Their last collaboration, Titanic, overcame mixed reviews to win a Tony and have a long, if not quite profitable, Broadway run. Now composer Maury Yeston and librettist Peter Stone are in the early stages of work on another new musical: Death Takes a Holiday, based on Alberto Casella's comedy-drama of the same name.
First on Broadway in 1929, adapted from the original Italian by Walter Ferris, Death tells of the Grim Reaper visiting earth to discover why people are so fearful of him. Or, as Stone puts it, "What can life be that they cling to it so?" Death then becomes a houseguest at a swanky nobleman's household where an engagement is being celebrated. And that's where he falls in love.
"We're just getting started on it," Stone told PBOL (Jan. 31). "If it could go next year, we'd have been moving very fast. He's written a few pieces of music and I've done a full, complete outline. We're enjoying it. It's very lush and romantic and amusing in many aspects, even though it deals with a somewhat serious subject."
The story was filmed in the 1930s with Frederic March in the lead, and Brad Pitt starred in a more recent movie adaptation, "Meet Joe Black." "Each time they remake it," Stone says, "it's farther from the original. We're keeping the locale: Italy, just after the first World War. It's a small musical. Ten principles, all of them important, no chorus." Stone told the New York Post (Jan. 26), "It's a wonderfully romantic story about a subject in the thoughts of most people. Well, let me put that differently: all people."
* Stone, former president of the Dramatists Guild, has also been putting his energies into the latest project by Kander & Ebb: Curtains. As first reported by the New York Post, the comedy-thriller-musical had a reading in early January and is now in the cutting and shaping stage, with the heavy development work to begin in early summer.
Author Stone told Playbill On-Line (Jan. 31) that Kander and Ebb have been working on Curtains "sporadically for 12-to-13 years. We've each done at least three other shows in that period, so either they've been busy or I have, so it was tough to get together. But we had a private reading three or four weeks ago, just for us, and it was very encouraging. Scott Ellis directed, and we want him to be our director."
As reported by the Post, Ruthie Henshall, James Naughton, Debra Monk and Edward Hibbert participated in the reading, as did Paul Michael Vallelly (1776). "There were 28 actors in all," Stone told PBOL. "They were wonderful. We should be so lucky as to get them."
And the next step? "Now we're cutting. Before the reading, we knew it was too long, but we didn't know where it was too long. Now we do. So we've been cutting a character here and there, or dialogue. A song is getting redone. And we'll have it put together by the time Scott is free." (Director Ellis is currently readying The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for its spring Broadway opening.)
Although the Post reported that the Nederlanders produced the staged reading of Curtains, Stone says no producers are yet attached to the project. He said, "What we'd like to do is get the entire thing together, have it tight and ready to go and then go to a producer. We've never submitted it to a producer. Kander, Ebb and I just sit down and do a musical. When you've got another show running, you can afford to do it that way."
Stone sees the 2001-2002 Broadway season as a real possibility for Curtains and hopes the tryout will be at Boston, MA's Colonial Theatre — where the plot takes place.
Curtains is set during the tryout of a Broadway-bound musical. The show's producers are a married couple, one of whom is murdered in the third scene. Every member of the cast and crew is a suspect, since they all have some kind of beef with the producing twosome. The New York Post quoted a joke from Curtains in which one character says the dead producer "wasn't as bad as Barry Weissler." But Stone cautions not to look for similarities between the Curtains characters and real-life, married producers Barry and Fran Weissler. "There's no similarity to Barry and Fran," he told PBOL. "They're nobody living or dead."
Curtains is a rarity in that it isn't based on source material from another medium or a straight play adapted into a musical. "It's an original music not based on anything," Stone says, adding that after the murder, a homicide detective is brought in, and "by sheer coincidence, he happens to be a remarkably up-to-date musical theater buff. He's thrilled to be there with opinions and suggestions." At the reading, Naughton was the detective, with Debra Monk as the widowed producer and Hibbert the director of the musical-within-the-musical (also called "Curtains").
Though Kander & Ebb's canon includes two of the most lauded works in musical theatre — Cabaret and Chicago, both still enjoying monster-hit Broadway revivals — they recent track record has been difficult. The Visit, based on Friedrich Duerrenmatt's dark satire, was eyeing Broadway this season but lost lead Angela Lansbury when her husband became ill. Before that, 1999's Over & Over was poorly received in its debut at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, with star Bebe Neuwirth exiting during rehearsals over "artistic differences" and replaced by then-unknown Sherie Rene Scott. Kander & Ebb's last Broadway production was Steel Pier, which received numerous Tony nominations but lukewarm reviews and only mild audience interest. Early in the decade, however, their Kiss of the Spider Woman won Tonys for Best Musical, Book, Score, Actor and Actress, with star Chita Rivera proving a big audience draw.
Librettist Stone has had better luck, with his revised Annie Get Your Gun taking home a Best Musical Revival Tony two seasons back, and Titanic overcoming mixed reviews to enjoy a multi-month run and Best Musical Tony win.