Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Big Interview: Maury Yeston

Maury Yeston is an American composer, lyricist, author and teacher. 

After joining the creative team during out-of-town tryouts in Boston in 1989, Maury wrote several new songs for Grand Hotel which went on to transfer to Broadway where it won five Tony Awards. His contribution to Grand Hotel‘s score was nominated for a Tony and two Drama Desk Awards, and the Donmar Warehouse production picked up an Olivier Award.

Grand Hotel is currently being revived at the Southwark Playhouse by producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland, the same team who staged Maury’s musical Titanic at the Southwark Playhouse in 2013. The trio are hoping to reunite on a London revival of Death Takes a Holiday in the near future.

In addition to winning a Tony Award for Best Score for Titanic, Maury won a Tony Award and two Drama Desk Awards for his music and lyrics to Nine. Just a few of Maury’s other shows include Phantom, Death Takes A Holiday and the first entirely American full length ballet, Tom Sawyer: A Ballet In Three Acts which premiered in Kansas City. 

I recently sat down with Maury, who made a trip to London to see Grand Hotel, to discuss his thoughts on Southerland’s new production of Grand Hotel, how he originally came to join the musical’s creative team and the spectacular opening number ‘The Grand Parade’. We also talked about the new musical he’s writing, his advice for young writers, the golden age of musicals plus much, much more…

Were you impressed by this production of Grand Hotel?
Yes! Of course at the Southwark Playhouse everything is compressed. It’s shocking when you think the ordinary time frame for mounting a musical would be three or four week’s rehearsal and then two or three weeks of previews, but they just do it and the standard is so high!

What I love about Grand Hotel is that it keeps the audience on their toes, it doesn’t spoon-feed them and there’s so much about these characters’ backstories which we don’t know. Do you think that’s played a big part in the show’s success?
I do, that’s my kind of theatre. I think one of the reasons we go to the theatre is to be surprised. It’s very common for musical theatre to be based on something else – it could be a book of short stories called Tales of a South Pacific or it could be a film, which increasingly these days it often is. But whatever it is, the only reason it’s going to be presented is because it’s going to be changed in a surprising way which refreshes and brings something new when you put it on stage. If you don’t invest something new in a musical and don’t surprise people then just raise the curtain and read the book or watch the movie! 

The joy of musical theatre is telling the audience something that they really didn’t know, and songs do that. You mentioned the word backstory – you see a character and see them interacting and then suddenly they start to sing a song in which you’re hearing their thoughts and then remembering something way back in their life! All of a sudden that song opens up so much. I think surprising the audience is central to the experience of musical theatre, and it gives actors the opportunity to perform something greatly because it gives them real meat and potatoes – it makes the audience feel something which is the most important thing we want from a musical. 

Maury with Danielle Tarento, Thom Southerland & the Southwark Playhouse cast of Grand Hotel

You originally became involved in Grand Hotel when it was already in out-of-town tryouts, and it wasn’t in the best state…
It wasn’t!

You were brought in because you have a reputation for knowing how to rework shows. What kind of state was the show actually in when you first saw it?
It was in a very well-intentioned state. I had actually seen a run through of it before they took it from New York and Tommy Tune (original director/choreographer) asked me what I thought. I said, “I think you’ve got some work to do, there are things that seem incomplete and there are things which I don’t understand.” He said, “I’m planning on working on the staging when I get there and clarifying things.” 

I fully expected they would go to Boston and do their work in previews, but when I went to see the show there were a number of things that were lacking, a number of things which were just wrong turns and a number of things that were directorially bad ideas. What was lacking is that there was not an opening number – the show opened with dialogue which is very hard to work with in a musical. A musical really needs to tell you in the first five or ten minutes what’s going to happen and ‘this is the world we’re in’. The director tried to withhold and repress all applause all night and that didn’t work because the audience really needs to engage and interact. If people want to clap their hands then they will – that’s why we have something called ‘stopping the show’! And then the original authors (Robert) Wright and (George) Forrest who are legendary – they wrote Kismet and Song of Norway – had written formalistic songs that were very interesting. They were very well formed in terms of their melodies and lyrics, they were very professional, but the songs didn’t do the job of taking you from Point A at the beginning of the show and bringing you to a different dramatic place at Point B. 

Matt Wolf & Maury after a Q&A
I met with them and I said I would give them any advice I possibly could, but that I didn’t want to encroach on their work. They said “We know there’s a great deal of work to be done and we want you to join us!” They really invited me to become a part of it and I ended up writing about eight new songs, I actually replaced a great deal of their work, I cleared everything with them. Grand Hotel is a particularly wonderful vehicle, and my job in Boston was to focus on getting the songs, lyrics and – in many cases – the scenes to do what they were supposed to do so the audience can find out what the story is in a way that will continually surprise them. 

The opening number you wrote, ‘The Grand Parade’, is truly spectacular! What do you think about how it’s been staged in this production?
Thom and Danielle also put on Titanic which has an opening number that does the same sort of thing – it’s about eighteen minutes long. I was very happy with how they did everything and I think Thom just did a masterful job. 

Have you been involved at all? Did they ask any questions?
They asked me questions, and I’ll answer the questions when asked, but I tend to be one of those people who trusts. I’m honoured by the fact really gifted people are willing to be generous and invest their time and energy in presenting my work. I’m there to answer questions but would never try to even influence the director or anyone to do something one way or another – I want them to do it their way. It thrills me when I see someone do something I’ve never seen done before! I’ve seen a lot of Flaemmchen’s but never one like Victoria Serra’s! It keeps my work alive and freshens my work all the time. 

Grand Hotel really does lend itself beautifully to the intimacy of the Southwark Playhouse. How does it compare to other theatres you’ve seen it in?
You’re right, it lends itself incredibly – it’s the most intense form of theatre! I once heard a phrase which stuck with me which was ‘Reduction leads to power’. To put music with that kind of explosion and dance with that kind of energy into a small space is quite something. At the Southwark Playhouse you’re right on top of it – you’re almost in it! I think Southwark really gets to the essence and core of what drama is. I think very highly of Thom for actually changing the shape of the stage and audience for this show. Everyone thinks Southwark is a thrust stage with seats on three sides, but he rearranged it so the seats are along two sides facing each other and creating a wide corridor that looks like a hotel corridor. It’s thrilling… no matter where you’re sitting! We – the audience – are like the paintings on the walls. We’re peering in to what is going on in this hotel, it’s just amazing. 

How do you find London audiences?
Well since I’ve seen my work in York and Belfast as well as London, I can say that UK audiences are the greatest audiences in the world! They are the greatest consumers of culture. I think theatre is a national religion in this country; almost anybody in this country could probably get onstage and do a workable/passable performance [laughs]. I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK, I was at Cambridge for two years and certainly way back then, and even now, a lot of people read. You see far more people reading than you do in my country. There seems to be a constant devotion and curiosity towards theatre. The audiences work so hard to get every word, they’re sophisticated. 

Victoria Serra in Grand Hotel

And I believe you’re already hoping to work with Danielle and Thom again…
We’ve got another project. It’s a new show and we’re going to announce it soon, hopefully within the next six to eight months. I’m very excited because we’ve become a team! I think the reason is that they love to take things from the past that are iconic but perhaps need to be looked at – like Mack & Mabel or The Grand Tour. The things that they take are from the golden age of musical theatre with all of those values about character and about making the audience feel something. In my work, I have no interest in being old fashioned – but I do have an interest in being timeless. That means I want my work to have those values, and I think Danielle and Thom relate to that. We’re a wonderful match!

I think the way they dig up these historic shows is like a service! Not all of them, like The Grand Tour, would necessarily work on a big commercial scale in the West End any more but there is a growing hunger for these kinds of revivals off-West End.
I agree with you, there’s a huge difference between silence of the theatre and stillness in theatre, as well as a vast difference between something that’s old fashioned and something that’s timeless. People want to see these shows which participate in and are part of what has always been. You really can’t do better than that! That’s why I think this production of Grand Hotel has got fourteen five star reviews and twenty-five four star reviews – good heavens, they deserve it. 

You’re also currently working on a musical adaptation of The Lady Eve!
Yes! We’re going to do a reading of it very soon! Thom (Thomas Meehan, book) and I have finished our writing, we have a director who I will be naming very soon and we have a star who I will be naming soon… and I think everyone will be happy about it. When we announce it everyone will go “Oh my gosh that’s so obvious, what a great idea!”

Titanic at the Southwark Playhouse in 2013 
What made you want to take it on?
After doing things like Grand Hotel and Titanic I really wanted to laugh! We both really wanted to do the ultimate Hollywood romantic comedy. For that you go to Preston Sturges who wrote the best ones, we studied everything and determined that his best film ever was The Lady Eve. The most unusual people go “Oh my god that’s my most favourite movie!” We thought it lends itself perfectly to musicalisation. I don’t want to give anything away, but it just falls naturally into a first act/second act situation. It’s got big fat roles for the comical love couple to get into. Probably within the next forty days everyone will know what we’re doing – we have a date for the reading. 

There’s lots of debate about new writing in British theatre at the moment, but I think the situation is very different in America. What are your thoughts?
I think this is the golden age for young writers. When you look at where someone like Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton/In The Heights) came from it makes me incredibly optimistic. I’ve lived to see some of these new writers have their big break through (Maury has been involved with the BMI Theatre workshop in New York for almost forty years where he worked with composers who have become some of the biggest names on Broadway). 

What is your number one, top piece of advice for a new writer?
That’s a very easy answer – if you want to be a writer then all you have to do is write. The only way to learn how to write is to write. You learn through your writing and find out that the art of writing is the art of rewriting. Just don’t stop – that’s the most important thing. I’ve seen generations of writers do all that, I think that when you have a gift then you have that ‘I need to do this’ feeling. If you completely devote yourself to it you have a very good chance at succeeding. That’s my best advice!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Grand Hotel runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 5th September 2015.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 4: Aviv Ron
Photo Credit 5: Annabel Vere

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