Maury Yeston is the composer of award winning musicals including Nine, Grand Hotel, Titanic and Death Takes A Holiday. Douglas Mayo caught up with him to talk about making the great maritime disaster sing on stage and just what gives him inspiration when it comes to writing great musicals.
It’s refreshing to speak to a composer like Maury Yeston. He is remarkably frank and open when it comes to talking about his musicals. Speaking with Maury we decided to start at the very beginning of the process and ask just how he decides what stories to tell?
“I’ve always believed that things that sound like a good idea for a show may not be, and things that sound like unusual ideas may actually work out well” he says. “I think it comes down to the fact that the audience loves to be surprised and the minute you start showing something to an audience that they expected, they tune out. If you challenge them and say we have a musical based on a Fellini surrealist movie, or the greatest maritime disaster in history it tends to peak their curiosity and when you pull it off, the audience is very gratified”.
So how did the idea for staging Titanic come about?
“I had the idea for the show in the fall of 1985 when Ballard discovered the Titanic. It was at that time with the millennium coming up that I began to think that the story of the Titanic was one of the central stories of the twentieth century – it’s how the old 19th century came down and the modern world was born. I thought it was an important story about the fallibility of placing your complete faith in modern technology. I thought this would make an extraordinary story. It wasn’t long after that the space shuttle blew up, and I thought this is a lesson we need to keep on learning”.
“It was only in the early 1990’s, that I realised that not only is it a disaster story, it is also a story of the great dreams of mankind, it’s our whole idea of progress, whatever it is in human beings that wants to make a Polio vaccine for example. All they wanted to do was make a safe ship – a ship of dreams. It brought people to a new world, and it gave birth to a new society and we were off and running”.
Surely making the decision to stage the Titanic story on a Broadway stage was met with derision though. What sort of reaction did he receive when he started to tell people his idea for Titanic?
“The first people I told was author Peter Stone who had written 1776, the musical and he said that’s funny I always thought that was a good idea. I want to write it with you. This is the man who took the whole question of whether or not the Congress would sign the Declaration of Independence and turned it into a great musical. It’s just sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea to both of us.
I just said to Peter even though everyone knows the story, somehow we need to keep the audience on the edge of their seats wondering what’s going to happen and I think he did that”.
“It took about seven and a half years before it opened. These things often take a very long time when you take into account all of the components that need to come together, which is I think is why it’s a wise thing for musicals to deal with stories of a timeless nature, something like Pygmalion or Titanic, which is not just the flavour of the month but something that will last and be of interest to people for decades”.
The struggles of getting the show to opening night were well published in the press. Was it really as fraught as the reporters made out?
“Every single problem that you can imagine happened with Titanic. The technical hitches were extraordinary – we are still angry with Julie Taymor and Spiderman for breaking our record for the worst preview period ever on Broadway. We had been very proud of holding that record. The press lambasted us from the start, in fact one of the New York press came up with the catch phrase “Watch them sing, watch them dance, watch them drown”. Nothing on the set worked at all. We had one little ship that was supposed to move – but didn’t, the elevator that was supposed to raise half the stage made so much noise you couldn’t hear the music, then sometimes it wouldn’t work at all so we’d raise the lights and say “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re having problems sinking the Titanic”. Of course, it was out there in the press, so it was exciting when we won every one of the five Tony Awards we were nominated for. The English press and out of town press saved us. Because they weren’t living in New York during the preview period, they came to the show open minded without expecting to see all the troubles the locals had heard about. When they came they saw the show as it was meant to be and it really shone”.
Trying to recreate such a terrible moment in history must have come with challenges. How do you convey such moments of horror on stage in a musical?
“We had a moment in the show when the men were putting the women and children in the lifeboats, a truly unbelievable choice, how do you put that in a musical? I remembered in an earlier musical, I had written a moment where a father had to explain something to a child, and that was the solution to the scene, we had to explain the horror in the way you would explain Hitler or some other horrible thing to a child. Mrs Thayer strapped a child into a life jacket with the cast singing “We’ll meet tomorrow”. It was a song that was written overnight, and staged in the show the following night without orchestrations and from that moment our fortunes changed”.
“I believe that musicals have to be radio plays, in that they need to be just listened to. Likewise you need to be a complete composer, in that you are not just writing melody or harmony, you are writing all of the music. You have that moment with Mr Fleet up in his crows nest singing “No Moon” and the music has to convey the stillness of the ocean. Coming up with the tone of the show was difficult, but we set the tone up in the overture with a combination of major and minor chords. The task was not to convince the audience that the Titanic wouldn’t sink, but to convince the audience that the people aboard the ship never believed it possible, and so were in a constant state of denial even as the ship was sinking”.
“I also think that of all the shows I’ve done, Titanic is the one that seems to create a sense of family amongst whoever is putting it on, whether they are a high school group, a professional cast or an amateur operatic society in Belfast or Stevenage. It literally creates a family of passionate individuals and it becomes a life changing experience for these people. In fact a sociology graduate student in a US university wrote a PHD thesis on the sociology of an amateur group staging Titanic. Should you ask anyone who puts the show on, the experience seems heightened by the sense of family that it creates. I think one personalises it and begins to wonder what would have happened to them had they been on that ship on that day. How would they have behaved – would they have survived?”
Maury's new musical Death Takes A Holiday will be presented at the Charing Cross Theatre later this year. More on that production soon.