A Conversation with Maury Yeston

| October 15, 2017

A Conversation with Maury Yeston

October 12, 2017
By Victoria Ordin for Cabaret Scenes

Maury Yeston

Cabaret Scenes spoke with Maury Yeston about his new musical revue, Anything Can Happen in the Theater—The Songs of Maury Yeston, the genius behind the Tony-winning shows Nine, Grand Hotel, and Titanic. The show will include his best-known songs, plus wonderful new material yet to be performed in public. Gerard Alessandrini, creator of Forbidden Broadway and the recent hit Spamilton, takes a break from parody to direct a stellar cast: Robert Cuccioli, Alex Getlin, Justin Keyes, Michael Maliakel, and Jill Paice, with musical direction by Greg Jarrett.

Victoria Ordin How did Anything Can Happen in the Theater come about? 

Maury Yeston It was Gerard’s idea. We’ve known each other for 30 years, all the way back to the BMI workshop when I took over the chair of the advanced class after Lehman Engel died. Gerard is incredibly brilliant and we have always been big fans of each other’s work. I love Forbidden Broadway and always make sure to send him any new work before it appears, to give him time to write the parody! But I’ve also seen his gifted serious side. He can write virtually anything. I was lucky he consented to direct my “Bible show” that I had originally written with Larry Gelbart (called 12345 after the first five books of the Bible) at Maine State Music Theatre.

Three months ago, Gerard told me he really wanted to do a revue of my work to showcase things I’ve written that haven’t been heard: not just material from shows that have seen the light of day, but from projects that haven’t yet run. I think he is truly our preeminent creator of revues, particularly comedic ones. He proposed The Triad as the ideal venue, and I loved his idea.

Gerard Alessandrini (L) & MauryYeston
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Victoria That’s fast. So, this was not in development years ago, and then shelved while the two of you pursued other projects?

Maury No. It all came together very quickly. I love Bob Cuccioli and Jill Paice, and the wonderful casting director Michael Casarra introduced us to three brilliant young talents: Justin Keyes, Alex Getlin, and Michael Malakiel. 

Victoria The chemistry among the five performers is unlike anything I’ve seen in a cabaret setting. The show as a whole is polished and cohesive. Of course this is theater, not cabaret, where performers reflect on life in speech between songs. You’d never guess these actors hadn’t worked together in other shows, much less that this show came together in three or so months, a theatrical equivalent of a “pop-up” retail store. 

Maury Yes, these actors are so gifted for comedy and pathos. Jill and Bob are, of course, well-known. Bob has done my Phantom and Nine, and Jill starred in Death Takes a Holiday. And the others stepped up and have delivered wonderful performances.

Justin is a terrific tenor and sings a song I wrote for Placido Domingo, and is one of the funniest actors I’ve met. And Alex, just a year out of Northwestern, is transfixing. She has a professional gravitas and a complete command of the stage. Michael reminds me of a young Tommy Tune: he’s very tall and has an engaging elegance. The group just gelled together. 

Victoria: I think the audience felt that gelling from the very first number, as pretty as it is funny. I can’t believe Alex is just a year out of school. Her rendition of “Danglin’” was, quite simply, flawless. 

Maury Alex has a unique and mesmerizing voice. She auditioned with that song and found her own way of doing it and stylizing it. That’s what I live for: to experience an actor showing me something I’ve never seen in a song of mine. I asked her to do it just like that and not to change a thing.

Victoria Once Gerard approached you with the idea, how did the two of you choose the songs? There are so many!

Maury Gerard is a great director. His ideas were enhanced by his interaction with these actors. We wanted the show to have a genuine theme of some kind. And we felt we could rely on the music and lyrics alone to furnish the setting and context of the various songs. The magic of theater is that we harpoon the imagination of the audience in creating the illusion that’s onstage. So…we have very few props. And no scenery.

Victoria So you see the audience as really essential to the creation of the product. The total effect, as you describe it, is intensely collaborative.

Maury Yes. We were able to do that in Nine, on a pure white set, with only boxes to sit on. Yet, we created a world of characters and evoked Europe as a whole. The audience provided the rest. Same with Grand Hotel. A simple set created the illusion of Weimar Germany with nothing but chairs, and a bar across the stage that Michael Jeter famously leaped over in a dance number.

Our actors onstage are playing someone else, but they are also playing themselves. So Gerard and I made a deal: we would not present any number from a show that was in the same style and guise as it had been in the original production. The songs would have a different meaning, and would reflect the personalities of our players as well.

Once that was decided, I wrote the opening to the show, “Anything Can Happen in the Theater,” which sings about their mutual experience as actors in a sometimes tough industry. 

Victoria That’s fascinating. So this profound chemistry among the actors wasn’t an accident that just sort of happened. It was, rather, the result of a concerted effort to present familiar material in a new way with these particular performers. 

Maury Absolutely. So after Jill’s terrific mashup of “Shimmy” and “Hollywood,” (from two different characters in two different shows), Bob comes out of the wings and sings to her, “Mademoiselle, I have followed you everywhere” (in a very different context from Grand Hotel, where that song originated). Or, for example, in our final song (“Home,” from Phantom), their lyric tells us “I’m home as long as music’s playing and I’m onstage singing” and becomes about the actors’ experience performing their own songs.

So rather than just having Bob sing Guido’s song as Guido, he comes out singing an actor’s song as himself … about where he wants to stand on the stage. Not,

The Cast of Anything Can Happen in the Theatre
Photo: Carol Rosegg

“I would like to be here, I would like to be there” but “I would like to play here…or there” Of course, he wants the whole stage. 

Victoria Yes, I was struck by the acting. Even without spoken lines, each song tells a story and evokes a completely different world. It feels narrative, even without a book. 

Maury I see this revue as a love letter to the performers without whom the composer would be nothing but silence. Instead of a purely fictional story, it’s in part our story, the actors’ experience of putting on this show. Instead of each number being a duplicated piece of theater from a past production, you’re seeing something that is made up right here, now, in the present. And Gerard, with his comic genius, has made it hilarious.

Victoria To import a term from literary criticism, the show is very meta. I didn’t think of this at the time, or have any notion of how to describe its depth, but now I understand why the show felt so alive. 

Maury I would be remiss if I didn’t shower praise on the phenomenal playing of the musical director, Greg Jarrett—he’s like a one-man orchestra. Greg Jarrett is absolutely world-class. We met when he was virtually fresh out of Michigan’s musical theater program. He’s worked a lot at Encores! and he worked with Kevin Stites on Death Takes a Holiday. Greg was so good that he soon stepped in for Kevin.

Victoria I felt that. And, to judge by the people around me, others did, too. So what’s next? Where do you see Anything Can Happen In The Theater going after this run at The Triad?

Maury We don’t really know. I’ve always believed that good work exerts its own pressure to be seen and heard. That’s been the case, not only in my own career, but the careers of my friends. I’m just so grateful to Gerard. 

Victoria On behalf of your many fans and admirers, I think it’s safe to say we are every bit as grateful! 

Anything Can Happen in the Theater runs at The Triad through October 21. Tickets can be purchased at www.triadnyc.com or by calling the box office at (212) 279-4200. The Triad is on West 72 Street (east of Broadway) in Manhattan.

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Category: Cabaret Features, Musical Theatre Features, New York City, New York City Musical Theatre Features, Off-Broadway Features, Regional

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