Lyricist and director Richard Maltby, Jr. has been in London to direct a revised version of his Off-Broadway hit, Closer Than Ever (written with long-time collaborator David Shire) which has received its European premiere at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre.
With Shire, Maltby, Jr. has also written lyrics for Starting Here, Starting Now, Baby, Closer Than Ever and the musical Big. With the team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, he wrote lyrics for the international hit Miss Saigon (a new revival of which opens next week at the Prince Edward Theatre). Maltby directed and co-wrote with Don Black the American adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance, and also conceived and directed two Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals: Fosse and Ain’t Misbehavin’. As a lyricist, again with Shire, he wrote the new musical Take Flight, which had its world premiere in 2007 in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Closer Than Ever began life as a small revue in a New York nightclub in 1989. Now, more than 20 years later, a revised version has been revived Off-Broadway and is back in London for its European premiere. Does the show’s longevity surprise you?
There was a time when musicals didn’t really have futures, but that has dramatically changed in recent years. All of the shows David and I have written continue to be performed around the world. And in our case, one particular fact (we have learned) has contributed to their longevity. Because we tend to write theatrical songs that require both singing and acting, our songs are regularly assigned in music schools and musical theatre training programmes in universities.
In the past 25 years, the number of universities offering such training has skyrocketed. Almost every major university has a musical theatre programme today, which not long ago ago existed only in a few conservatories. So every year there are large crops of young people entering mainstream theatre who have grown up on our songs. And these are the people who soon start to schedule programmes in theatres around the country. We’ve become kind of mythic – we’re the guys who wrote “all those songs”. And because the songs are character-based, they tend to remain fresh. They don’t date.
Even though most of the songs in Closer Than Ever were written in the 1980s, the interpersonal issues they deal with seem to speak just as vividly to audiences today as they did 25 years ago – and God willing, that will continue into the indefinite future. And also, these are songs that come from the heart of real people who have lived a bit, which means they speak in different ways to audiences of different ages. In fact, the comment that amuses and delights us most is the one that comes from people who first heard Closer Than Ever when they were students when the first cast album was released, and who are coming back to see the show again. What they often say is: “So that’s what the songs are about!”
In this version, I believe new songs have been added etc. Could you tell us a little more about these changes?
There aren’t that many changes. We cut one song, ‘The Sound of Muzak’, because it was the only out-and-out revue number in the original production, the only song that was not character-based – and replaced it with ‘Dating Again’ which is about the horrors of re-entering the singles market after a divorce at 40 (definitely in the same world as the rest of the show). The song ‘Like a Baby’, which is on the original cast album, was actually replaced a week after we opened originally in New York by ‘I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning’ – so it has in fact never been in the show. And ‘Something in a Wedding’ was a song we wanted to put in the original production but didn’t because we couldn’t find a workable vocal arrangement. Small changes, but they have had an enormous impact on the totality of the show, which now has a universal thematic unity: a series of, well, short stories about adults in the modern world.
Do you think the continuing popularity of Closer Than Ever has to do with the fact that it has themes in it with which everybody can identify?
Absolutely! The songs came from real life, from our lives and from stories and observations friends told us, so they have the complexity and the oddity of reality. To our surprise, this has meant that many of the songs and emotions expressed by our characters are feelings that many people have felt deeply in their lives but which are not often addressed in songs. At the recent production at the York Theatre in New York, something very surprising happened. People would come up to David and me in the lobby afterward and say “thank you”. Not “I really enjoyed the show” or “That was a great evening” – “thank you!” and usually delivered with substantial emotion.
This happened often enough so that David and I started to realise that Closer Than Ever must have spoken to those people in some personal and meaningful way. We began to think that no two people in the audience actually saw the same show, as different moments connected to different people in ways we could never know. That is the miracle of the theatre really, and it is profoundly satisfying to imagine that we produced that reaction.
Do you enjoy directing your own work wherever it is feasibly possible?
I do enjoy directing my own work, but not for reasons you might expect. Because of the way I write, which is usually a process of channelling the character through the music, I actually have very little memory of the writing process – so in rehearsal, I come upon the writing almost as if someone else wrote it. Which simply means I don’t have a sense of ‘do it my way’ which would make me not at all a good director for my material.
The major asset I bring to directing the songs is that I do not burden the actors with wrong choices. I came to London very much looking forward to working with the cast, whom I had never met. John Yap, the show’s producer and producer of the most recent cast recording, cast the show. I trusted him completely because he knows the talent pool of brilliant London musical theatre performers better than anyone (since he regularly records shows in London). Since he also knows Closer Than Ever backwards and forwards, I trusted his choices. And what a brilliant group he assembled. In many ways this is the best cast ever. They keep finding new things inside the lyrics, some that surprise even me.
You have had great success with your own work as well as with your lyrics for shows such as Miss Saigon, and Song and Dance, which you rewrote and directed for Broadway. Out of your slightly lesser-known works (Nick and Nora, The Pirate Queen, The Story of My Life, Take Flight, Baby), which one would you love to have another look at?
I love them all, but Baby is my baby, and its score never fails to thrill audiences. The show keeps getting rethought for new generations, and it is time for London to have a new first-class look at it.
You obviously come from a musical family as your father was a musician. Was your career in musical theatre fairly inevitably mapped out from an early age?
I guess it was. My father was a brilliant musical arranger and I grew up going to his recording sessions and sitting in the orchestra. I think I got a sense of structure from the immaculate architecture of his arrangements of songs. My mother wanted to be a ballet dancer until she got out of college and got married. There must be something I got from that gene pool too. I had a marionette theatre when I was young, and actually wrote a musical that got produced in eighth grade. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have a lot of friends in school who shared my interests but I was not lonely or unhappy. I loved making up shows. But I should also mention that David’s father was a band-leader too, in Buffalo, New York. We wrote the song ‘If I Sing’ to examine the subterranean debt we both owe to our fathers, who influenced more that they would ever have known.
You met your writing partner, composer David Shire, at Yale. How has your collaboration worked? Do you write together or alone?
We met as freshmen at Yale. David wanted to write music for musicals, I wanted to write lyrics for musicals. We had to work together; there was no one else who shared our interests. I often think how lucky I was to find myself thrust together by accident with someone who would turn out to be a world-class composer. It could so easily have been otherwise. We wrote two musicals at Yale that the Yale Dramatic Association produced. There was no musical theatre writing programme at Yale at the time. The musical theatre programme at Yale was: we wanted to write musicals so we did.
We write separately then get together and hash out the final version, to which we both contribute. But before any writing occurs, we do a lot of talking. When people ask, which comes first, the lyrics or the music, we always say: the idea.
We notice that Big is having a production by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland this year. Will it go further than that?
This is a student production, so I doubt it will move. But over the years Big has come close to having a major London production, and I hope it will still happen, It’s a crowd-pleaser of a musical.
Has being a crossword fiend ever helped you with the writing of lyrics?
There is something about lyric-writing that seems to make lyricists crossword puzzle freaks, particularly the British cryptics, which I contribute to Harpers Magazine every month. I learned cryptics from Stephen Sondheim, who introduced them to America in New York Magazine when it began publication in the 1960s. Later I took over from him. Sheldon Harnick and Stephen Schwartz regularly do my puzzles, as do a number of other writers I know. I think it comes from the fact that lyric-writing involves the purely technical manipulation of language in order to express something, so we lyricists are always dealing with the minutiae of meaning and rhythm. And we know well how much the English language, with its multiplicity of meanings and idioms, can come back and bite you on the nose if you are not really responsive to every nuance. Writing lyrics is in itself a kind of puzzle, so the affinity to crosswords is natural.
Compiled by Michael Darvell
Maltby & Shire’s Closer Than Ever continues at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London until 7 June.
Readers may also be interested in:
Closer Than Ever – Jermyn Street Theatre – Review