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InDepth InterView: Maury Yeston - Part I: Getting Tall

InDepth InterView: Maury Yeston - Part I: Getting TallToday, in honor of the DVD release of Rob Marshall's film version of the 1982 Tony-winning Best Musical NINE this week, Maury Yeston was gracious and generous enough to grant me a few hours in which I could ask him intimate questions about his life, career and the future of theatre itself. Not one to mince words, Yeston is a veritable font of knowledge and it became clear during the interview that he may be as gifted and talented in his educational and mentorship skills as he is as a two-time Tony-winning composer and lyricist. His stage musicals include two Tony-winning Best Musicals, NINE and TITANIC, as well as: IN THE BEGINNING, GRAND HOTEL, PHANTOM, and the forthcoming DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, as well as a full-length ballet of Tom Sawyer premiering later this year. He also wrote the incidental score for this season's revival of THE ROYAL FAMILY. From the handwritten letter sent by Katharine Hepburn to Frederico Fellini after seeing the workshop of NINE thirty years ago to this very day when NINE hits DVD, we will take a look at this magnanimous maestro's starry career in this inaugural InDepth InterView. Enjoy!

Here is Part One of the two-part interview, Part Two is available here.

1,2,3,4,5...

IN THE BEGINNING, PHANTOM, GRAND HOTEL & TITANIC

PC: IN THE BEGINNING, a very good place to start. Can you give me some memories of your early years as a young composer-lyricist?

MY: I will never forget the day Lehman Engel walked into the room of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop and said to the class, "I have just seen something that is so revolutionary, it has changed the musical theatre." And he began to tell us about this show called COMPANY. No one had heard of it. And here we were, hearing this man reporting to us about it. The whole initial notion of it, I mean: the history of the comic love couple. There used to be the two comic love couples. They were merged in the 50s and 60s into a single comic couple that's serio-comic. And, now, he said, "And now this form has completely exploded and there are how many couples in COMPANY and it‘s completely different!" He was so excited. And that very, what might be called narrow, very closed world of single-class musical theatre enthusiasm talking to a bunch of young people, nowadays, that would be all over the web. People talking about this revolutionary new show. I think that's the great function of these sites. I think they make such a wonderful community. I think BroadwayWorld is just great.

PC: IN THE BEGINNING is one of my favorite scores of the 90s, or should I say late-70s...

MY: It's so interesting. As we get older... I don't know a single person who has devoted their life to musical theatre who hasn't had a couple of misses as well as a bunch of hits. The misses, we learn a great deal from them. I will say this, Peter Stone - who was a brilliant man - used to say "the reason shows don't click sometimes is because everyone on the team at the same time isn't necessarily doing the same show." I think that's very true. That would be true of a number things. Well, in that particular show I think we all wanted to get a very funny take on the Bible. I think everyone just wasn't on the same page in terms of the tone of the show. So what you get is, there were a lot of exciting, brilliant people involved. Larry Gelbart was involved...

PC: How was it working with him?

MY: He was brilliant. But, you know what, somehow if a show can get 85% there, it's not enough. You have to get 100% there. Or there's not a lot of time to go out-of-town and work on it. I mean, we did two staged readings of it. We never got the chance to go out-of-town, as you would, or, let's say, do a very extensive workshop. Nowadays, that show would be workshopped. And, yes, I think at some point when I get the time I will absolutely revisit that score because I love it...

PC: "New Words"? Wow.

MY: ...and I love so much of what Gelbart did. And I think it's simply really a question of giving that show a chance to go through that process that every show goes through. You need to go out of town. You need to be in front of an audience. You need to get a workshop on it. You need to rework it. It's really as simple as that.

PC: You know, it's really interesting to see: there were great scores being written in the 80s and early 90s, they just weren't produced. William Finn had a few shows that have never gotten anywhere. You do, too...

MY: Rodgers & Hart had a few flops before they clicked. You know, it happens. I don't know anyone who always gets away with everything. You know, IN THE BEGINNING was under option by Herman Levin, of all people, the man who produced MY FAIR LADY in the 70s...

PC: I was just going to say, the original MY FAIR LADY was your first Broadway show, correct?

MY: Yes, and he said, in terms of Broadway lore, Herman told me: "The only show to go out of town and come to New York without a single change," I think he said from Philadelphia, "was...," I'll let you guess. It's impossible to guess.

PC: I know it's not WEST SIDE STORY or GYPSY!

MY: KISS ME, KATE.

PC: And even then, they added that song in for the revival.

MY: He said KISS ME KATE was a legendary show because it wasn't changed. Whatever they had out of town they brought in and it just took off.

PC: How interesting. Porter hadn't had a show in a decade or two in-between.

MY: Very interesting.

PC: That was his comeback show, too.

MY: You see, though, I'm a great believer in working on the show, editing the show, changing the show. I think the show is never the same from day to day...

PC: Look at NINE, you've reworked that a few times...

MY: It never ends. When Jerome Robbins said, "Broadway musicals are never finished, they're merely abandoned for a length of time," that's absolutely true.

PC: You're so right. Could you talk a bit about the tumultuous trek and the development hell like that which IN IN THE BEGINNING was caught in? A song from it, "New Words" was listed on Stephen Sondheim's SONGS I WISH I HAD WRITTEN...

MY: Yes, don't forget, IN THE BEGINNING was one of the first one or two things I had done. I was a member of the BMI music workshop when I had been writing it. Like NINE, it was begun, really, as a writing project to work on inside the workshop. I never had a clue or an inkling it would be produced. It was just a starting writer's project. What happens with these things is that sometimes, we get very lucky and we write material that seems so appealing and seems to be working, I was so lucky to get production opportunities for the first few things I worked on. One of which was NINE, another was this show. You know, the original title was sort of the joke. It was called...

PC: 1,2...

MY: Yes, 1,2,3,4,5 because it was based on the first five books of the Bible.

PC: I always wondered why that title was chosen at first.

MY: That was the Working Title. Herman Levin fell in love with "New Words", which was the big song and, in fact, he introduced me to Alan Jay Lerner and asked me play that song for Lerner. Lerner thought the song was so wonderful he invited me to stop by his office every couple of weeks so he could give me pointers. He said Oscar Hammerstein had done that for him and he wanted to do that for me. So, I really got coaching lessons - mentoring - in a series of meetings with Alan Jay Lerner as a result of having written that song.

PC: Yes, how interesting that you mention Lerner of all people. A legend in his own right.

MY: Yeah!

PC: But, also, he was involved in the early writing of Andrew Lloyd Webber's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Did you ever bring up the concept to him?

MY: No, at that time that was way, way ahead of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA - we're talking the late 70s - at that time, Andrew Lloyd Webber was writing [a musical of] THE LITTLE PRINCE. That's what he was doing. In any case, then it was Herman Levin who called Larry Gelbart and said "you should really get involved with this [IN THE BEGINNING]". Then, when I met Larry Gelbart, he was so incredibly kind to me. Obviously, he was, by then, of course, a living legend.

PC: Of course. A FUNNY THING...

MY: An extraordinary writer and I was just a novice. He was enormously helpful. And what we had put together seemed to be so appealing that the Manhattan Theatre Club said, "Let's just put it on. Let's just do a staged reading of it. Let's just have actors sitting on stools and go through it." And that first reading of that show at the Manhattan Theatre Club in that very small space at City Center really created quite a sensation. First of all, we had a wonderful cast...

PC: Wasn't Liz Callaway involved?

MY: Yes, yes, Liz was there. The people were hilarious. It was the very first job of a man from the Jerome Robbins' company. The director of LEGALLY BLONDE...

PC: Jerry Mitchell?

MY: It was Jerry Mitchell's first gig!

PC: Wow, what a great gig!

MY: And, I have to tell you, Jerry Mitchell took a bunch of non-dancers sitting on stools and he blocked out little numbers for them. Even then, you could tell he was a genius. He was just fantastic. Gerry Guitteraz had basically put it all together. Everyone got very excited and said, "Oh boy, let's do this next year!" Then what happened was, the following year we did a more developed production. But, you know what, like anything else, the enthusiasm for it was so high that it was really presented to the public before it was really ready to be presented to the public. Nowadays, typically, a show like that would have gotten its reading, it would have generated its enthusiasm and we would probably do a three week workshop. We probably would do a couple more workshops. Then we probably would go to La Jolla. But with that show, it was merely a matter of that show did not have enough time to develop so the authors could get a good look at it and see what needed to be done. But, you know, with these things, these things take time. And so it just went back on the shelf. The interesting thing was, all the New York critics were basically told, "This is a work-in-progress and this isn't ready to be reviewed," and, surprisingly enough, when the Manhattan Theatre Club presented it, it was not reviewed in the press. The critics were very kind in not doing that. And so, that show lives to fight another day. One day, when I get the chance, and put together the right team and if we can get the backing, we will absolutely go ahead and try to - how do I say this - fix that show! Which is what that process is.

PC: That's absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for that.

MY: Here's the thing, it's not that painful. In fact, when the show is 80% there, not quite there, you are not disappointed: you are grateful for finding out what you need to do. This is terribly important, I always tell this to young writers: you want to see the flaws in your show. That's the only way that you will know what must be addressed, what needs to be fixed. But, I will tell you, when Stephen Sondheim picked out "New Words" as one of the songs he'd wished he's written it was really a great honor. I was very touched by that. Really, I was very moved that he had said that.

PC: Especially since, as you said, COMPANY played such an important role in your formative years.

MY: Oh, please. And all of his work. He told me once he thought it was a perfect song. That was really the highest praise I could get from Steve Sondheim.

PC: What are some examples of your idea of a perfect song?

MY: Well, half the stuff Sondheim has written, obviously.

PC: Besides Sondheim, what are your favorites?

MY: For me, when you are talking about perfect songs, you're talking about Gershwin, "Someone To Watch Over Me". Or Larry Hart and Richard Rodgers. Or some of the great Cole Porter songs, whether it‘s "Night and Day" or some of the comedy songs. Or Irving Berlin, of course. The extraordinary thing about Irving Berlin is that he's like the American Mozart! It seems as if his songs were always there. How do you put together songs like "Always" or "Cheek To Cheek"? Songs of his are, frankly, perfect. As is, you know, "Finishing The Hat" [from Sondheim‘s SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE]. I think that SWEENEY TODD is as near to a perfect musical as you can get. I think it's highly regarded as a great masterpiece, and it is.

PC: And, MY FAIR LADY was your first Broadway musical.

MY: That, too: Again, I think that is filled with perfect songs. Things like "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?". There are perfect things in that show that I think are just extraordinary. And Frank Loesser has worked songs to absolute perfection. You blink your eyes and can't imagine how they were brought into existence. Little things like "Fugue For Tinhorns" [from GUYS & DOLLS]. He's just the most extraordinary writer, the level of craft in his music and lyrics together make him, he is really one of my great heroes.

PC: He even had great songs in his lesser-known shows like PLEASURES & PALACES and 1491.

MY: Yes, sure. Absolutely.

PC: You famously adapted two great films - 8 ½ and GRAND HOTEL - to the stage, are there any others you think show particular possibilities for musicalization?

MY: Oh, that's a very interesting question. In both cases, I found that, and I'll just say this: I find that a good idea for a musical should initially seem quite unlikely to you. In other words, both of those films don't seem to be likely to lend themselves to adaptation. Quite unusual, in both cases.

PC: No they don't, not at all.

MY: First of all, in terms of story, 8 ½ is a quasi-surrealistic autobiographical film by Fellini. GRAND HOTEL is a notable exception to the normal form of storytelling, in which, instead of having just the story, it was released as a novel, and as an Oscar-winning movie, it was one of the first things in which you were telling five or six simultaneous stories all linked by being in the same place. It was several years later when we had THE TOWERING INFERNO and AIRPLANE, things like that; stories about unrelated people all linked by a single situation, in this case they're all in the same hotel. Because 8 ½ and GRAND HOTEL, were so unusual in form, they lent themselves to being adapted to a kind of theatricalization. In other words, there was room for the author to make changes, to do the adaptation to make it work on stage. Whereas, many films are so perfect in themselves as films you really wonder, "What else can I do to make this stage-worthy?" That's why, sometimes, people with good-will try to turn something into a musical and it doesn't quite click.

PC: True.

MY: I'll give you another example of a film that I turned into a musical, but it's not a film, it's many films, and that would be PHANTOM.

PC: Yes, of course!

MY: This was several years before Lloyd Webber was interested in doing anything called PHANTOM. It was after NINE opened that Geoffrey Holder invited me and Arthur Kopit to talk about THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and he had a copy of the Gaston Leroux novel with him.

PC: Geoffrey Holder, director of THE WIZ.

MY: It was his idea, initially. We're talking way back in 1983. I took a look at three or four film versions of it, and my feeling was, "this is a horror movie!" In those days, you didn't think that horror movies were ideas for musicals, they seemed very unlikely. It‘s almost as if saying, "Now are we going to make a musical out of MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA? Or THE WOLFMAN?" Yet, it was only when we started talking about it that I brought up the idea that if you changed the story and that if the Phantom were disfigured from birth and, despite his outward imperfections, inside was the love of music that he had been raised on and inside was this great beauty and love of beauty that he would be sort of like a Quasimodo character, almost like the Elephant Man. Very sympathetic. So, that's when Arthur Kopit and I were off to the races and we wrote our PHANTOM.

PC: Yes, indeed.

MY: Of course, it's a very well-known story that Andrew Lloyd Webber - even after we had finished writing it and were going to go into production on our PHANTOM - it's a well-known story that Andrew Lloyd Webber initiated his own PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and, as a result, I'm sure it was quite good, and he got his quite well-deserved opportunity to get it produced in the West End. That really put a damper on the chances of us getting a big Broadway production.

PC: And his was based on Ken Hill's PHANTOM. I believe it was Jim Steinman's idea to do it the way he did in the first place.

MY: That's right. In the end, he had a wonderful success with it and it continues to be a wonderful success. And, in the end, ours was produced in 1991 and it continues to be produced. We like to call it the greatest hit never to play Broadway.

PC: Talk about great regional productions: Kristin Chenoweth got her start in a regional production of that show.

MY: She not only got her start here in America in it, but she also did the tour of Germany! Ask her about it. The book was in German, and they sang the songs in English. That show is always in production. There are always three, four or five simultaneous productions somewhere in the world. It's played almost every country. It never stops. It gets great, wonderful reception, got wonderful reviews and it's great proof of the idea that there are a number of ways to approach the same subject matter. I feel very fortunate that our PHANTOM has had the success and the appreciation that it has had. In the end, that is a great story that worked out well for everybody. The truth of it is, because it had been done everywhere we had the opportunity to get the people who had done the various productions to get a cast together to do the cast album... It's really been all over the place. I just saw some photographs of it from Estonia, and it's been produced in Japan multiple times, it‘s very popular in Japan.

PC: The all-female troupe did it, no?

MY: The Takazura female troupe did it. Twice. What we did was, we developed a logo so it really looks like it was a Broadway show. It's united by this logo...

PC: The candle with the face...

MY: ...and the cast album. So, it has a worldwide identity. And, one of the side benefits of our having been lucky enough to have developed it: It opened up the whole idea that a new musical could be developed and shared by very powerful, very forward-looking regional theaters that would get together. And that gave rise to the convention they have every year, Society for Regional Musical Theatre, where they literally see four or five new musicals and they develop them and share them. It kind of opened up the world so that the regional theaters can accommodate experimental and new work by young writers. That's a very lucky thing for our industry, our art-form.

PC: Do you feel regional theaters might be a better place to start production on new musicals than workshop?

MY: I'll be even more dramatic that that. I think that in the last twenty years there's been an absolute reversal between the function of Broadway and the function of regional theatre. It used to be that Broadway, in the 50s, 60s, and even the 70s, was, basically, the essential spawning ground for new work; whereas in the regional theaters and dinner theaters you would have yet another revival of GUYS & DOLLS or DAMN YANKEES, et cetera. Now, it's the reverse, where you have the preponderance of revivals, et cetera, happening on Broadway and probably the larger percentage of new work that's being done begins at the regional theaters... As I say, I think that's a very good thing. It means that there's a lower financial risk of starting something out than starting something out just on Broadway. Of course, with my luck, two of my biggest things couldn't even go out of town, NINE and TITANIC. And how could I know both of those would have absolutely nightmarish previews? (Laughs.)

PC: Under the microscope, right?

MY: But, you know what, both went on to win Best Musical. (Laughs.)

PC: Exactly. And Best Score!

MY: Obviously, it was worth going through the hell of being in town and being through a tough preview period. I'll even go one step further: I think that it's not necessarily hurtful to be in trouble during previews. I think it lowers expectations. There's no question about it.

PC: Really?

MY: I was once told that you want the work from out of town to not be so good. It's always the case. Ever since I can remember, from the minute I was involved in this business, you would always hear "They're in trouble." It could be FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, it didn‘t matter! "Oh, I hear they're in Boston, they're in Cleveland, they're New Haven: they're having some trouble."

PC: They even cut songs in FIDDLER.

MY: And, then, the word comes into town that they're bringing it into town. And the authors - the brilliant authors in those days - they work on it. They start fixing things and the theatre audience comes in having heard, "I hear they're having some difficulty". Bit by bit, step by step, great authors - they can be Jerry Herman, Bock & Harnick, Kander & Ebb, going all the way down the line - they cut songs, they add songs, they polish the book and over the course of the preview period in New York the show gets better and better. Pretty soon, people start coming in saying, "Hey, this is not so bad. I heard they were in trouble but they seem to be working on it." Then, in the end, magic - they fix it - then the show‘s a hit! Compare that to hearing word from out of town, "Oh, I hear it's a masterpiece!" Then, the show comes in and the expectations are so high that the New York audience sits there with their arms folded and says, "OK. Show me." Sometimes it's not the best thing in the world to be coming in almost arrogantly saying, "We're a masterpiece." Better to say, a little more humbly, "We have some problems, but we're working on them and it looks like the show is improving." Yes, it's not the worst thing in the world, in terms of the show and the audience, to have the goodwill of the audience to know "Hey, I know this show's in previews, I know they're working on it, and, hey, they could actually pull this off!"

PC: In your career, there's a couple of examples of this. I believe the first preview performance of TITANIC originally had an epilogue set in the 1980s?

MY: Oh, there's more than that. Let's just say that I think TITANIC is probably famous as being the most difficult preview period of any show that ever was. First of all, just the whole idea of the subject matter. Before you even go into the theatre, it's already a "musical disaster". By definition. A musicalized disaster. (Laughs.) So, there's a certain resistance to it.

PC: And the film hadn't come out yet.

MY: No, I'll tell you the truth: At the Critics' Choice Awards and at the Golden Globes I met James Cameron [director of the 1997 film TITANIC].

PC: Oh, really? Congratulations, by the way, on your nominations for NINE.

MY: Thank you. I had a conversation with him about the fact that I had done the musical version of TITANIC and we remember having such trouble in our preview period and remember reading in the paper that, they too, were having such trouble with their film being over-budget.

PC: They thought it was going to be a disaster.

MY: When we won the Tony and broke the box-office record of the Lunt-Fontanne thirteen weeks in a row I wondered if he had heard about us. They had!

PC: Had he seen the show?

MY: No, he never saw it but he had heard about it.

PC: Do you credit the Rosie O'Donnell Show appearances for any of the show's success?

MY: Yes, there's no question about that fact. Rosie O'Donnell became a great champion of that show. I'll get to that, but, first let me just say one last thing about TITANIC: we had to live with all the imperfections and when you have multiple problems in a show, you can't solve them all at once so while you know that while you're fixing or replacing the song in act one, you're just going to have to grit your teeth and wait until you get to the problems in the second act to address those. You can't do it all at once. But, eventually, it seems that we got through our problems and improved the show and came out with something audiences really responded wonderfully to. However - and this is very, very significant - you cannot immediately dispel the public impression and the rumor of what had gone on.

PC: True.

MY: So, the word on the street, particularly in New York, was that the show had been having so much trouble that people weren't necessarily willing to accept, out of hand, "Oh, I hear they fixed it." So, one of the things that was very helpful to that show, was Rosie O'Donnell, having fallen in love with the show - and, really disseminating the information, that although it had had problems in its Early Stages, it had been vastly improved, and she very much helped with that public relations message to the theatre-going public. That was very helpful in dispelling the early impression of the show based on the preview period.

PC: She really preserved so many casts and productions through the performances on her show.

MY: She's a wonderful cheerleader.

PC: Totally. So many shows were on there: THE LIFE, MARIE CHRISTINE, THE WILD PARTY.

MY: She's a great enthusiast. I'll tell you who else was very helpful with TITANIC: Michael Riedel. Obviously, we all know Michael Riedel is very famous for writing a very lively column, sometimes with things in it to get your attention. Michael Riedel, when he heard about TITANIC, knowing nothing about the show, wrote a column. It was a very mocking kind of article about, "What, are these people crazy?" and the headline read "Watch Them Sing, Watch Them Dance, Watch Them Drown". Afterwards, after it had been worked on and Michael had actually come and saw the show, to his credit, he wrote a wonderful piece on it about how much it had been worked on, and giving it great praise.

PC: NINE is his favorite musical, by the way.

MY: Yeah, he told me that. To his credit, in spite of the fact that he did disseminate [TITANIC] - as anybody would, I don't blame anyone for that, it does sound like a crazy idea - obviously that's why I did it, because I think that when an audience comes into a theater and is challenged and says, "This seems like an impossible task, how are they going to possibly do it?" If you pull it off the audience can be really be very grateful to you and say, "Holy cow, they really did it, they showed me something that I thought was going to be very sad about a whole lot of people dying, but actually it is a very positive show about dreams."

PC: It's such a big hit in Europe, especially in Germany.

MY: Absolutely, one of the places it played and one of the greatest moments of my life: I was invited to the opening night of TITANIC in Belfast, where they built the Titanic. The theater was a mile away from where they built the ship. I'm sitting there with the Lord Mayor of Belfast and you cannot imagine the tears at that reception... It's been redone there. They're thinking of doing it there in 2012 for the anniversary. So, TITANIC is a very personal success story for me.

PC: "Goodspeed Titanic" is one of those great choral numbers that we don't really have anymore that harkens back to Kern...

MY: It was a great joy and a great privilege to write TITANIC.

PC: And it's a great show.


Basin Street Blues

CLOUD 9, LA CAGE 1.0 & THE ROYAL FAMILY

PC: Considering that there is now a revival of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES on Broadway, would you mind talking a little bit about your initial version of the piece with Jay Presson Allen, Mike Nichols and Tommy Tune, then titled THE QUEEN OF BASIN STREET?

MY: That's a very simple story to tell. In 1981, Tommy Tune and I were working on our production of NINE and during that time he wanted to mount a little production of a play downtown called CLOUD 9.

PC: Caryl Churchill is one of our best playwrights.

MY: Yes. He asked me to write the music for that. As a result of that - he did a beautiful job of that - that was one of the productions, as I say, I loved writing the music for. That was one of the productions that really enhanced his reputation, not only as a choreographer, but as a wonderful director.

PC: That has songs in it, doesn't it?

MY: Yes. During that time, Tommy was involved with the development of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. At the time, they had a book-writer, Jay Presson Allen; producer, Allen Carr; Tommy was choreographing, and Mike Nichols was the director. They were seeking a composer and I said to Tommy, "I love that movie so much!" Of course, at the time I was a completely unproduced writer, and I said, "Give me the chance on speculation and I'll write six or seven songs." They gave me the script, and their notion of the script was transposing it, making it an American version of the story, setting it in New Orleans. The son was in love with the daughter of the moral majority; Jerry Falwell, that character. Well, I just adored it. I wrote a bunch of songs and I met them all and...

PC: Some songs of which are better than what Jerry Herman eventually wrote.

MY: Well, I didn't say that!

PC: Well, I did. It's great stuff!

MY: They all just adored it. They adored it so much, the truth is that, as I say: I was the smallest cog in that wheel. I was a completely unknown writer. But, it was a business problem. They were unable to put together a deal.

PC: You have Mike Nichols, the writer of CABARET, Tommy Tune...

MY: You have so many superstars unable to put together a deal. As a result of that, they did not make the date to be able to mount the show. The show was supposed to have been mounted at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. At the time, I was an associate professor of music at Yale and I had, literally, taken time off from my job without pay. I thought I was doing that show. As a result, when the whole schedule for LA CAGE AUX FOLLES fell through, obviously due to business problems having nothing to with me, Tommy said to me, "Look, you've taken all this time off and now we both have an opening in our schedules, let's do NINE." That's why, instead of going ahead with LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, when we got the bad news that show wasn't getting on right away, we went into a workshop production of NINE. Within five months we had the Tony Award and NINE was on the stage! Therefore, after NINE opened, that was when Allen Carr went back to LA CAGE but, by then, Mike Nichols and Tommy Tune and Jay Presson Allen were no longer involved.

PC: What a shame.

MY: Since I was part of that initial group, we felt the only smart thing to do for that show would be for Allen to get a whole new creative team from the start and make a clean break from the former group.

PC: And you had the rights to the film, not just the play?

MY: Yes, Mike Nichols had the rights to the film.

PC: Yes, in Arthur Laurents's book he discusses the problems they had since they couldn't use anything from the film.

MY: That's right. That's why Arthur Laurents could never use any of the elements of the film that were new. That's where LA CAGE AUX FOLLES had its great success, and that's why Mr. Nichols, who had the rights to the film, did THE BIRDCAGE.

PC: With Stephen Sondheim writing the songs.

MY: By the time Mr. Nichols did THE BIRDCADE, the exotic area of America had changed and therefore he moved his notion from New Orleans to Miami. That's the whole story.

PC: Did you see any elements of your workshop pop up in the film?

MY: No. Only, of course, you know... I would have to say, obviously Mike Nichols is a genius, and did a beautiful job. I think our show would have flown. Now, I have, as many writers do, I have what's called a trunk where you put songs you have written that you are very proud of that you haven't put into a show, but, maybe, one day, I will. In other words, I'm always looking for projects in which it can be appropriate to put something that worked very well and make an alteration in it, change a lyric in it and possibly use it for another project. That happens all the time. Writers do that all the time. Not everything that you do sees the light of day right away. This is part of when we say it's show business, there's two words: there's "show" and there's "business".

PC: Exactly. What a perfect way to put it.

MY: Sometimes a group can't get together. Sometimes some aspects of the business are such that a show can't get on, but it always makes you a better writer when you write. I will never regret the learning experience, let alone the privilege of working with Jay Presson Allen, Tommy Tune, Mike Nichols and Allen Carr.

PC: How did you become involved with writing the incidental music for THE ROYAL FAMILY at the Roundabout this season?

MY: This was the simplest thing. We are working on DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, my new show that I wrote with Peter Stone and, after Peter died, Thomas Meehan came in and did a brilliant job....

PC: So, you are still working on that?

MY: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. We're looking forward to a production in - I hope - the next year and a half.

PC: Is Antonio Banderas still attached to that?

MY: No, Antonio hasn't been attached to that in quite some time. He got very busy with SHREK and with things like that. We have a wonderful director, Doug Hughes, and we're having a wonderful time. Doug has become a dear friend and he has been wonderful to DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. We have done a bunch of readings and he has really done a beautiful job. Doug called me up and said, "Listen, we're doing THE ROYAL FAMILY and I wondered if you would be interested in doing the incidental music for it?" And, I said, "Are you kidding me? I love the play, and I love working with you, and I love the actors, and I love working with Lynne Meadow and the Manhattan Theatre Club and I'd be more than happy to." So, we just did it and - you know what - I loved it. One thing I'll tell you is that I had been spending so much time working on the film of NINE, I was so grateful to be back in the theatre. (Laughs.) My soul belongs to theatre. I love the process of it. I love the world of it. It was so wonderful to be there with Jan Maxwell and RoseMary Harris and Doug, and I just had a grand time doing. And, I loved the opportunity to really make the music enhance that play and enhance that production of it. I think it was really very gratifying to do that work. The performers were wonderful. The production was so beautiful. John Lee Beatty did such a beautiful set. I like to count THE ROYAL FAMILY - just for the sake of being in the room with people I love and whose work I love - as one of the high points of my career.

Read On to Part Two here.

NINE on DVD is now available, as is the film's soundtrack and be sure to check out the link to the previous SOUND OFF column reviewing all English-language cast recordings of NINE to learn a bit about the show's history, as well.

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

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