Stories & Cast Interviews
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Maury Yeston: The WBT Interview
WBT Blog chats with Maury Yeston By Jon Chattman Maury Yeston's version of Gaston Leroux's tale.
Maury Yeston's version of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera never made it to Broadway, and the legendary composer and musicologist couldn't be happier. For over a decade, the show, which he co-wrote with Arthur Kopit (the duo won two Tony Awards for Nine- Yeston has another two for his work on the Titanic musical), has become an international smash, playing regional theatres across the country and abroad, earning raves everywhere it goes. "They nickname it 'the biggest show never to play Broadway,'" Yeston said proudly in an interview with WBT last week. "It's succeeded both critically and commercially all over the world. The public has taken this show to its heart and that's a far greater experience than being on Broadway." Phantom was originally poised to hit the Broadway stage in the late 1980s, but when Andrew Lloyd Webber went public with his intentions for a show of his own (we know how that turned out), financing fell through for Kopit and Yeston's version. While ALW's show became a hit on Broadway, the duo explored other avenues (Yeston went on to make Grand Hotel for Broadway) - that was until 1991 when the show played to raves at Theatre Under the Stars in Houston. That success led to additional productions, notably at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Musical Theatre and the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Chicago.
Westchester Broadway Theatre brought Phantom to its stage for the first time in July 1992. The show broke records and became WBT's longest-running show in its 33-year history. The show returned in 1996 and found similar results. With that said, it's no wonder why the production is back at WBT now through Feb. 9, 2008. We spoke to Mr. Yeston days after he saw the latest WBT production, and asked him all about this current incarnation, what the show has meant to him, and of course, what projects he currently has up his sleeve. As it turns out, he's hard at work penning new songs for the film adaptation of Nine, which will be directed by WBT alum and Oscar nominee Rob "Chicago" Marshall.
It's a pleasure to speak to you. First logical question, what do you think of WBT's current production of Phantom I saw all three productions [at WBT]. I think the current production is absolutely splendid. It’s the best one they’ve had yet. With the combination of their design, use of hydraulics, and use of space, there’s a fluidity and theatricality to it that’s really unparalleled. The cast is just extraordinary. Aaron Ramey and Kate Rockwell are just extraordinary. They’re top-notch and both have huge careers ahead of them. This production could go into a small Broadway house tomorrow. I’m really proud…
What do you think of Westchester Broadway Theatre in general? Have you seen other productions? Oh yes... It's one of the great jewels in the crown of American Theatre. They draw upon world-class talent from New York and locally. They draw brilliant directors and have a tradition of starting brilliant young people who can say they got their start at Westchester Broadway Theatre. They’re one of the first ones and one of the best in the world. And, I’ve traveled all over the world. They’re right up there with the top: Chicago, Boston, Houston, Silicon Valley…The Westchester community should be extremely honored to have them.
Your show is labeled the "other" Phantom, but many critics seem to point out how much better it is than Andrew Lloyd Webber's version. What do you make of the success Phantom has had despite not being on Broadway? It's earned its right with audiences all over America. It used to be you'd do a show on Broadway, it gets the attention of the whole world, and maybe you win a Tony Award. [If you couldn't get the show on Broadway], you'd rent it out to regional theatre. Broadway was where you'd see cutting-edge new shows, and regional theatre was where you'd see yet another Guys and Dolls or Oklahoma. There's been a massive shift. Now, very much what you see on Broadway is - 50-to-75 percent revival and regional theatre is where you see an exciting new show. My show Phantom travels around the country from [large to small venues.] The production of our Phantom had a way of uniting all theatres around the world for what was a massive hit. This is a unique show. Arthur and I worked very hard. We did it out of the love of the subject matter long before Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Have you seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's version on Broadway? I've never seen the show, and I'm sure he's never seen mine, but I have tremendous respect for him. The only thing I did the same way Cameron Mackintosh did was, I invested in logo design for the show and made it available. We're also very fortunate to have done an album. Anywhere the show is, people can buy the cast album. It has an all-world marketing effect without having to be on Broadway.
If the opportunity came along for your Phantom to be on Broadway would you consider it? Never say never, but I have no interest in doing it at all. There's already a Phantom on Broadway, why would you want to see two? There's one Phantom on Broadway, but my Phantom's been everywhere - twice in Japan. It wouldn't make sense.
Shifting gears, I understand you're writing new songs for the film adaptation of Nine. How is that coming along? It's thrilling, isn't it? The same people doing it made Chicago. From everything I'm reading, they seem to be putting together an extraordinary cast in the film...Sophia Loren, Javier Bardem...Penelope Cruz, and Marion Cotillard of La Vie En Rose. They've asked me to write a number of new things. It's an absolutely thrilling experience. I told [director] Rob Marshall on no uncertain terms that I'd follow him to the ends of the earth; whatever he needed to do, I'd support it. The important thing when a stage musical is being made into a film is it's very important that it be allowed to change and morph as a film rather than keeping it in stage form. My first job was to make sure the creative team of the film [knew] they have liberty and the full support of author to make any changes. The worst thing an author can do is constrict or get in the way of the ability of a filmmaker. The first thing I did was to communicate to the team 'you must know you have my full support whatever you need to do. When maestro Fellini gave me permission for Nine- I was inspired by 8 1/2- I thought it was a great gift to allow my being inspired by his own work to inspire the vehicle for my own creative expression.
Can you explain the experience of writing something new for something two decades old? The funny thing is Nine was way ahead of its time. It never gets old. It goes back to Fellini's film. The show always seems current. It was so cutting edge and will always be avant-garde. This is a golden opportunity for me. When I was first writing for Guido, I was a younger man than Guido was. Now, I'm a man older than Guido is supposed to be. I have a different perspective now. It's tremendously exciting. It feels right. I think I'm really lucky to have a chance to do this. I'm still inspired by this piece and always will be. For example, for the 2003 revival, when I knew Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera were starring, the first thing I did was write a tango for them. I was like 'My God...Antonio and Chita? They must dance together."
Aside from Nine what other projects are you working on? It's starting to look like Death Takes a Holiday, based on the movie and a book initially written by Peter Stone who wrote Titanic, will play next Broadway season. I'm very hopeful. Peter died several years ago, and I'm very fortunate current book author Thomas Meehan (Young Frankenstein) is helping us go forward. I'm also very excited for another show I'm putting together. It's a labor of love in which the widow of Frank Loesser has given the rights to me for Frank's wonderful music of Hans Christian Andersen.
Would you ever consider debuting a new work at WBT? I wouldn't remotely overlook the possibility a new musical could debut at Westchester Broadway Theatre. The question is would the subscriber base and patronage be interested in seeing shows in their early forms. One reason Boston is so good to perform new musicals is that the Boston audience likes to see the changes and improvements along the way. If that kind of psychology could get started at WBT, it could be quite wonderful.
LoHud: The men behind the Phantom's mask
When Bill Diamond casts an actor, it's not a typical casting call. Just ask Aaron Ramey, who plays the title role in "Phantom" now at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. "They kept asking me if I was claustrophobic and warning me: 'You're not going to be able to see or talk or move really through this whole thing,'" Ramey recalls. Before the casting started "I was thinking, 'Gee. I don't think I'm claustrophobic. I hope I'm not claustrophobic. I'm pretty sure I'm not claustrophobic.'" After Ramey was cast by director Tom Polum - chosen to play the masked figure haunting the Paris Opera House in the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit musical - he was cast again by Diamond, fitted for the Phantom's signature mask.
The second casting involved getting covered in a cool plaster called alginate - with only nostril holes providing air - and sitting perfectly still while the material hardened. "The only time I had a slight freakout was after I was all done up and they were waiting for me to dry," Ramey says. "And, of course, Bill lied," the actor says with a laugh. "He said it was going to be five minutes and five minutes later, he said, 'We gotta go. He's got about 15 minutes left. And they all left the room. That was the only moment I was like, 'I really don't like being alone.'" In his defense, Diamond says there was someone in the room with Ramey at all times, but Ramey couldn't see or hear them. Diamond, who runs the Cornwall-based Bill Diamond Studios, is a puppeteer, TV producer, and CEO. He was the man who created and manipulated the Audrey II plant for WBT's recent production of "Little Shop of Horrors." Full Story
Maury Yeston raves about WBT and Phantom
Stay tuned for our full interview with Mr. Yeston... in the mean time, see what he's saying about the show and WBT!
On the production: "I think the current production is absolutely splendid. It's the best one they've had yet. With the combination of their design, use of hydraulics, and use of space, there's a fluidity and theatricality to it that's really unparalleled.
The cast is just extraordinary. Aaron Ramey and Kate Rockwell are just extraordinary. They're top notch and both have huge careers ahead of them. This production could go into a small Broadway house tomorrow. I'm really proud..."
On Westchester Broadway Theatre: "Westchester Broadway Theatre is one of the great jewels in the crown of American Theatre. They draw upon world class talent from New York and locally. They draw brilliant directors and have a tradition of starting brilliant young people who can say they got their start at Westchester Broadway Theatre. They're one of the first ones, and one of the best in the world. And, I've traveled all over the world. They're right up there with the top: Chicago, Boston, Houston, Silicon Valley...The Westchester community should be extremely honored to have them."