on Broadway’s 46th Street Theatre in May 1982. “Nine has more than a few sequences that are at once hallucinatory and entertaining—dreams that play like showstoppers…. There’s so much rich icing on Nine that anyone who cares about the progress of the Broadway musical will have to see it,” wrote Frank Rich in the New York Times.
Nine, which starred Raul Julia, won Tony Awards for best musical, score, director, and costumes, and ran for 732 performances. It has since been produced in England, France, Japan, Sweden, and other countries. The success of Nine allowed Yeston to give up his position as associate professor at Yale, though he continued as an adjunct professor for seven years, teaching a course every other semester on songwriting. “Nine absolutely changed my life, both financially and substantively. It made it possible to teach less and write more. Of course there was pressure to follow up on its success but, though future projects took a long time to get produced, the flow and quality of my work and level of writing output remained uninterrupted,” Yeston remarked in his Contemporary Musicians interview.
After Nine, Yeston turned much of his attention to writing a musical version of Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera. He was approached with the idea by actor/director Geoffrey Holder, who held the American rights to the novel. Initially, Yeston did not have much interest in such a project. “I laughed and laughed. ‘What are you thinking?’That’s the worst idea in the world! Why would you want to write a musical based on a horror story? I mean, what are you going to do next, The Werewolf? The Invisible Man, The Musical?’ …. And then it occurred to me that the story could be somewhat changed … [The Phantom] would be a Quasimodo character, an Elephant Man. Don’t all of us feel, despite outward imperfections, that deep inside we’re good? And that is a character you cry for,” Yeston told Show Music.
Yeston had completed much of Phantom and was in the process of raising money for a Broadway production when Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of the blockbusters Cats, Evita, and Jesus Christ Superstar, announced plans for his own version of The Phantom of the Opera. After the Lloyd Webber show, which opened in London in the fall of 1986, proved a boxoffice smash, funding for Yeston’s version dried up. Though Yeston’s Phantom has never reached Broadway, it was given a full-scale, top quality production at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars in 1991 and has since been produced at over three hundred theatres around the world. The Houston production was recorded as an original cast album by RCA records. Yeston told Contemporary Musicians that his Phantom “differs radically from the English show in that it cleaves to the American model of a highly integrated book-and-score musical theatre piece, Operetta-like in tone (to reflect the 1890s period) and deeply French in style (for its Parisian setting) it tells the life story of the Phantom—a character of deep pathos who, misshapen from birth—radiates the beauty of music from within, despite his outward imperfections.”
Among Yeston’s numerous projects is the recording Goya—A Life in Song, featuring famed tenor Placido Domingo. Domingo was interested in starring in a stage musical about Spanish painter Francisco de Goya and suggested to producer Alan Carr that Yeston would be the right person for the job of coming up with such a vehicle. Domingo had greatly admired Yeston’s work on Nine. “I met Placido and of course the professor in me went immediately to the library and read everything there was to read in English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian on Goya. I loved it as a project. It was going to be a show, but we decided to do a record, because of Placido’s time commitments,” Yeston told Show Music.
In 1989, Yeston was asked by his Nine colleague, director Tommy Tune, to help out with Grand Hotel, a musical that was foundering during tryouts in Boston. The show was based on the 1932 movie of the same name, and on an unsuccessful 1958 musical version called At the Grand, with a score by Robert Wright and George Forrest. Yeston provided six new songs for Grand Hotel and rewrote approximately half the lyrics in the entire show. Grand Hotel arrived on Broadway in November 1989 and won five Tony Awards. Yeston, along with Wright andForrest, was nominated for the Tony for best score. Grand Hotel ran for 1, 077 performances. Other Yeston works include 1-2-3-4-5, a musical based on the first five books of the Bible, presented at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987 and 1988, and December Songs, a song cycle adapted from Schubert’s Die Winterreise. Originally written as a commissioned piece for the 1991 centennial celebration of New York’s Carnegie Hall, December Songs evolved into special material for popular cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci. “It’s a classical song cycle, but it’s written from a popular Broadway point of view and the world of cabaret. It’s precisely the line between those worlds,” Yeston told Show Music.
The location of the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985 sparked Yeston’s interest in writing a musical about the doomed oceanliner. “What drew me to the project was the positive aspects of what the ship represented—1) humankind’s striving after great artistic works and similar technological feats, despite the possibility of tragic failure, and 2) the dreams of the passengers on board: 3rd Class, to immigrate to America for a better life; 2nd Class, to live a leisured lifestyle in imitation of the upper classes; 1st Class, to maintain their privileged positions forever. The collision with the iceberg dashed all of these dreams simultaneously, and the subsequent transformation of character of the passengers and crew had, it seemed to me, the potential for great emotional and musical expression onstage,” Yeston told Contemporary Musicians.
As it turned out, librettist Peter Stone, who collaborated with Yeston on Grand Hotel, was also intrigued by the Titanic. The two men began to throw around ideas for a musical about the ship, knowing that the idea would sound unpromising to most people. “I think if you don’t have that kind of daring damn-the-torpedos, you shouldn’t be in this business. It’s the safe sounding shows that often don’t do well. You have to dare greatly, and I really want to stretch the bounds of the kind of expression in musical theatre,” Yeston explained in BMI Music World.
Yeston saw the greatness and tragedy of the Titanic as something peculiar to turn-of-the-century British culture, with its rigid social class system and its grand notions of progress through technology. “In order to depict that on the stage, because this is really a very English show, I knew I would have to have a color similar to the one found in the music of the great composers at that time, like Elgar or Vaughan Williams; this was for me an opportunity to bring in the musical theatre an element of the symphonic tradition that I think we really haven’t had before. That was very exciting,” Yeston told BMI Music World.
The high cost of Titanic’s set made it impossible for the $9 million show to have traditional out of town tryouts. Titanic opened at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in April 1997, after a month of preview performances at the same theatre. Reviews ran the gamut from rave to pan. “It seemed a foregone conclusion that the show would be a failure; a musical about history’s most tragic maiden voyage, in which fifteen hundred people lost their lives, was obviously preposterous…. Astonishingly, Titanic manages to be grave and entertaining, somber and joyful; little by little you realize that you are in the presence of a genuine addition to American musical theatre,” wrote Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker.
On the less positive side, Ben Brantley of the New York Times called Titanic “a perversely cool work, cerebral without being particularly imaginative or insightful…. Mr. Yeston, who did the appealing score for Nine, seems less confident here. There is evidence of intelligence and variety in the music (which often has a Sweeney Toddmeets Jawsominousness), but very little emotional pull, barring some full-throated anthemic chorales.”
Titanic was one of four musicals to open on Broadway in same week and emerged as the audience favorite, if only by a narrow margin. Titanic’s strong showing at the Tony Awards in June enabled it to speed ahead of the competition. Titanic picked up Tonys for orchestration, book, score, scenic design, and best musical. A number from the show performed on the Tony Awards television broadcast, the stirring “Godspeed Titanic,” gave audiences an idea of what Titanic, which had run an austere, cryptic advertizing campaign, was like.
An affable man who enjoys swimming, kayaking, cooking, art, and travel when not occupied with music and literature, Yeston lives in New York City with his wife Julianne Waldhelm. He has two sons from a previous marriage. Commenting on his relative obscurity among Broadway composers, Yeston told Show Music, “I don’t think I’m in the world to be famous. I’m in the world to try and make wonderful music.”
BMI Music World, Fall 1997, p. 24-29.
New Yorker, May 12, 1997, p. 102-103.
New York Times, May 9, 1982, sect.2, p. 1, 24; May 10, 1982, p. C13; May 23, 1982; p. D3, 23; May 23, 1997, sect.2, p. 6; April 24, 1997, p.C, p. 13; June 1, 1997, sect.2, p. 1; June 2, 1997, p. B1, July 20, 1997, sect.2., p. 5.
Newsweek, May 5, 1997, p. 70-73;
Playbill, May 31, 1997, p. 18-20.
Show Music, Spring 1997, p. 17-23.
Information also obtained directly from Maury Yeston via telephone and fax.