The official body count for Maury Yeston's last new musical — the Tony-winning Titanic of '97 — stands at 1,517 so perhaps it was rather prudent of him to take a protracted professional breather with Death Takes a Holiday.
The results of his latest labors, 14 years in the writing, finally reaches the stage July 21, the opening night at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Now in previews, the production will play a limited engagement there through Sept. 4. The reason that the show has been so slow to surface is that, quite frankly, death didn't take a holiday.
"This show was spawned immediately after Titanic opened," recalls Yeston. He parked his Tony right next to that of his book-writer, Peter Stone, and they went into a mutual huddle about what they should do next. Stone suggested Death Takes a Holiday, based on an old movie that had traumatized him as a boy and gnawed on him creatively ever after. Yeston's response was an emphatic, italic no.
"Peter said, 'Why not?' I said, 'Because of Death Death Death.' He said, 'No, no. To me, it's Holiday Holiday Holiday. In the same way that everyone thought that Titanic was going to be about a disaster and it turned out to be about our highest dreams and aspirations, this is really about Death coming to life and there being no more death in the world for a weekend. It is a complete celebration of the joy of life. There's the big surprise — that you come in thinking you may be seeing something depressing, and it turns out your seeing hilarious comedy, a deeply romantic story and, in the end, an elevating story that celebrates the glory of life.'" It took a few years for this idea to turn over in their heads and take hold of their imagination — then, 9/11 happened. "Because of that, for quite a while, nobody really wanted to think about a show called Death Takes . . . Anything," Yeston says. "By 2003, when the atmosphere was such that we felt we could bring that show around, Peter passed away. It took me a while to find another partner."
Enter, a few years later, Thomas Meehan — a writer who likes to, and can, say he has "never written a play, only musicals" (ten produced ones to date, including a trio of Tony-winners: Annie, The Producers and Hairspray).
"I met Maury when we were both on a job-skills council together, but we had never worked together before until he came to me a couple of years after Peter died," Meehan remembers. "I went up to his house, and he played the score for me on the piano, and I read the play, and I wanted to do it. I loved the score, and I loved the idea it was something so different than what I'd done — so far from straight comedy.
"Peter had a way of working that's not my way of working. In the early stages of this book, he just wrote hundreds of pages — like 250 pages, not always in order — so I went back to the original play and the movie, not totally starting over — I used some of Peter's things — but I kinda made it my own. Maury had the songs. Most of them were written. He has written several since. The main thing is it was Peter's idea and his ideas of how to get into it. He actually followed the play a lot closer than I did."
Personifying Death was Alberto Casella's one-trick pony — indeed, the basis of his whole playwriting reputation. He introduced it in Florence in 1924 as La Morte in Vacanza, which Walter Ferris translated as Death Takes a Holiday for Broadway in 1929 and Maxwell Anderson adapted under the same title for the screen in 1934. In that fondly remembered dark fantasy, Fredric March played Death with a monocle and a Russian accent, taking a three-day slide from work to mingle with the mortals and discover why they fear him. What Zorba called "the full catastrophe" befalls him, including love with a beautiful Italian heiress. The rest of the plot is a Love-and-Death arm-wrestle to determine which is the stronger force.
If that's the question, then it has never been a contest for Yeston. "I remember at the funeral of a friend of mine the rabbi saying, 'As long as they are with us in our minds, as long as we remember them, they are still alive to us. Love is stronger than death. What we have when we lose those we love is precious memories of them. The fact that we don't have all the time in the world makes us value every precious second we live on this earth. And the thing that really gives it the most value is love."
To be sure, there are Titanic echoes in Death Takes a Holiday — like, he points out, "a moment on the ship's deck when Mrs. Straus is the only first-class woman who doesn't get into a lifeboat. She says, 'I've been with Isidor for 40 years. I'm not going to leave him now.' And she elects to stay with him. In many ways, this show mirrors that a bit. It's about the eternal power of love. And it's also love in any conceivable guise. It's young love, it's unrequited love, it's romantic love, it's the love of two elderly people at the very end of their lives, it's marital love, it's sexual love.
"Now that I look at all my work — I look at Nine and see how much that is about men and women and their relationships — and I look at this and think, 'I guess I must have devoted my life to writing about every conceivable facet of love between people' — and I have loved doing it. In this case, I've had a chance to write a story about a girl who wants to live life to the fullest — a girl who likes living on the edge, a girl who's flirting with death, really because it makes her feel more alive.
"It's also a story of a creature of infinite curiosity — Death, who wants to know 'Why are men so afraid of living. I have to find out. I have to live as a man for a weekend just to see,' and, of course, he has the time of his life. He falls in love. He's no different than Act One of Titanic. They're having the time of their lives until the iceberg."
No, Maury Yeston is not the go-to guy for musicalizing There's a Girl in My Soup — although, he lights up, "I'd love to do that. Let's not forget my Bible flop [a sprint through the first few books called One Two Three Four Five] was very much like that. I wrote it with Larry Gelbart. That really was straight-out comedy in the direction of Mel Brooks and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Maybe, ultimately, we'll get to do it. It only went to the regionals. I'd love to address it again. I wrote it when I was very young. I think I know a lot more now."
Otherwise, the composer is a magnet for dramatically charged material, with one possible exception: "I felt that Nine was a comedy. Fellini attached a little note to his camera all during the filming of '8½.' The note said, 'This is comedy.' In many ways, it was — but I think I'm probably incapable of addressing any aspect of the comic side of the human experience without somehow delving below that."
In Europe, initially, Death Takes a Holiday was described as "a supernatural comedy," but little of the fun seemed to have made it across the Atlantic to these shores. "I found the play really old-fashioned melodrama," admits Meehan. "There's not a laugh in it. It's a very dark piece. Death is called The Shadow, and there's all sorts of spooky, supernatural stuff going on so it was a lot of fun for me to make a great big romantic story out of it. The original play is very arcane and archaic. It was written by an Italian, right after World War I, and I think it was his response to all the deaths in the war and the carnage. There was a whole generation of young men lost all over Europe, so he created this fantasy. But it has an enduring sort of feel — the idea of Death as a person. There's a figure of Death under a hood in the Bergman movie, 'The Seventh Seal,' but we didn't want to do that kind of spooky Death.
"They didn't want you to laugh in the movie, and the play's even darker — very long, with lots of long philosophic discussions about life and death. It had to go. I mean, it's a musical. First of all, you gotta make room for the score. A musical is song. The thing is to frame it so that the music works and the story works and the audience has a good time. We're still in show business here. It's not art. It's popular art."
First order of business was to rid The Grim Reaper of his scythe, which Meehan shrugs off with a simple gag. "Originally, I had 'I stopped schlepping that around,'" he confesses, "but they felt maybe that was too Yiddish so I have changed it.
"I set out to lighten the play. I had a thought last night about something else I could do right at the beginning. I think the audience is not sure they're able to laugh at the beginning. It looks dark, and Death is a character, but there's a comic butler played by Don Stephenson, and he could be in the first scene when all arrive at the villa."
Doug Hughes, primarily a man for all drama, directs the musical with dramatic urgency, executed by a starry ensemble of actors who sit especially well with Yeston — particularly the two leads. "By some strange fate, I have been privileged and honored in my life to have had my work presented by actors who are just on the cusp of breaking through to the final level," says the composer. "I think, for example, of Raul Julia in Nine, and Anita Morris; I think of Lilliane Montevecchi in Grand Hotel and 20-year-old Jane Krakowski singing 'I Want To Go to Hollywood,' and David Carroll and Michael Jeter; or Brian d'Arcy James when he played a stoker in Titanic and Vicki Clark. Somehow, and it's just by fate — an accident of fate — those roles brought them very present before the public. I think that's very much the case of Julian Ovenden and Jill Paice." Both have enjoyed some modest transatlantic stardom. Paice previously played Broadway in The Woman in White and Curtains before heading to London to sing Scarlett O'Hara for Trevor Nunn. Ovenden went the opposite route, Broadway-debuting as Nathan Lane's lover in Butley. Yeston found him playing The Baron in a Donmar Warehouse production of Grand Hotel: "I thought, 'Oh, my God! It's David Carroll all over again.' And he is. 'My dream lead for Death Takes a Holiday would be Julian Ovenden,' and my dream came true."
Meehan, likewise, was immediately taken with Ovenden: "We had workshops with different people, but this was the first time we got somebody really right for it. Some of the wry humor I wrote was inspired by him. He's sophisticated and smart, but Death nonetheless. Also, there's this need we worked out that, when he arrives as a prince — having never been a human before — he's like a child at first. Then he sees a girl and finds out about sex. He's searching to find out what love means, and then it hits him like a freight train. He falls in love with this girl, and she falls in love with him. By the end of Act One, he's full-grown. In 48 hours, he goes from youth to middle age in his experiences as a human. That's the arc of his character. The more human he becomes, the more heartsick he is about the love and having to give up on it."
Of the 14 or 15 songs he wrote for the show ("That's a low number for me"), Yeston's favorite is "Losing Roberto," a song the mother sings in the second act for the soldier son she has lost to war. "It's a song that reaches out and really addresses the nature of loss. How many soldiers have we lost? It's something about how those we lose are still with us. It's performed so beautifully by Rebecca Luker, and it's a very important song because it teaches Death what it means when you lose someone."
Yeston throws some of his best songs — "Life Is a Joy" and "December Time," both lilting melodies designed to produce purrs of contentment from the matinee ladies — to potentially peripheral characters, a couple of old friends-and-lovers played by Simon Jones and Linda Balgord. "For me, growing up with 'Gigi' and 'My Fair Lady,' Simon's the Maurice Chevalier, the Rex Harrison, I never got to work with — a wise, witty, romantic man who sings that Life, in spite its momentary anguishes, is a joy."
In Yeston's re-scheming of things, that would make the Freddy Eynsford-Hill figure here Max Von Essen, who played the part in a Paper Mill MFL and is here cast as Paige's cast-off fiancé who finds a second chance at love on the premises.
"Max gets to sing this unique song with a girl who loves him. To me, the premise of that song — 'What Do You Do' (when you love someone who does not love you back) — was such a discovery for me. I love to try to find subject matter for a song that has never been done before. My goal is always to write a song that sounds like no other song you've ever heard — except, every once in a while, to write a song that's exactly reflective of the period you are in. This is 1921, and that's why the shimmy, which was exactly when it becoming popular, is very welcome in this show. That, and the fact Mara Davi is an incredible dancer and does a great job of it."
Michael Siberry, Matt Cavenaugh, Alexandra Socha, Patricia Noonan, Joy Hermalyn and Jay Jaski complete the cast, and Yeston has been very good about sharing the musical wealth. "Everybody is taken care of — with a song or two — and, somehow, in a very efficient way, you get to know every person and that's a lucky break. There's also a little Midsummer Night's Dream in this show. At the end, all the couples are paired the way they're supposed to be. There's something almost Shakespearean and satisfying about it. I guess you could call it a tragicomedy, but, in many ways, it's a comedy first because it really does end with a wedding. And I think that's an extraordinary thing to happen in a show like this."
Death Takes a Holiday is Yeston's first Off-Broadway show, and he doesn't consider it any kind of comedown. "I'm a true believer in lowering expectations," he says. "What's really great about being here is that we're not under the $10- to $15-million big commercial musical pressure. We're able to do our work, to let the show interact with the audience and, of course, listen to the audience. A New York audience is the greatest audience in the world because they tell you what's working and what's not working if you work with them. That's why we continue to work on the show. We work on the show right up to opening night. Jerry Robbins is famous for saying, 'Musicals are never finished. They're merely abandoned for lack of time.'"