More than half-way through the current season, composer David Yazbek—an unknown quantity in the theatre community less than a year ago—is still the author of the only new hit Broadway musical. While certain other shows penned by more experienced hands hit every possible bump on the road to New York City, The Full Monty sailed immediately from a critical and popular success at the Old Globe Theatre to a fall 2000 bow at the Eugene O'Neill. Since then, television, film and pop music veteran Yazbek has been considering several other theatre projects (none of which he can reveal at this time) as well as preparing his latest rock album for release around Tony Awards time. He spoke to Playbill On-Line about his new-found success and about possibly being the harbinger of a return to the standard book musical.
Playbill On-Line: How does all this success feel? It's all happened rather suddenly.
David Yazbek: I feels kind of....OK. [Laughs.] I'm perfectly happy. I'm glad to not have to worry that much about money.
PBOL: Is this your first attempt at writing a musical?
DY: I wrote a musical in college. Other than that, yes, it's my first attempt.
PBOL: Are you surprised the enterprise went so smoothly?
DY: Well, when we started the project, there were many things in place that made it a very good bet for me. Some of those things were that we knew the artistic director of the Old Globe, so we knew that if the show was any good at all, we'd get a production there. And all the money was in place. And because of all this we felt, if we did a good job, we'd get to Broadway. And then there's also the fact that it's "The Fully Monty," which is like this franchise. The story is iron-clad. It felt like the odds were really good. I would have been really disappointed if it hadn't been a success. When it became clear we had a good show, I really knew deep down we'd end up on Broadway.
PBOL: The trend in musical theatre over recent years has been toward sung-through scores and dark subject matter. Yet you come along with a book musical, a standard musical comedy, and register a hit. Were you aware you were bucking the trend?
DY: Yeah. I'm not a big fan of musical theatre of the last 20 years, or however long it's been that that's been the trend. There is this sort of core audience who love musical theatre because it's musical theatre. And then there are these tourists who go to musicals as if they were sights to see, like the Empire State Building. And then there's this whole vast potential audience who have been almost betrayed by the musical theatre. And that's people like me. I grew up listening to lots of different music, but my parents were big theatre fans. I grew up listening to cast albums that sounded like really good pop albums, because each had 12 catchy and delightful songs. The shows that I saw back then, on Broadway, Off Broadway and in regional productions, were shows like Guys and Dolls. I also loved Hair because it's filled with great music. My favorite stuff is where the craft of the songwriting is at a very high level, and that's Frank Loesser. To me, a song that's catchy as well as clever is what I like. PBOL: Have you seen some of the recent new musicals, such as Parade or Floyd Collins or Marie Christine?
DY: I've been to or heard all of that stuff. I think Floyd Collins is brilliant. And I think there is a lot of brilliance in the others. It's a very strange world right now. Why is it that people didn't respond to those shows you just mentioned? Floyd Collins is great. It's right up there with some of my favorite musicals. Why didn't people cotton to it? I think it's because a lot of the people who would have found it interesting have never seen a musical. [Laughs.] Then, you've got other dark, through composed shows, like both Wild Partys, where you've got all this talent that—to my ear, and I think to the lazier ear of the general public— is almost too challenging. And one way to make it less challenging would be to write some hooks—in the parlance of pop music.
PBOL: You're an advocate of melody.
DY: I like a good melody. I've written plenty of meandering stuff. But my personal taste is towards the catchy. And I think you've got a lot of people out there who have jumped on the Sondheim bandwagon because Sweeney Todd changed their life; or jumped on the Sondheim bandwagon because some other Sondheim show changed their life; or went in for the Andrew Lloyd Webber, quote-unquote, rock, neo classical overblown kind of thing.
PBOL: Do you think—with the arrival of The Fully Monty and The Producers, and, next season, Thoroughly Modern Millie—the theatre might be returning to the book musical?
DY: I think people have been dying for something that they can laugh at and enjoy. A book musical, for me, has got to be the right project. Some projects have to be book musicals and some project have to not be book musicals. I'm sure someone tried to through-compose The Full Monty, but it would have been terrible. [Laughs.] When Kiss Me, Kate opened, I went with [The Fully Monty bookwriter] Terrence [McNally], and the response was really great. I said to him, "This bodes well for us." Because, the sense that I got was, "Jesus, why aren't they writing shows like this anymore." And what they meant is "Why isn't anyone writing shows that are completely entertaining?" And the subtext is "Why aren't they writing book shows like this?"
—By Robert Simonson