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Maury Yeston knew he could count on 'Nine'

The musical's composer and lyricist reveals how seeing Fellini's '81/2' as a teen in 1963 inspired him to one day build on the Italian director's work.

December 13, 2009|By Cristy Lytal

Lyricist and composer Maury Yeston was still a teenager when Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece "8½" first reached cinemas.

"I really just wanted to grow up and turn that into a musical," he said. "And the first chance I had to do it was when I was in this BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in my early 20s, and I began to write that as my project. I called it 'Nine,' because I figured that I'm doing a musical based on '8½,' but I'm adding a little music, so that's worth at least another half a point. It was sort of a joke, and I never expected in a million years that it would ever be produced."

While nothing could have prepared Yeston for the success of "Nine" -- which won seven Tony Awards for its 1982 premiere (five) and 2003 revival (two), and will open as a movie musical Dec. 25 -- the Jersey City native always knew that he was bound for the Great White Way. "One of my camp counselors when I was 6 years old was Jerry Herman, who wrote 'Hello, Dolly!' It's amazing the number of people who have come from Jersey City who have gone into musical theater. When you live just across the river from New York, it's as far away as Oz and as close as your hand. And so it becomes the dream place."

Yeston started playing the piano and writing music when he was 5 and won his first composition award at 7. After seeing the original 1956 production of "My Fair Lady," he devoted himself to musical theater. He honed his craft at Yale and Cambridge, and served as the director of undergraduate studies in music at Yale while continuing to write "Nine" on the side. "You have to try to imagine a 17-year-old boy looking at an Italian movie and falling in love with it, and then waking up many, many years later to go see what looks to him like the same movie, except his songs are in it now," said Yeston. "Honestly, I can't believe that that's my life, but it is. That's what happened."

Grazie, Maestro: After Yeston wrote "Nine," he still found himself "8½" short of having a viable musical. "I had to fly to Italy and ask Federico Fellini permission to do it. I'll never be able to express my gratitude enough to him for trusting me with his masterpiece. He invited me back to Rome to spend some time with him after the show was a hit in the early '80s, and I did. He took me to his office at Cinecittà, where he was working on a new movie, and took me on a tour of that. And he had me play the score of 'Nine' for him on the piano and asked me all sorts of questions about it. He was very, very kind to me."

First up: Which comes first -- the music or the lyrics? "In terms of dramatic things like musicals, the answer is that it's not really the music and it's not really the lyrics," Yeston said. "It's really what is the premise of the song, because that will tell you what the character's response is to the dramatic situation. For example, in [one of the three new songs written for] the film version of 'Nine,' [the Fellini character has] taken away [his wife's] privacy, and he's humiliated her for the sake of making his work better. And so I realized the song should be called 'Take It All.' Once I understood that, I was able to write the song because the idea of the song was there."

So French: In addition to classical and jazz, Yeston points to French music as a big influence. "There are numbers in 'Nine' like 'Folies Bergère' that have a distinctly French connotation. In the case of 'Folies Bergère,' director Rob Marshall said the number was going so well with Judi Dench that they had to make it longer, so I added a couple of choruses. But I think there are French influences in my music because, when I was a kid, I loved Maurice Chevalier and Piaf, and I loved 'Gigi.' And it's not only me. American composers have a love affair with France. I think of the Cole Porter songs 'I Love Paris' and 'C'est Magnifique.' We love that culture, and that's part of me too."

Form-fitting: "A song can have its own form in order to tell a story. You don't have to write a simple 32-bar song form. There's a song in 'Nine,' sung by Marion Cotillard, called 'My Husband Makes Movies.' When I wrote it, I actually interrupted the song, and put a song inside the song. She's singing about how she's going to live with herself in spite of the fact that she knows that her husband may be philandering. And then, right in the middle of the song, she stops herself, and she remembers what it was like 20 years ago when they were in love, when they first met and when the last thing in the world he would have thought of was cheating on her. And then somehow, she comes back to the present. There's an example of the boundless possibilities of lyrics and what you can do inside a song."

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