Interview with Death Takes a Holiday composer Maury Yeston
Maury Yeston, Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan's 2011 musical Death Takes a Holiday is about to make its European première at the Charing Cross Theatre as the finale in a highly acclaimed inaugural season by new artistic director Thom Southerland. Having opened the season with his previously successful revival of Yeston's Titanic, which came number one in our Top 10 Musicals of 2016, this Drama Desk-nominated show is set to delight London audiences this winter.
“The timing was just right” comments Yeston, speaking at the première of Titanic back in 2016 which he travelled to London in order to see in its newest form. “To go from Titanic, to Ragtime and then to the London première of a new show is exactly the right way to end a new season. It has been done in the States a lot, so while it's been leased out we've been waiting for an opportunity to do it in London, Korea, Japan and Germany.”
Yeston is a multi-award-winning Broadway composer whose credits include the Tony Award-winning Nine, Grand Hotel, Phantom and Titanic – two shows of which have already been directed in London by Southerland to great critical praise. “I think Thom is a real one of a kind” he praises, “he has a real gift”. Speaking about Death Takes a Holiday's journey from off-Broadway to the London fringe, Yeston spoke about how the original production struck a chord with audiences who could fully relate to the themes.
“We really did our job – it was nominated for 11 Drama Desk Awards. People came back to see the show seven or eight times. My favourite aspect of it is that to every person watching it it's personal. You cannot help but involve yourself in it. You cannot help but think why its message is so beautiful.”
The musical is based on the play La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella which has frequently provided the basis for film and stage adaptations, including the 1998 film Meet Joe Black starring Brad Pitt.
“It was written in 1927 in response to the overwhelming killing in World War One and the pandemic that followed” Yeston explains. “All death wants to do is to collect people, he collects souls. Exhausted from the scale of killing and death he confronts a girl who has been in a car accident and he can't take her because her potency of her life is so huge. He sends her back into the world and resolves that he finally needs to know why people hate him so. Why do they dread him, why are they afraid of him, why do they cling to life, why is that important? And so tantalised by taking a few days off, nobody will die on the earth because he's not collecting them, he'll spend a weekend with this family in Northern Italy. Of course then he falls in love, and discovers that what makes life so precious is that it's not endless and therefore what we have in life, love, we can have as much of it as we can while we're here. It's a beautiful story – these characters are funny, There are so many subject matters covered in it that you wouldn't expect. We cover all aspects of love and death during this small weekend. The music too it is very special to me.”
Yeston has collaborated with numerous book writers and co-writers throughout his musical career, many of which have had interesting development histories. I wonder how easy the collaborative process comes to him as a composer, especially when adapting a musical from a previous work.
“First of all you sign a piece of paper that says who's who” he responds. “That person writes music, that person writes the lyrics and that person writes the book. Once you have that it's a simple agreement. Anybody who gives something to somebody else's department, whatever you give them you own it. Musicals are talked into existence, so once you have that situation then it's just conversation. Peter Stone used to say in theatre it's legislation by temper tantrum, but you know what, sometimes there is a fight.”
The development of new musical theatre has changed significantly throughout the decades and Yeston explains that the over-workshopping process can actually be detrimental to new work.
“Workshopping can kill it because it can take all the spontaneity out of it. It comes from Producers wanting flop insurance. Nervous producers thinking that if you workshop it one more time it can make it even better. There's diminishing returns to that, you write the piece and you read it. Now you have everybody sat around the table and you see the problems to fix it. Then you go into rehearsals for a workshop, and after that you ask are we ready to go? You run the risk of over-thinking it, and what rang your bells and was the essence of the idea that you were obsessed with is gone. This workman-like idea of working on something again and again is impossible. At some point you need to just get it in front of an audience. You need to let the actors use their imagination. You know you're firing on all cylinders when you've created something on stage that requires the imagination of the audience. That's the best part of theatre, it's that sort of process that almost guarantees you that even if someone thinks it's a bad idea, you can turn it around and make it a good idea.”
Having worked across such a developing period of musical theatre history, Yeston's experience really is second to none. I ask him how the Broadway industry has changed for composers.
“I think the greatest challenge is to understand that Broadway lives at the intersection between art and commerce” he comments. “Both of them are equally important. Nobody is going to grow a foundation to put on a Broadway show there's a profit mode involved and so it should be, you want people to come, it's part of putting on popular entertainment. At the same time what's not helpful is the anxiety that that generates. From the money people who are terrified that they'll lose, and therefore the level of push and criticism is often very high so you learn how to deal with that without offending people.”
Yeston has recently finished working on a new musical called The Lady Eve with Thomas Meehan which he described as a screwball Hollywood comedy set in the 1940s. The show is currently in a finished state and the duo are in the process of talking to producers ahead of a commercial production.
“I think that the biggest challenge to Broadway is a great number of entertainments that are not actually musicals, despite the fact they have music and are on Broadway. What happens there is that they not only knock your ears off but they also knock your eyes out, every Disney show, what happens is that the audience becomes accustomed to this – there needs to be a new piece of scenery every three minutes or a drop needs to come down, but that doesn't have to happen. And so I think that the challenge is to gird your loins and say we're going to do this the way we see it. Look what we did down here with Titanic, it's not as though we spend three million dollars on scenery. We're seeing a sanity in it, the play is the thing – if the score is good and the play is good then it will happen.”
Whilst Yeston continues to work on new material, I ask him for the best piece of advice he has ever received.
“Alan Jay Lerner heard one of my things and he said I'd like you to come to my office and I'll give you pointers” he begins. “He said when you've written something good you should ask yourself the question: should there be more? I think that's a great piece of advice, not the greatest piece of advice. The greatest piece of advice I've heard is what my mentor told me, never avoid the obvious. I take from that - whatever you do is what may seem obvious to you may not be obvious to the outside world – never avoid the obvious. I think that's fantastic advice. You just have to keep going, at the end of the day you get a break. It's frustrating but if you believe in yourself then it works out great.”
Excited at the prospect for a new production of Death Takes a Holiday, Yeston is keen to share what he hopes the audience will take away from the show.
“I think the author is obligated to let the audience to know two things, one, what this evening is about and two, why this evening should mean something to you. I think that the audiences will take away that they're very happy they came because they saw something amusing, intelligent, and a wonderful essay on something so common that everyone experiences in one way or another. The idea that they can come to a play about the figure of death and at the end, weep for him, I think is astonishing.”
Watch Zoë Doano and Chris Peluso sing "More and More" from Death Takes a Holiday:
Death Takes a Holiday runs at the Charing Cross Theatre from 16 January 2017.