Who are America’s Great Musical Composing Teams?
The Names Come Trippingly on the Tongue: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hart, Comden & Green, Gershwin & Gershwin, Lerner & Lowe, Harburg & Lane, Strouse & Adams, Cahn & Styne, AND…
By Hal Drucker
For me, it would be fascinating to ask each duo I’ve listed, which comes first, the words or the music?
Twenty-one years ago Sammy Cahn answered me this way:
“The phone call.”
I posed this question to David Shire (left) and Richard Maltby, Jr., as formidable a duo of musical comedy leading lights as have triumphed on or off Broadway for more than the past two decades. Shire offered me a mini-tutorial on how the two work. “With us, it varies. It might be the music first, a la Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart or the words first per Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Songs of Rodgers and Hart, he suggested, “tend to be more interesting musically in terms of where they go. With their intriguing chord progressions, jazz players gravitate more to Rodgers & Hart songs than to Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. A key exception would be John Coltrane doing My Favorite Things from Sound of Music.“
I know that both of you greatly admire Stephen Sondheim. Which of his songs do you wish you wrote?
“Hold it a moment,” Shire said. “ Sondheim has us on his list.”
Indeed, that incomparable master of song and verse, Stephen Sondheim, now 82, cited a Maltby/Shire song Travel among a short list of songs he wished he had written. "Travel," originally written for a musical version of Cyrano and produced by the Yale Dramatic Association, was later tucked neatly into the pair’s revue: Starting Here, Starting Now in 1977.
In the course of two consecutive days, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maltby and Shire, separately via phone, thus minimizing the prospect of one finishing the other’s sentences – they are that fascinatingly of a single mind. They have this in common, too; they are each 77, Elis from Yale, their fathers were band leaders and together they wrote a stirring stage song If I Sing, in tribute to their fathers
“What was the first play or musical you saw?”
Shire’s introduction to modern musicals were touring company productions of Guys and Dolls and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at the Erlanger Theater (since razed) in his hometown of Buffalo.
Maltby recalled that his was Carousel. “We sat in the balcony of the Majestic Theater on Broadway and I thought it was wonderful. I kept asking my mother, ‘when’s the carousel coming back’ and she would say, ‘next scene, next scene.’ Of course the carousel never comes back.”
The third bit of commonality between the two is that as septuagenarians they are enjoying what they regard as idyllic second marriages. In tribute to their “better halves” they were moved to write the whimsical Another Wedding Song for the revue, Closer than Ever, the thrust of which is “You are much more than being first. You are the first to be second.”
My introduction to the works of Maltby and Shire began benignly more than 23 years ago with a half-cocked ear to the Jonathan Schwartz radio show in New York (now presently on Sirius SatelliteFM, nationally). Schwartz, son of The Bandwagon composer Arthur Schwartz, is the one person on the music scene today who plays the kind of music, most notably Sinatra and Ella, to which seniors such as I gravitate.
That particular Sunday afternoon, I heard a ballad so hauntingly beautifully, with words so patently right for the times, sung by a woman with a glorious voice, who plays the role of a single parent (“a well-toned 49”) who “fought the battle of the ‘60’s” and was bucking younger “MBA’s making 50-thou” for a job that would barely cover her son’s college tuition which she dutifully paid “like a fine.”
I said to my wife, “Alice, quick you’ve got to hear this.” Schwartz advised that the song, Life Story, came from a marvelous show downtown at the Cherry Lane Theater called Closer than Ever, and that the singer I had just listened to was Lynne Wintersteller.
(To hear Wintersteller singing Life Story exquisitely on You Tube) Click or copy & paste: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rox7ADOEaCI).
Since she begins at the seven-minute I suggest you fast forward it to that point. For those of you without YouTube here are some tidy morsels I’ve plucked from Life Story.
”It was a liberated marriage
We shared the household chores of course
We understood each others feelings
Right down to the day of our sensible divorce
I didn’t ask him for a penny
I had my liberated training
So off he went with his hair of bronze
To find a life like Khalil Gibrans
I got my rest from the drugs he did
He got his quest,
I got the kid
I’m not complaining
So I set off to be a writer,
A modern mother on her own
I wrote up happenings at galleries
Turned down jobs with salaries
Stayed freelance and alone
I raised my son and I had lovers
My choices sometimes take explaining
I’d meet some jock
My friends would scoff
He’d stay a while
I’d drive him off
I kept my space
Preserved my turf
Six months I’d send him back to surf
I was not complaining
I fought the battles of the sixties
Which you recall were rather draining
When men were thick, I hit the hay
Became a prick
Got equal pay
I faced down chauvinistic slobs
I won the fights
Improved the jobs
I’m not complaining
And in the evening at my window
As I watch Jersey growing dim
I feel this troubling emotion
Summed up in this notion
I wished I’d stayed with him
Lord knows each day with him was madness
As I have spent my life maintaining
But more and more I recall the joy
My golden dreamer
My lost boy
Our life was life in the twilight zone
But no worse than a life alone
Well I chose my way
And I’m not complaining
© Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire
Each song in Closer Than Ever is a story, whether dealing with mid-life crises, love, friendship, second marriages, working couples, single parents and role reversals with parents. When it premiered in 1989, Stephen Holden of The New York Times, longtime and respected critic of the American Songbook saw it in a one hour version at a popular night club of the time, Club 88’s. He went on and on about the show and how powerful the songs were. It featured, in Holden’s words “one of the half-dozen finest American theater scores of the last decade. It’s not just devilishly clever. It’s one from the heart.” I could not agree more.
I took it a step further, advising Maltby and Shire that I had seen each of its three incarnations, respectively at the Cherry Lane Theater, the Queens Theater in the Park and the present staging at the York Playhouse, fortifying my estimation, that Closer Than Ever is one of the three finest revues I had seen in more than 75 years of theater going – the others being John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, with Harry Belafonte, Orson Bean, Hermione Gingold and Billy De Wolfe, and Harold Rome’s Call Me Mister, with Betty Garrett, Jules Munshin and Lawrence Winters.
“How wonderful,” enthused Maltby. “I’m particularly happy to hear of people who have never seen it or heard of it, finally coming to it. I’ll tell you what is quite remarkable. I stand at the rear of the theater. And as people come out, they are smiling or wiping the tears from their eyes. But mostly they recognize me and say thank you. The show seems to speak to people. It seems to have on-stage issues people don’t see very much of in live theater. People connect to it. ‘You have my own life up there,’ or ‘How did you know that about me?’ A woman sought me out last night at the theater. She was from Toronto and had a French accent. She read something about the show in a Toronto newspaper and decided that that was the show she wanted to see above all when she visited New York and she was so grateful.
“This is certainly an interesting show for your readership, a senior audience,” Maltby observed. I concurred. “I didn’t realize this at the time, but when the album first came out it was enormously popular at colleges and musical theater classes and people wore out the CD’s playing it. And those people are coming back to see the show now 23 years later. The almost universal responses were ‘Oh that’s what the songs are about.’ That‘s why so many of the reviews called the show, ‘Magical.’ Final comments: These are the best reviews that David and I have ever gotten. It’s a wonderment. People are doing handsprings over it. To some extent this is the kind of writing that musicals don’t have any more. We sell the original cast CD in the theater and keep buying it in lots of 75 and 100. People who don’t know the show want to hear this and take the album home. It has an enormous shelf life. Jonathan Schwartz has kept the show alive. He plays Life Story at least once a month.”
I told him he was so right about the CD. My wife and I have been playing the two-disc CD album relentlessly for 23 years. He advised, happily for me and you readers who have yet to see it at the York Theater, that the show will be extended through January 1 and possibly longer in increments of five weeks. My review of the revue sits below.
Maltby and David Shire began working together as students at Yale University. Their first Broadway credit was in 1968, when their song "The Girl of the Minute" was used in the revue in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1968. In 1977 the Manhattan Theater Club produced a revue of their earlier songs, written for other works, ultimately titled Starting Here, Starting Now. With composer Shire, Maltby was the director and lyricist for Baby, (1983) and the lyricist for Big, (1996).
“I was born in Wisconsin,” said Shire. “I lived for about seven years in and outside of Chicago. We then moved to Syosset, Long Island. At 13, I went to Exeter prep school in New Hampshire. Then I met David Shire at Yale. All good New Yorkers come from the Midwest.”
Maltby’s father, Richard Maltby, Sr. wrote the theme music for The Man with the Golden Arm. After studying briefly at Northwestern University's school of music, he left college to become a full time musician. As a conductor, he worked with such singers as Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Johnnie Ray, Vic Damone and Ethel Merman, and after he stopped recording on his own, he served as an arranger and conductor for Lawrence Welk on records and television. He played trumpet with several big bands, and also did some arranging. He died in 1991, at age 77.
“My father was a trumpet player and yet I don’t play anything. I can’t even play the piano,” Maltby, Jr. said.
But what Maltb, Jr. can do – is something fascinating to me as a crossword habitué of the New York Times Sunday puzzle, he was a constructor of cryptic crossword puzzles for Harper’s Magazine. To even conceive of creating such a puzzle I would find as daunting as deciphering E=mc2.
More important, he has conceived and directed the only two musical revues to ever win the Tony Award for Best Musical: Ain't Misbehavin’ (1978) based on music by Fats Waller and Fosse (1999) based on choreography by Bob Fosse.
Maltby married twice: first to Barbara Black Sudler in, 1965 (they have two children, Nicholas and David), and second, in 1987, to Janet Brenner (they have three children, Jordan, Emily and Charlotte). “I have a film maker, choreographer/director, singer/actress, an ex-rock drummer and a therapist whom I guess will take care of the other four.”
Shire was raised in Buffalo, same as famed playwright A.R. Gurney who wrote about WASP families. “We met in prep school. There were always Gurneys. They were all over the place. We talked about hooking up and doing something together. “My father – a society orchestra leader, played at coming-out parties and debutante parties and dance classes. My introduction to musical theater was my dad, who not only was a band leader but played all the songs because in those days, show music was pop music. He used to teach students on the piano the latest pop/show music. I was always in the house, listening furtively. I could sing If I Loved You before I could sing Do You Know the Muffin Man?
“I have a son Matthew, a screenwriter, the son I had when I was married to Talia Shire. My wife Didi Conn and I adopted a son Daniel who turned out to be autistic. Now 20, Daniel has made life more interesting. Didi is the National Celebrity Spokesperson for Autism Speaks. She and I have developed a children’s musical for television, an animated preschool musical, Didi Lightful. Conn, her husband, and their son Daniel divide their times between homes in New York and Los Angeles.
Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The brilliant cast of Maltby and Shire’s Closer Than Ever (L-R) George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll, Sal Viviano and Jenn Colella, held its own with the originals, Brent Barrett, Lynne Wintersteller, Richard Muenz and Sally Mayes, thanks to the tidy direction of Richard Maltby Jr. and the music direction and piano wizardry of Andrew Gerle. Noll and Colella have since joined the cast of Chaplin (which I will review shortly)in pivotal roles.
Closer Than Ever
York Theater Company at St. Peter’s
619 Lexington Ave.
The original closing notice of July 14 has been extended at least through January 1, 2013.
“Everybody is geared up for the show lasting through December and through January 1, and there is no particular reason for it to stop then,” Richard Maltby, Jr. told me. What that means is there is no excuse for not seeing Closer Than Ever in this present revival. The more things change the more they stay the same. It is hard to believe as Maltby observed that these people lived in a period before email, i-phones, apps, Skype-ing, Twitter, Facebook and all the modern impediments to human connection, not to mention the Tea Party. In thrilling to this newest version, the only change I observed was that Christiane Noll, who was glorious in the role that Lynne Wintersteller created, spoke of “those MBA’s making 90-thou, vis-à-vis 50-thou, coincident to the original anthem-like Life Story. Otherwise the lyrics and dialogue move seamlessly to 2012. Until I re-checked my notes, I frankly was unaware that I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning, Dating Again, There is Something in a Wedding and Back on Base, were written for this production while Sound of Muzak was dropped. In addition to Life Story, my favorite numbers were the comic songs: The Bear,The Tiger,The Hamster and the Mole and Miss Byrd sung by Jenn Colella.