“I started as a recording artist and a performer and nowhere near musical theatre,” David Yazbek explains by phone. However, his three musicals that bowed on Broadway were all Tony-nominated for their original scores (The Full Monty in 2001, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in 2005 and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 2011). On May 4 at Feinstein’s/54 Below, he’ll fuse both worlds at his solo show featuring Full Monty star Patrick Wilson and his longtime band he often collaborates with both onstage and off.
We caught up with the composer-lyricist, who shared details about his upcoming concert, musicals in development and what advice he would give to aspiring writers in the musical theatre industry.
Tell me a little bit about your Feinstein’s/54 Below show. What exactly could audiences expect?
David Yazbek: I don’t play out very much—maybe every few months. I have never played this venue as “the act;” I’ve guested. I suspect my show is pretty different than certainly any of the shows I’ve seen there. My shows tend to be this combination of intricately rehearsed [material] and completely improvised stuff, so there’s a sort of intimate, floppy character to it, which I think is the essence of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s 54 Below, so I have to do some show stuff. I will certainly do a few songs from my existing shows. I’m not sure I’ll do songs from every one of them, but I certainly will do songs from Women on the Verge…, and I may reach back and do a couple Full Monty songs. … Then I’ll do a couple of songs—at least one, but maybe two—from upcoming shows. I have a show opening in December called The Band’s Visit, and I think I’m ready to sing a song or two from that.
Tell me more about that! What’s up next for you?
DY: Well, the biggest news that I’m allowed to share is [about] this show, The Band’s Visit, which is a musical that I’m writing with Itamar Moses, who’s a really great playwright. David Cromer is directing, and we’re going to open at the Atlantic Theater. I think we go into rehearsals the beginning of October. It should open by the beginning of December, and it’s a very deep story about music and love, and it takes place in Israel in an Israeli settlement where an Egyptian police band has come to perform, except they’re in the wrong town, so it becomes this one evening of them interacting with the Israelis in this place. So it’s about the universal language of music and love. We did a reading that went really well, and we’ll do another one in July. For me, that’s the big focus.
I’ve also been working on Tootsie with a new writer. I started with different writers, and now I’m working with this guy Robert Horn. Hopefully that will happen the year after. A lot of that has to do with Casey Nicholaw, [who] is the director and is very busy. There’s a chance I’ll do a song from Tootsie at this show, but the song I want to do is a patter song for a woman, and it’s really hard to sing. Either I’ll sing it or find someone who can sing it, but it’s one of those songs that you just have to rehearse so much. I feel sheepish about asking someone to spend so much time just to sing it once.
We’re living in a generation where you have to be so multi-faceted—not just sing, dance and act, but also create your own work. Would that be something you’d want to do—create work that could also function as a vehicle for you to be part of?
DY: Yeah, that comes up, but the truth is I get bored repeating myself, so the idea of being in a show —where I have to repeat myself—doesn’t appeal to me very much. It’s very hard for me to even play my songs the same way each time—that’s one of the reasons why I have a band filled with people who are not just musicians; they’re artists. We all listen to each other, and I can change things at the drop of a hat, and that’s fun and exciting. That said, I am working on something with the guitar player in my band, who is a great songwriter, and we’re trying to figure out—it’s a theatre piece—if there is some way that we, the two of us, want to be part of it maybe as singers. He and I like to sing together; we like to play together. Would we like to play together if you have to do the same thing night after night? I’m not sure.
Can you share what that project is about?
DY: It’s really weird. I don’t want to give it away too much. It’s about fame and death in the first part of the twentieth century in the United States. It’s very exciting, and we’re writing it the way you would write an album. We’re going song by song with a very intimate knowledge of the story that we’re telling, and then we’re going to try and see how narrative the story has to be to hold it together. I’m a big believer in story being [strong]. That’s the thing that keeps the audience engaged, so the question is: How much of it do you need if you want to feature the music? This gets a little philosophical, but… There isn’t much really interesting music in musicals these days. When I say interesting, I don’t necessarily mean challengingly interesting—although that can be true also—but I mean truly interesting and fresh. And you can get away with a lot if your story is compelling, even if the book isn’t that good. So it’s just this interesting question of: Can we write songs with the aesthetic that we would approach an album? And then use it to drive a story forward? It’s almost an experiment in writing a musical, but it’s so far so good. Maybe I’ll do a song from that at this show, too.
What has been one of your proudest moments in musical theatre writing?
DY: I think it changes all the time. In terms of theatre… My proudest moment in the theatre I think took place last year. Women on a Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opened in New York several years ago, and it wasn’t ready, and we didn’t have enough time to pull it together, and we made some mistakes. I liked the show, but it wasn’t the show that I really wanted, and we worked really hard, and we opened it [last year] on the West End, and it really was the show that I wanted. It was like this beautiful show—my favorite score of mine, my favorite book of Jeffrey Lane, who wrote the book, and a great cast. I really felt like we worked so hard to make that a great show and that we succeeded, and that was my proudest moment thus far probably.
I also wanted to ask you about your biggest challenge in your career. Would you say something like that was a big challenge? Or another moment?
DY: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, that was really challenging. I think in the last several years, I’ve had a lot of challenging moments with shows that you’ll never see—that just didn’t go for whatever reason. There were a couple of shows that I thought I did some really good work on that crumbled in 2008 because of the financial disaster, and there was this Bruce Lee musical that I thought had some good songs that I was working on that just… It wasn’t working as a whole. So there were a lot of challenges involving shows that didn’t happen or haven’t happened yet, but again, [with] Women on the Verge… It was this massive challenge to figure out what was broken and fix it and then have the confidence to mount it, and that was a challenge that was overcome. That’s a challenge [that ended in], “Oh! Audiences love it, I love it.” I don’t really care about the critics, but they, for the most part, loved it, so that helped.
And, now, what’s really exciting… All of my shows have been performed all over the world, and I’m always seeing little clips from Japan or Czechoslovakia or South America—all these songs and clips and people auditioning with the songs, and people doing full-blown productions or high school productions—but with Women on the Verge, it’s been really interesting. The show was not a Broadway hit, but it’s being done here and there. Like, “Oh, there it is in Czechoslovakia. There it is in Spain.” And, I’m seeing these videos and pieces of these productions, and they’re being approached with so much creativity from these individual directors. They’re taking the show—the play and the music and the lyrics—and they’re doing their own thing with them, and what I’m seeing is just really exciting. That makes me feel like we took a show that came out flawed and that might not have had a life afterwards, and now you can just see it. You can see this vibrating life that this show has now. And, people love the cast album, and I constantly have people talking about that. There’s a U.K. cast album that’s even better than the American one. It’s just leaner and meaner and much more rhythm-oriented. That’ll be out pretty soon, hopefully on Sh-K-Boom, on Kurt [Deutsch]’s label.
What kind of advice would you give to aspiring composer/lyricists and writers in the musical theatre?
DY: I usually give the same advice. When I teach a class, a master class… I guess this is probably true for any genre or maybe even for any art, but a lot of the people who get into musical theatre dream about being in it from an early age, so they’re affected by some show they see or something they hear or what they perceive as the glamour of it—that’s fine. There’s plenty of people who get into rock music for similar reasons. But, the world doesn’t need more sh*tty musicals, and what causes sh*tty musicals is the narrowness of frame of reference. That’s one of the many causes, so my biggest advice—and I’ve said this directly to people in master classes… Maybe there’ll be this guy who is 25 years old and plays some stuff, and it just sounds hopelessly musical theatre-y.
No one wants to hear this, so I’ll just say, “Here is your assignment: You’re not going to accept it, but if you do, you’ll be very wise to do so. For one year, starting right now, when you go home, you budget an hour a day at least to go online, which is something I never had when I was a kid, and listen to everything. Listen to everything. Listen to Javanese gamelan music. Listen to musique concrète. Listen to Thelonious Monk. Listen to Chinese opera. Listen to Afro-Cuban stuff. Listen to Alan Lomax’s recordings of Delta blues. Everything… Except musical theatre! You’re not allowed to listen to any musical theatre. Nothing under that genre for a year. You’re allowed to write, but you’re not allowed to listen to that.” That’s my advice. Get out of the murky, tiny pool of swimming in just musical theatre music and lyric. And read some great poetry and, what the hell, read some great plays, too, but get the f*ck out of musical theatre land in your head, and you’ll write some good musical theatre maybe. That’s my advice.