A very chatty com­poser

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - JOHN NATHAN

IF YOU sliced it hor­i­zon­tally, squished it to a pulp and flat­tened it with a rolling pin, you still wouldn’t get a word in edge­ways, talk­ing to Maury Ye­ston. The New York com­poser and lyri­cist speaks in tor­rents. Sen­tences are packed with de­tail, clauses, caveats and paren­the­ses. We’ve barely sat in down in one of the Char­ing Cross The­atre’s dingy, subter­ranean dress­ing rooms and the 72-year-old is al­ready well into the his­tory of his fore­bears.

They ar­rived from Poland some time in the late eigh­teen hun­dreds, he tells me. They took up res­i­dence in Whitechapel’s Thrawl Street.

“It’s where three of the vic­tims of Jack the Rip­per were found,” he says with a mix­ture of pride and touris­tic fas­ci­na­tion.

The pro­duc­tion of his mu­si­cal Death Takes a Hol­i­day di­rected by Thom Souther­land, is deep in re­hearsal and the walls around us re­ver­ber­ate with lus­cious har­mony. The show might best be de­scribed as a gothic ro­mance, if that’s a genre. It is based on an Ital­ian play, trans­lated for Broad­way in 1929 and adapted into two films, one in 1934 and the other in 1998 star­ring Brad Pitt. The plot imag­ines what might hap­pen if Death be­came tired of killing and then fell in love. In New York it won a hat­ful of Drama Desk nom­i­na­tions, but it has so far never matched the crit­i­cal and box of­fice suc­cess of Ye­ston’s Tony Award-win­ning mu­si­cals Nine (based on the Fellini film 8½ ) or Ti­tanic, the pre­vi­ous Ye­ston mu­si­cal to be staged at Char­ing Cross — and to great ac­claim.

A Ye­ston score is of­ten or­ches­tral, swollen with un­abashed ro­man­ti­cism. The com­poser de­scribes his in­flu­ences as Jewish, which gives his mu­sic its emo­tion; English, which gives his lyrics and melody their wit; and clas­si­cal, which is where the com­po­si­tions get their “rigour.” Strange to think that he started out on the ukulele, more of which later.

Mean­while, I’m wait­ing for a mo­ment in which to ask how Death

Takes a Hol­i­day came about. But it’s like try­ing to cross a mo­tor­way. Ev­ery at­tempted in­ter­jec­tion is swept up in the traf­fic of Ye­ston fam­ily his­tory. The fam­ily have by now moved from Whitechapel to Black­fri­ars. Ye­ston’s grand­fa­ther has a horse and cart from which he sells “schmut­ter’ at Covent Gar­den mar­ket. “I have his hawk­ers’ li­cense at home. Dad would stand on the cart singing. Peo­ple would gather and they would sell socks. One at a time. If you were one legged you could get a bar­gain.” No time to dwell on this vi­gnette. We’re al­ready in Mon­treal where Ye­ston’s grand­fa­ther has now set up an Army and Navy store. It was a year be­fore they could af­ford to bring over Ye­ston’s singing fa­ther, David. By the time the war is over they have moved to New Jersey. Lit­tle Maury is play­ing the ukulele taught to him by his fa­ther, his grand­fa­ther is a chazan at a sy­n­a­gogue.... Where? But Ye­ston has lit­tle time for ques­tions and any­way, the im­por­tant thing is that at the age of five his mother is al­ready teach­ing him the piano. Then be­gins an ex­tra­or­di­nary ed­u­ca­tion that takes Ye­ston from yeshiva to Yale. Then Cam­bridge where he com­posed for Foot­lights. He wasn’t the only one to reach such aca­demic heights from mod­est be­gin­nings.

“One of my best friends went to my yeshivah, Steven Katz.” he mar­vels. “He went on to write the Ox­ford His­tory of the Holo­caust.... had lunch with him about two months ago, mar­ried a de­scen­dant of the Baal Shem Tov... se­ri­ous

naches.... bril­liant fel­low. And in my class at Yale there was [the Jewish aca­demic and for­mer Har­vard Pro­fes­sor of Modern He­brew] James Kugel, who wrote How to Read the

Bi­ble. How is it pos­si­ble for me to be so close to these Jewish guys who are the cream of Jewish in­tel­lect?” asks Ye­ston rhetor­i­cally, re­veal­ing more than a lit­tle naches him­self.

But the truth is Ye­ston is no shabby in­tel­lec­tual him­self. At Yale he was an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of mu­sic and founded Jazz stud­ies; he was the go-to mu­si­col­o­gist in the fa­mous BBC doc­u­men­tary on Broad­way Jews and his clas­si­cal com­po­si­tions in­clude a cello con­certo which was pre­miered by Yo-Yo Ma; and Amer­ica’s only full-length bal­let, based on Tom Sawyer. He is un­doubt­edly steeped in his Jewish­ness, though not al­ways hap­pily. His time at yeshivah, for in­stance, still casts a shadow.

“Ev­ery­one was Ortho­dox and the child of a rabbi,” he re­mem­bers. “I was the shay getz. I’m se­ri­ous! I wrote a song about it. When I was in the 8th grade — I’ll never get my re­venge — Rabbi Hirschman was sit­ting there and look­ing at the class. This was in 1957. He says, ‘You know, Hitler— Hitler gassed and mur­dered six mil­lion Jewish men, women and chil­dren be­cause of peo­ple like....’ and he points to me, ‘Moshe, who goes to a Chi­nese restau­rant and car­ries an um­brella on shab­bos….’

“This was a not a Euro­pean teacher who came to Amer­ica,” ex­plains Ye­ston. “This was a third gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can Ortho­dox Jew. And from that I learned there is prob­a­bly no greater hypocrisy than Ortho­dox Ju­daism.” He later reins this in a tad. He was talk­ing about all or­tho­doxy, whether Jewish, Chris­tian or any other re­li­gion, he main­tains. Although ac­tu­ally, he wasn’t.

“I re­vere my tra­di­tion but to me you know a re­li­gious per­son by the fact they are an il­lu­mi­nated hu­man be­ing. That guy was not an il­lu­mi­nated hu­man be­ing. Any­one who abuses a child in that way can call him­self an Ortho­dox Jew but he is a mon­ster,” he says.

Still, the ex­pe­ri­ence led to what he calls “a gift.” For Nine, which is set in Venice, he wrote a song called Belles of

Se­bas­tian about life in a Catholic school.

“A friend said, ‘How were you able to boil down to the quin­tes­sence my hideous ex­pe­ri­ence at Catholic school?’ I said, ‘By us­ing my hideous ex­pe­ri­ence at yeshivah.’”

As if need­ing to emerge from the dark nar­ra­tives of Nine, Ti­tanic and

Death... his next show, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with An­nie, The Pro­duc­ers, and

Hair­spray writer Thomas Mee­han, is an adap­ta­tion of the 1941 screw­ball com­edy The Lady Eve which starred Henry Fonda and Bar­bara Stan­wyck.

Lunch is over. Not that Ye­ston had any. He’ll be needed to make any last minute changes to the score be­fore the crit­ics are al­lowed in. As he gets up I ask if crit­ics are im­por­tant.

“Crit­ics don’t mat­ter what­ever they say,” he replies. “My se­nior pro­fes­sor at Yale said ‘Don’t read the re­views, just count them.’

And he’s right. If you’re im­por­tant enough for 30 peo­ple to write about you, that’s your prize.” And then he’s gone.

Talk­ing to Ye­ston is like cross­ing a mo­tor­way


Chris Peluso and Zoe Doano In Death Takes a Hol­i­day by com­poser Maury Ye­ston, be­low.

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