If you sliced it horizontally, squished it to a pulp and flattened it with a rolling pin, you still wouldn’t get a word in edgeways, talking to Maury Yeston.
The New York composer and lyricist speaks in torrents. Sentences are packed with detail, clauses, caveats and parentheses. We’ve barely sat in down in one of the Charing Cross Theatre’s dingy, subterranean dressing rooms and the 72-year-old is already well into the history of his forebears.
They arrived from Poland some time in the late eighteen hundreds, he tells me. They took up residence in Whitechapel’s Thrawl Street.
“It’s where three of the victims of Jack the Ripper were found,” he says with a mixture of pride and touristic fascination.
The production of his musical Death Takes a Holiday directed by Thom Southerland, is deep in rehearsal and the walls around us reverberate with luscious harmony. The show might best be described as a gothic romance, if that’s a genre. It is based on an Italian play, translated for Broadway in 1929 and adapted into two films, one in 1934 and the other in 1998 starring Brad Pitt. The plot imagines what might happen if Death became tired of killing and then fell in love. In New York it won a hatful of Drama Desk nominations, but it has so far never matched the critical and box office success of Yeston’s Tony Award-winning musicals Nine (based on the Fellini film 8½) or Titanic, the previous Yeston musical to be staged at Charing Cross — and to great acclaim.
A Yeston score is often orchestral, swollen with unabashed romanticism. The composer describes his influences as Jewish, which gives his music its emotion; English, which gives his lyrics and melody their wit; and classical, which is where the compositions get their “rigour.” Strange to think that he started out on the ukulele, more of which later.
Meanwhile, I’m waiting for a moment in which to ask how Death Takes a Holiday came about. But it’s like trying to cross a motorway. Every attempted interjection is swept up in the traffic of Yeston family history. The family have by now moved from Whitechapel to Blackfriars. Yeston’s grandfather has a horse and cart from which he sells “schmutter’ at Covent Garden market.
“I have his hawkers’ license at home. Dad would stand on the cart singing. People would gather and they would sell socks. One at a time. If you were one legged you could get a bargain.”
No time to dwell on this vignette. We’re already in Montreal where Yeston’s grandfather has now set up an Army and Navy store. It was a year before they could afford to bring over Yeston’s singing father, David. By the time the war is over they have moved to New Jersey. Little Maury is playing the ukulele taught to him by his father, his grandfather is a chazan at a synagogue....
But Yeston has little time for questions and anyway, the important thing is that at the age of five his mother is already teaching him the piano. Then begins an extraordinary education that takes Yeston from yeshiva to Yale. Then Cambridge where he composed for Footlights. He wasn’t the only one to reach such academic heights from modest beginnings.
“One of my best friends went to my yeshivah, Steven Katz.” he marvels. “He went on to write the Oxford History of the Holocaust.... had lunch with him about two months ago, married a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov... serious naches....brilliant fellow. And in my class at Yale there was [the Jewish academic and former Harvard Professor of Modern Hebrew] James Kugel, who wrote How to Read the Bible. How is it possible for me to be so close to these Jewish guys who are the cream of Jewish intellect?” asks Yeston rhetorically, revealing more than a little naches himself.
But the truth is Yeston is no shabby intellectual himself. At Yale he was an associate professor of music and founded Jazz studies; he was the go-to musicologist in the famous BBC documentary on Broadway Jews and his classical compositions include a cello concerto which was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma; and America’s only full-length ballet, based on Tom Sawyer. He is undoubtedly steeped in his Jewishness, though not always happily. His time at yeshivah, for instance, still casts a shadow.
“Everyone was Orthodox and the child of a rabbi,” he remembers. “I was the shaygetz. I’m serious! I wrote a song about it. When I was in the 8th grade — I’ll never get my revenge — Rabbi Hirschman was sitting there and looking at the class. This was in 1957. He says, ‘You know, Hitler— Hitler gassed and murdered six million Jewish men, women and children because of people like....’ and he points to me, ‘Moshe, who goes to a Chinese restaurant and carries an umbrella on shabbos….’
“This was a not a European teacher who came to America,” explains Yeston. “This was a third generation American Orthodox Jew. And from that I learned there is probably no greater hypocrisy than Orthodox Judaism.” He later reins this in a tad. He was talking about all orthodoxy, whether Jewish, Christian or any other religion, he maintains. Although actually, he wasn’t.
“I revere my tradition but to me you know a religious person by the fact they are an illuminated human being. That guy was not an illuminated human being. Anyone who abuses a child in that way can call himself an Orthodox Jew but he is a monster,” he says.
Still, the experience led to what he calls “a gift.” For Nine, which is set in Venice, he wrote a song called Belles of Sebastian about life in a Catholic school.
“A friend said, ‘How were you able to boil down to the quintessence my hideous experience at Catholic school?’ I said, ‘By using my hideous experience at yeshivah.’”
As if needing to emerge from the dark narratives of Nine, Titanic and Death...his next show, a collaboration with Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray writer Thomas Meehan, is an adaptation of the 1941 screwball comedy The Lady Eve which starred Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck.
Lunch is over. Not that Yeston had any. He’ll be needed to make any last minute changes to the score before the critics are allowed in. As he gets up I ask if critics are important.
“Critics don’t matter whatever they say,” he replies. “My senior professor at Yale said ‘Don’t read the reviews, just count them.’
And he’s right. If you’re important enough for 30 people to write about you, that’s your prize.” And then he’s gone.