David Yazbek (r.), with David Noh. | DAVID NOH
When I met my favorite living musical composer, David Yazbek, at the June 21 press preview at 54 Below for its upcoming shows, I threw a very unfamiliar name at him.
“J. Akuhead Pupule,” I said. “Ever hear of him? Thought not. But you’re right: it does sound Hawaiian. He was actually Hal Lewis, a popular Jewish disc jockey in Honolulu my mom would have on the radio when she drove us to school. I hadn’t thought of him in ages, but you made me do so, because he used to play all the great crossover hits from the 1960s that had originated on Broadway.”
From Petula Clark singing “You’d Better Love Me” from “High Spirits” to various pop artists’ versions of “What Kind of Fool Am I” (“Stop the Word I Want to Get Off”), “My Cup Runneth Over” (“I Do, I Do”), “The Impossible Dream” (“Man of La Mancha”), and “Sherry,” this was how I was introduced to — and came to yearn for — Broadway, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All of them were melodic, lyrically canny, and instantly catchy, much like the songs Yazbek writes for theater, which, in these days — dominated by sullenly nattering Sondheim wannabes and treacly, bombastic power anthems about dreary self-realization — are musical manna from heaven.
Broadway’s current best composer and one of its brightest stars in deep dives
Two particularly lovely ballads of his, “Breeze Off the River” from “The Full Monty” and “Love Sneaks In” from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” in a more enlightened era than now would definitely have been snapped up by, say, Sinatra, if he were alive, or Streisand and been big juicy hit records for either of them.
“That’s interesting,” replied Yazbek, who will be performing at 54 Below July 29-30 (7 p.m., 254 W. 54th St.; 54below.com/events/david-yazbek). “I came up loving Frank Loesser. I love Sondheim, but to me ‘Guys and Dolls’ is the perfect musical, partially because the songs are perfect musical theater songs, and also many of them are perfect pop songs of the time. They’re also musically fascinating and the lyrics are brilliant, whereas Sondheim was clearly writing strictly for musical theater. I try to do both, but it has to do with my influences.
“As far as people like Streisand and Sinatra singing my stuff, I wish that would happen. On every show I’ve ever written, someone, usually a producer, has said, ‘Oh, we gotta get fill-in-the-blank to sing it!’ On ‘The Full Monty,’ it was Whitney Houston, and for our recent London production of ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,’ someone said, ‘I know Adele!’ I’m sitting there, going, ‘Sure. Right.’”
I made Yazbek laugh when I called him the Great White Hope of the Broadway Musical and recalled when his “Women on the Verge” was one of its season’s most anticipated productions, with a cast that included Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sherie Rene Scott, and Laura Benanti, but somehow just did not jell or click. I wondered if, perhaps, had they changed its locale from Madrid to Manhattan, it might have worked better.
“That was discussed briefly but one of the things against that was the Spanish element of it. I love that kind of music, and I’ve been a fan of Pedro Almodóvar [the movie’s auteur] since his first commercially available movie. I love filmmakers who have this verticality to what they do, meaning every shot, every line, it’s all deep and there’s a lot going on. He’s one of them, and I really just wanted to honor his world he’s made in all these movies. It’s almost like the Marvel [Comic] universe. I wanted to be a part of that — he and I have become good friends — and he likes the songs, so I feel like I succeeded.
“We did it in London last year, and, while it has always been a really good show, we did it wrong on Broadway. It was too big or something, but in London it went over really well. I was so satisfied and maybe at some point I’d like to bring it here to like Brooklyn Academy of Music or Off Broadway. I don’t think it needs to come to Broadway, but I want to see it in New York with the right cast.
“The original Broadway production was overproduced and we made several mistakes. We didn’t go out of town and, if we had, we probably would have all said, ‘Uh-oh, we better pull back on certain things.’ It was over-staged and there was some storytelling stuff we later trimmed up. We kept working on it during the run, which no one ever does, but two weeks in, we had something a lot better. In London, I replaced a couple of songs and now the story is really tight. You’re following the main character really well, and now it’s just like ‘Ohmigod, this is a show!’ We’d still be running if we had done this here.
“The lead was played by Tamsin Grieg, who appeared in a TV show called ‘Episode’. She’s not a musical theater person, not even a singer before she did this, but a brilliant actress, and now she’s a singer. The rest of the cast was bunch of some well-known and a lot of sort of discoveries in London.”
Asked about diva in excelsis LuPone, Yazbek enthused, “I love Patti, the most professional actor I’ve worked with. She doesn’t accept anything but hard work, not perfection, because she’s not a perfectionist. Just be the best that you can do. She’s a real actor: I can talk to her as a composer about how she’s acting a song. And she’s listening and not just thinking, ‘I gotta have a big ending here.’ She’s thinking about the show. I love her and just had dinner with her at Jeffrey Lane’s house two weeks ago. I can’t say enough about her and would love to work with her again.”
At the 54 Below preview, Yazbek performed a hauntingly beautiful song, reeking of nostalgia and seduction, about Omar Sharif and the scents and sounds of an Arabic childhood. It was from his new show, “The Band’s Visit,” based on the 2007 film about an Egyptian orchestra being stranded in Israel, set to open at the Atlantic Theater in the fall. I congratulated him on writing a musical song about something for a change, and he laughed, ‘You gotta — I like to write songs that are about something. My mother’s side of our family was matrilineally Jewish, and they were Christian on my father’s side.”
I adore Arabic music, and so does Yazbek.
“Our ears may not be used to it but if people would listen, they’d synch into it. Because of the show, half of our band are masters of Arabic music as well as Western stuff. We also have Javier Diaz, one of the great Afro-Cuban — as well as orchestral — percussionists [presently in the pit of ‘On Your Feet,’ joyously rousing ecstatic audiences], and now I find myself playing Eddie Palmieri stuff all the time. It’s interesting who you play with. There’s a big-time link between Arabic and Spanish music, especially flamenco, and in Andalusia and southern Spain.”
Yazbek is currently considering doing concerts with this tasty group on Friday and Saturday nights after the show, when it opens.
He seems to be having the time of his life whenever I’ve seen him concertize, but Yazbek explained it this way: “I think I love it. I don’t remember much because I will come offstage and then I will forget everything that happened. I’ll remember what other people played as in ‘that solo was awesome,’ or ‘you guys were locking together really well.’ Everything before and after on that night, I hate. I like rehearsing but I don’t like sound checking and arriving and talking, and afterwards talking to people. I like playing music and just going with that. I am a musician first, also a theater composer, but that’s almost like a day job.”
Yazbek remembered writing his first song “when I was 10 to 11. I joined a band and my memory of those songs was that they were really catchy, but horrible.”
“Catchy is good,” I responded. “I’ll never forget going to the men’s room during the original 1975 run of ‘Chicago,’ and damn, if every single guy in there wasn’t humming ‘All That Jazz.’ You have that most rare ability to write irresistible stuff one likes upon first hearing.”
“Oh, that’s an enormous compliment, because that’s what I go for, and the other thing I try to do sometimes is reprises in the second act, with songs that have definite hit potential,” Yazbek said. “Rodgers and Hammerstein in ‘South Pacific’ did it like four times with ‘Some Enchanted Evening,’ and the second act is all reprises. Like, I need to put a swimming pool in my house, let’s reprise this one three times!”
Yazbek’s first job after graduating from Brown was staff writer for “The David Letterman Show”: “I had always been writing words and music, a humor column, reviews. I was at ‘Letterman’ less than a year, didn’t like it, a weird experience, but I did learn a lot. I was hoping it was going to be like ‘Your Show of Shows’: Woody Allen and Mel Brooks going, ‘It’s boffo! We’re gonna do this!’ Instead, you’re a veal in a tiny office, generating content. It was exciting to see if you had a bit, a gag, or a skit airing on TV, but writing on staff was not for me. I needed to be the originator of the piece that I was doing, but I still wrote a lot of scripts for TV, children’s shows, but mostly to support my music.”
Creating musicals is such a fragile, fraught task in a very rough business, and I wondered how Yazbek dealt with all the crazy-making aspects of Broadway, besides his twice-daily 30 minutes of meditation.
“It doesn’t drive me that crazy. I have to say when ‘The Full Monty’ opened, shortly before 9/ 11, the reviews were all great and it was kind of clear that it was going to do well. I got a lot of letters from really cool theater friends of mine, like Cy Coleman, and then got one little note card from one of my Zen teachers who’d seen all the publicity about me and this first show of mine. It read: ‘May your practice sustain you in these difficult times.’ I still have that card and I thought then, ‘This is good.’ That keeps your feet on the ground really well.”
I wanted to hear about the great character actress Kathleen Freeman, who made a Broadway comeback in “The Full Monty.”
“I’d seen her in so many movies — every Jerry Lewis movie — but I don’t think she’d ever done a musical before or sang in any movie. I love character actors like that and she and I would go on and on about not the formula but the lessons you learn about comedy and comic timing when you have been in the business as long as she. I think she was 83 when she was in our show and died when she was technically still a cast member. We killed her!
“I don’t know what she had — not sure it was cancer — might have been anything. She ended up in the hospital and then she came back to the show, which she probably shouldn’t have, and then back to the hospital, and then died. We would talk about things like that laugh in the second act and she’d say, ‘Yeah, if he waited a little more and then turned, he’d get a much bigger laugh.’ And she was always right. She understood how to generate rolling laughter and how to land a joke within a song. She was great, and I’m so happy I got to work with her.”
And then there was Elaine Stritch, who did Freeman’s role in the Paper Mill revival of the how: “My agent insisted we see it together, so we did. It was a good production but I guess Stritch didn’t want to learn the music because she spoke every song. I was watching this and thinking, ‘She only has one big song but she spoke it, and yet she does a nightclub act, so she could have learned the song.’
“I go backstage after to say hi to everyone and I see Stritch and, before I could say anything, she comes up and says, ‘I made a choice to speak it!’ And I was just like, ‘Fine,’ so that was that. I wasn’t angry. I didn’t care it. It was still a fun production.”
Also at the 54 preview was the always-winning Rob McClure, preparing for his debut there on July 1. The aim of his show, McClure told me, was to explore the roots of his eternal optimism in a tough show biz world, something he gets teased for a lot.
Rob McClure, who has just stepped into the role Brian d’Arcy James in “Something Rotten.” | FEINSTEIN’S/ 54 BELOW
“I’m the thread that ties up this eclectic collection of songs and takes you on my journey of growing up in New Jersey, looking across the George Washington Bridge, and dreaming of Broadway, and the musical influences that got me over here,” he explained.
“Smile,” a song for the film “Modern Times,” written by Charles Chaplin, whom McClure played on Broadway, was prominently featured in his warm and winning set, when I saw it on July 2. But the show I wanted to really hear about was “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which opened to excellent reviews, and, with its funny script and bright Jason Robert Brown songs, seemed a no-brainer audience pleaser, yet closed distressingly early. The definite highlight of McClure’s act was that show’s ebullient opening song, “I Love Betsy,” which prompted Stephen Sondheim to send him a note stating that he wanted to live in the world of that number forever.
“We put together something really good and thought it would run for years. It opened at Paper Mill and could not have gotten better reviews. When we transferred to Broadway, we hoped we’d get the same glowing response, which we did.
“What catches on? What creates the air that makes someone spend $150 for a ticket, you’ll never know. The more I work in this business, the more it becomes enigmatic to me what that thing is. But I will forever say that that was one of the smartest, funniest shows with one of the best scores of the last half-century. And what does or doesn’t catch fire beyond the walls of the theater — because you know inside the theater there was a party every night — and how that happens, you leave up to the producers and publicity team.”
McClure has just gone into a show I found hardly as good as “Honeymoon,” the smart alecky, successful “Something Rotten,” although I’m sure he’ll bring his sparkling energy to the formulaic snark.
“I just took over for Brian d’Arcy James, and it’s been a blast. I’m as big a fan of his as anyone, so I was terrified, but the people at the St. James Theatre, Brian himself, and our wonderful audiences have thrown open their arms to me. It’s thrilling, and there are two numbers — ‘Musical Theater’ and ‘Omelette’ — which bring down the house. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the kind of wall of sound that comes from the audience every night after those — thrilling! Josh Grisetti will replace John Cariani, which I think is a perfect fit for him, and Leslie Kritzer will replace Heidi Blickenstaff, which is also a great fit — all-stars taking over for all-stars. I’ve never worked with Josh before but everyone says we could be brothers so I’m really looking forward to it. He’s brilliant.
“I’ll be in it through the New Year, and this week should be interesting when I’m performing at 54. I will be running back and forth from here to the theater to do this.”
I couldn’t help noticing the very handsome wedding ring McClure was sporting on his third finger, left hand: “It’s titanium and brushed crib fiber carbon. I’ve been with actress Maggie Lakis for seven years in August. No plans for kids, but certainly one day. She’s the best [currently in “Avenue Q”] and originally from Philadelphia, where we now live. We commute together on the Amtrak train every day, only an hour and 20.”