BY 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 reminded him that once upon a time — really, not so very long ago — crossover hits from Broadway could often be found at the top of the pop charts.
From Petula Clark singing “You’d Better Love Me” from “High Spirits” to various 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 all the way from my 1960s childhood home in Hawaii. Those hits 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.
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.’”
Recalling how his “Women on the Verge” was one of the 2010 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 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.’”
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.”
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.”
Yazbek adores Arabic music.
“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.”