"Theatre is a magic box in which anything can happen," composer, lyricist and teacher Maury Yeston said.
Yeston has applied his own magic to shows like Nine (1982) and Titanic (1997), both Tony winners as Best Musical, for which he won Tonys for Best Score. He got a Tony nomination for his music and lyric contributions to Grand Hotel (1989). For 20 years he presided over the advanced section of the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where new composers, lyricists and librettists study with theatre masters.
Titanic is enjoying a fruitful second life. Earlier this year, the original Broadway cast reunited for a full concert staging at Avery Fisher Hall, and later this fall, the show is to be revived on Broadway by director Thom Southerland, who helmed a highly praised production last year in London.
Yeston, 68, grew up in Jersey City in a musical family. "One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor — I could not have been more than three or four — and hearing my mother play piano. Her fingers danced on the keys with a touch so light I have never heard it duplicated. I wanted to make that sound. I started playing and teaching myself when I was five. My mother started giving me piano lessons when I was six." At that early age, he began writing music. His maternal grandfather was a cantor. In the synagogue, Yeston said, "there's a person in front singing emotionally at the top of his lungs to everybody, and there's a huge chorus in response. [It's] not so much of a leap to walk into musical theatre and do the same thing."
As a child, he wanted to be "Beethoven, Charlie Parker, and Elvis Presley." He fell in love with musical theatre after seeing Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in the original My Fair Lady — "I knew I had to do that." At 17, he saw Federico Fellini's "8½" — the basis for Nine. It became his magnificent obsession — "my favorite film of all time, which it remains." He went to Yale to study music and wrote a cello concerto that was later performed by Yo-Yo Ma; attended Clare College at Cambridge University in England; got his Yale Ph.D. with a dissertation on rhythm; and taught at Yale. He had enrolled in the BMI workshop, where in 1973 he began to bring Nine to life.
Early in the '80s, he and Tommy Tune were working on a Broadway musical version of La Cage aux Folles, with Tune choreographing and Mike Nichols directing. "That show fell apart in October 1981. I had left my teaching job at Yale for a year, with no pay, presumably to do La Cage. And suddenly there I was with no show and no job. And Tommy said, let's do Nine."
Teaching, Yeston says, has provided great rewards. "The joy of my life has been not only to be able to write but to have taught harmony and counterpoint to about 22 percent of the music directors currently working on Broadway, when they were freshmen at Yale." And to have taken over from Lehman Engel at BMI, "to have sat in his chair" as "Avenue Q was written in that class, as Next to Normal was written in that class — to have the privilege of watching the flowering of brilliant talent."
Yeston still teaches at BMI. "And I'm working on a new show based on Preston Sturges' film 'The Lady Eve.'" And "I'm editing a concert version of the ballet Tom Sawyer, which I wrote. It's the other side of my life, when I wanted to grow up to be Beethoven."