American composer, lyricist, musicologist, and educator Maury Yeston (b. Jersey City, NJ, October 23, 1945), although best known for his prizewinning music and lyrics to Broadway musicals (Nine 1982, Titanic 1997), has at least one finger in each of a variety of musical pies, with six academic degrees, sixteen years as a professor, several classical compositions, and an important role as twenty-year director of a songwriting workshop. Both of his original Broadway shows (above) won Tony Awards® for Best Musical and Best Score, Yeston receiving double prizes for both music and lyrics. Nine also won him two Drama Desk Awards. Maury Yeston has written six more musicals and arranged or adapted several others, not all of which have been produced.
Maury Yeston’s British-born father was in the import business. But in Jersey City the Yeston family was always surrounded by music: his mother was an accomplished pianist, his father sang English music-hall songs, and his maternal grandfather was a cantor who, “singing his heart out at the top of his lungs to a rapt congregation,” made a “lasting impression” on the boy. His mother gave him piano lessons at the age of five, and at seven he won an award for composition. When he was ten he went to see My Fair Lady on Broadway with his mother and was enraptured by the musical theatre. He attended a small private high school, where his musical interests broadened even further and he took up folk guitar, jazz vibraphone, and madrigal singing. His influences were myriad – Stravinsky, Bartok, Copland, Dizzy Gillespie, Peter, Paul and Mary, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bernard Herrmann – and he claims to remember every note of music he has ever heard.
At Yale University Yeston majored in music theory and composition, and minored in literature. Receiving his B.A. in 1967, he won the Paul Mellon Fellowship to attend Clare College at Cambridge University in England, where he earned a Master’s degree while composing several classical pieces and creating a musical version of Alice in Wonderland (it was produced in New Haven in 1971). Yeston returned to the United States to accept a teaching position under a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the country’s oldest traditionally black college. There, while teaching a variety of other courses, he initiated one in the history of African-American music.
Yeston went back to Yale for his Ph.D., awarded in 1974. With the publication of his first book, The Stratification of Musical Rhythm by the Yale University Press in 1976, he joined the Yale faculty as Director of Undergraduate Studies in Music. He taught there for eight years, twice named by his undergraduates as one of Yale’s top ten professors. Another book published under his editorship, Readings in Schenker Analysis (1977) became a staple of music theory studies.
Meanwhile Yeston had enrolled in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop in New York City, traveling from New Haven every week to meet with other aspiring theatre composers to try out new songs on each other. He was working on a new project inspired by Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8½; by adding “half a number more” to that number in the form of music, he explained, he had made it Nine. With a book by Arthur Kopit, directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune, and starring Raul Julia, Nine (“Unusual Way”) opened on Broadway in 1982. Its overwhelming success, said Yeston, “absolutely changed my life, both financially and substantively.” He was able to reduce his Yale teaching schedule to one course in songwriting every other semester.
Actor-director Geoffrey Holder then approached Yeston with the idea of writing a musical on The Phantom of the Opera; Holder held the American rights to the Leroux novel, but had no idea Andrew Lloyd Webber was embarked on the same endeavor in London. Yeston was at first skeptical, but began to see the Phantom as an emotionally engaging character, and had finished most of the score by the time Lloyd Webber announced his own plans. After the Lloyd Webber show was a London hit in 1986, it was impossible to raise money for a Broadway production on the same subject. Nonetheless, in 1991 Yeston’s Phantom (with the song “Home”) was produced at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars and its music recorded on an original cast album; it has had sufficient success to warrant over a thousand productions worldwide in subsequent years. Yeston observes, “It was the greatest hit never to be produced on Broadway.”
Less successful was In the Beginning (originally known as 1-2-3-4-5), a musical based on the first five books of the Bible, at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987. Then at the suggestion of Plácido Domingo, Yeston created Goya: A Life in Song, initially intended to be a musical. Domingo’s schedule did not permit a full-fledged stage production, so a studio recording with the world-famous tenor was made in 1988 (“Til I Loved You” has been recorded also by Barbra Streisand). The next year Tommy Tune asked Yeston to improve the score of Grand Hotel, which was failing in out-of-town tryouts. This time the success was gratifying: with six new songs by Yeston (including “Love Can’t Happen”) and about half its lyrics revised, Yeston's contribution to the score of Grand Hotel was nominated for a Tony Award®. The show itself won five Tonys® and ran for 1,017 performances.
Yeston’s interest in writing a musical about the sinking of the Titanic was first piqued in 1985, when the wreckage of the ship was discovered. Yeston saw Titanic as “a very English show,” an exploration of a rigid social class system and the way it idealized progress through technology. “This was for me an opportunity to bring into the musical theater an element of the symphonic tradition [of Elgar or Vaughan Williams] that I think we really haven’t had before. That was very exciting.” With a book by Peter Stone, Titanic opened in April 1997. In spite of several initially mixed reviews, it held out to win five Tony Awards®, and ran for 804 performances.
Musicals by Maury Yeston that are as yet not fully produced are Death Takes A Holiday, written in 2003, with a book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan, and an adaptation of Frank Loesser’s Hans Christian Andersen with book by Yeston. Among his more “classical” works are a song cycle, December Songs (1991), commissioned by Carnegie Hall and inspired by Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, a Cello Concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma, and An American Cantata (2000) for Orchestra and 2000 Voices, commissioned by the Kennedy Center, first heard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial conducted by Leonard Slatkin. His full-length original Ballet Score, “Tom Sawyer – A Ballet in Three Acts,” inaugurated the opening of the new Opera House and Arts Center in Kansas City, MO, in October of 2011.
Yeston has three children, Jake, Max, and Emma, and is married to Julianne Waldhelm. He is President of the Kleban Foundation; he serves on the editorial boards of Musical Quarterly, the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, The Dramatists' Guild Council, and the Kurt Weill Foundation Publication Project. He is an advisor to the Yale University Press Broadway Series.
Nine, the feature film, with Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Dame Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Fergie, and Kate Hudson, was released on Christmas, 2009. It was nominated for four Oscars®, including one for Yeston's song "Take It All," and five Golden Globe Awards, including one for Yeston's "Cinema Italiano."
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