NEW YORK — Richard Maltby Jr. is temporarily flummoxed -- an unusual state for a protean workhorse whose simple, elegant wordplay has graced such Broadway musicals as "Baby," "Big" and "Miss Saigon" and whose direction has won Tony Awards for "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "Fosse." But the affable director, lyricist and musical book writer is brought up short when, in the course of discussing marital issues raised by his latest show, "A Time for Love," he is asked what broke up his first marriage.
"Oh, dear me! I'd be really hard-pressed to say, I have no idea. I guess Barbara and I just found ourselves suddenly in different worlds," says Maltby, 69, referring to his breakup in the mid-'80s from Barbara S. Maltby, a movie producer.
Joel Silberman, director of "A Time for Love," which opens Saturday at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, suggests the answer may lie in Maltby's lyrics to "And What If We'd Loved Like That?" The song is among the trove by Maltby and his longtime collaborator, composer David Shire, that make up the revue -- some original, some from their musicals and others from the trunk. The show anatomizes the marriage of a couple played by Lois Robbins and Brian Sutherland. "In that song, Richard touches on the feelings that go unexpressed, that missing passion that can lead to people to grow apart," says Silberman. "I'd trade the comfort that we bought / if only once we really fought / Yes, maybe still we'd not survive / but we'd at least have been alive!"
Adds Maltby a bit ruefully, "True, Barbara and I didn't have any fights .... "
That wistfulness is vintage Maltby, apparent not only in "A Time for Love" but also in "Baby," the 1983 Broadway musical, written with Shire, that will be presented in a Reprise! concert on Monday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, with Faith Prince and Alice Ripley. In the Maltby-Shire universe, love is sweet, at times deliriously so, but fraught with ambiguity and disappointment -- a restless and analytical state of mind that pitches their songbook somewhere between the simple homilies of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the astringent, hard-earned romanticism of Stephen Sondheim.
"There's no such thing as a clean relationship or an un-complex moment in marriage," says Maltby cheerfully, as he and Silberman sit in a midtown rehearsal hall, prepping "A Time for Love." "There's always a part of you saying, 'I'm so happy, I've never been so happy, you're the best thing that's ever happened to me' and a little voice saying, 'If you were only out of my life, I'd finally be able to breathe again.' "
The boyish Maltby is remarkably relaxed for someone who is concurrently working on no less than a half-dozen musicals. It's a situation as reflective of his past success as of the sheer scarcity of musical book writers.
Having written the screenplay for the recently released Renee Zellweger film, "Miss Potter," he is back to adapting the 1985 film "Mask" into a musical with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; readying "Take Flight," a musical with Shire about aviation heroes that premieres in London this summer; collaborating with his wife, Janet Brenner, and Ken Levine on "The '60s Project," a jukebox musical workshopped last summer at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut; and doctoring "The Pirate Queen," the latest Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg epic about Grace O'Malley, the 16th century Irish chieftain, warrior, lover and mother. That musical, which had a troubled tryout in Chicago, opens next month on Broadway.
What infects, or will infect, all of these shows is what suffuses "A Time for Love": Maltby's faith in romance -- or at least the chance of it. That theme has dominated his work since he met Shire when they were at Yale. Some critics have found his efforts to be occasionally cloying, as with his stumble last spring in "Ring of Fire," the surprisingly rosy Johnny Cash musical he conceived and directed. One reviewer characterized it as wresting with "a really bad case of the cutes."
But while the director is philosophical about the quick fold -- "When the producers approached me, I told them they had the wrong man, and maybe I was right" -- he is unapologetic for his "naively emotional" vision of a Johnny Cash America in which rural families plow forward through tribulation with honor and dignity. "I'm a sucker for that," he says.