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Who is Maury Yeston and what are his contributions to music?

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enotes | Valedictorian

Posted May 9, 2014 at 9:34 PM via web

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Who is Maury Yeston and what are his contributions to music?

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Kay Morse | College Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

Posted May 26, 2014 at 9:50 PM (Answer #1)

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Maury Yetson Background

Maury Yeston is one of America's lesser known though not lesser talented stage musical play composers and lyricists. He has won multiple Tony's for his Broadway musical productions, and his first Broadway hit, Nine (1982), was made into a 2009 movie musical starring such Hollywood greats as Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson and TV and band star, Fergie. 

Born in 1945 Jersey City, New Jersey, his parents were his English-born father, David, and his professional pianist mother, Frances. Both of Yeston's parents were musically talented, and his mother began teaching Maury to play piano when he was age five. His father sang for pleasure at home while his mother was a trained classical concert pianist, and his maternal grandfather was a musically trained cantor in their synagogue. As Yetson said in an interview for Playbill Magazine:

When you take a young, impressionable child and put him at age three in the middle of a synagogue, and that child sees a man in a costume, dramatically raised up on a kind of stage, singing his heart out at the top of his lungs to a rapt congregation, it makes a lasting impression. Something gets in your blood.

In the same interview for Playbill, Yetson observed that a good number of musical-theater composers and lyricists grew up in families with a Jewish cantor, such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill did. Yetson, with two sons from earlier marriages, presently lives in New York with his wife Julianne Waldhelm, enjoying travel as well as indoor and outdoor activities like cooking and kayaking.

Overview of Career

Yetson's first Broadway musical was Nine, which won 1982 American theater Tony Awards for best musical, score, director, and costumes. Grand Hotel, to which Yetson contributed, was nominated for Tony Award consideration. Titanic won 1997 Tony Awards for orchestration, book, score, scenic design, and best musical. Yetson also wrote a version of The Phantom of the Opera, but it lost funding when Andrew Lloyd Weber--with a solid string of West End, London, hits to his credit--announced the project for his phenomenal Phantom of the Opera (which made colossal stars out of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman). Consequently Yetson's Phantom never played on Broadway though it was well received at its full-scale opening in Houston, Texas, and has since been performed at over 300 worldwide theaters. Opera great, tenor Domingo Placido commissioned Yetson to compose a musical biography for Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, Goya Life in Song, which turned into a recording when Placido developed scheduling conflicts that prohibited developing Goya into a stage production. Two other projects Yetson developed are 1-2-3-4-5, which tells the story of the first five books of the Jewish Torah (same and the first five of the Christian Bible) and which was presented twice by the Manhattan Theater Club in the late 1980s, and December Songs, which is a song cycle adapted from Schubert's Die Winterreise and which was first presented at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1991.

Education

Playing piano at age five, Maury won his first award for composition two years later at the age of seven. Maury attended Jewish Yeshiva (Jewish/Hebrew school) until the 8th grade and learned about Jewish music, which has its own tonal and rhythmic structures. His attachment to musical-theater began when he was ten and was taken to see the biggest hit on Broadway at the time, My Fair Lady (1956 opening, 2717 performances) starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. The music, the thrill, the excitement and the musically supported story won Maury's imagination and talent. His breadth of involvement in musical genres continued to expand during high school at Jersey Academy as he explored jazz, folk and early music, and rock and roll through guitar, vibraphone (different from the still similar xylophone), and madrigal singing (madrigal: small group songs meant to express emotion contained in a poem).Maury did his undergraduate studies at Yale University with a major in music theory and composition and a minor in international literature in French, German, and Japanese. His love of language is instrumental to his ability to write lyrics. As Yetson told Mary Kalfatovic of Contemporary Musicians:

I am as much a lyricist as a composer, and the musical theatre is the only genre I know in which the lyrics are as important as the music. I write my own lyrics for the same reason I write my own music. They are equal avenues of self-expression.

After graduating from Yale in 1967, Yetson accepted the award of a Mellon Fellowship to Clare College, University of Cambridge, England, to take his master degree in musical composition (he composed a score for Alice in Wonderland, produced in 1971) after which he accepted a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to earn his doctorate from Yale, with the condition that he teach music at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the oldest degree-granting black college in the U.S., founded in 1854. Yetson taught music, art, philosophy, religion, western civilization and a course in black music that he originated.

While enrolled at Yale in a doctoral program, he also joined the New York BMI Musical Theatre workshop (BMI: Broadcast Music Inc.) where he concentrated on writing an integrated plotted musical narrative. His Yale doctoral dissertation on the stratification of musical rhythm received the honor of being published by the Yale University Press, and he received the honor of being asked to join the Yale music faculty as an associate professor. During his years on Yale's faculty, he was made director of undergraduate studies in music and twice received recognition as one of Yale's top ten professors. He continued his work at BMI and the result was Nine, inspired by film director Federico Fellini's 1963 comedy-drama film 8 1/2. having seen the film as a teenager, Yetson was inspired by its themes and wanted to pursue the same theme of an artist in artistic trouble, as he explained to Carol Lawson of The New York Times:

I looked at the screen and said That's me.' I still believed in all the dreams and ideals of what it was to be an artist, and here was a movie about an artist in artist in trouble. It became an obsession.

Nine

Nine opened in 1982 at New York's Broadway 46th Street Theater. The New York Times theater critic Frank Rich commented on the historic significance of Nine: "There's so much rich icing on Nine that anyone who cares about the progress of the Broadway musical will have to see it." While Yetson composed the score and lyrics, the book (script) for Nine was by Arthur Kopit while Tommy Tune choreographed and directed. Nine was a tremendous Tony winning hit for all who collaborated on it and ran for 732 performances, or two years. After writing Nine, Yetson switched to being an adjunct professor at Yale, teaching one course a year on song writing. Nine has played in many countries like England, France, Japan and Sweden.

[Nine] made it possible to teach less and write more. Of course there was pressure to follow up on [Nine's] success but, though future projects took a long time to get produced, the flow and quality of my work and level of writing output remained uninterrupted. (Contemporary Musicians)

Phantom

Yetson's next project was a musical version of French author Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera. He had written most of the score for his Phantom and was in the process of exploring funding in collaboration with Actor-director Geoffrey Holder, who had approached Yetson with the idea of turning The Phantom into an musical, when London's Andrew Lloyd Weber--genius behind wonders like Cats, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Starlight Express--announced his own Phantom of the Opera project (which has now become immortalized with more than 10,000 performances) for London's West End theatrical area. After the Weber announcement, funding was not available for a competing "Phantom" production. Still, Yetson did open in Houston and Phantom has had warm reception in many of the countries of the world. Yetson said in Contemporary Musicians that his Phantom "differs radically" because it is a "highly integrated book-and-score musical theatre piece" that tells the story of "the Phantom character of [a] deep pathos who, misshapen from birth, radiates the beauty of music from within."

Titanic

The world was inspired with fearsome awe when the remains of the steamer Titanic were found deep in the icy oceans that drowned and buried her in 1912. Yetson was among those inspired with fear and awe and with the desire to chronicle her tragedy in musical theater. The initial reaction to Yetson's idea was negative--why capitalize on and musically dramatize such tragedy?--yet the allure of the greatness and tragedy combined with the snapshot of the uniquely peculiar British culture represented by the Titanic won out in the end. Titanic opened at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1997 and proved its worth by winning five Tony Awards. As Yetson told BMI Music World:

In order to depict [the Titanic] on the stage, because this is really a very English show, I knew I would have to have a [musical] color similar to the one found in the music of the great composers at that time, like Elgar or Vaughan Williams; this was for me an opportunity to bring [to] the musical theatre an element of the symphonic tradition that I think we really haven't had before.

As Yetson summarized his career thus far in an interview for Show Music:

I don't think I'm in the world to be famous. I'm in the world to try and make wonderful music. [It] is just as noble a life pursuit to try to write one perfect solo melody that lives a thousand years, as it is to try to write a composition for 85 instruments that last an hour and a half. You don't have to be Gustav Mahler to realize your artistic goals as a composer.

Source: Mary Kalfatovic. "Yeston, Maury." Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 22. Gale Cengage, 2006.but was also a trained singer who was the cantor in their synagogue

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