Maury Yeston was one of the most successful composer/lyricists for the musical theater of his generation. Classically trained and with an extensive academic background, he tended to involve himself with projects that had close associations with other works, which in turn diminished the recognition his versions received, however successful they may have been. This odd juxtaposition extended beyond the usual circumstance that musicals are often based on earlier works in other media, as was Yeston's adaptation of the 1963 Federico Fellini film 8½ into the Broadway show Nine as well as Grand Hotel (which he co-wrote), drawn from the classic 1932 film that in turn took inspiration from the novel and play by Vicki Baum. Yeston's musical Phantom, based on the novella The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, predated the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical The Phantom of the Opera, at least as a composition, but the worldwide success of the Lloyd Webber version swamped the Yeston work (although it was staged extensively), and while Yeston's musical Titanic enjoyed a long run, director James Cameron's film Titanic, unrelated to the show but released in the same calendar year of 1997, became the biggest box-office success of all time, again appropriating subject matter from the songwriter. Despite such competition, Yeston could claim significant responsibility for three major Broadway musicals of the '80s and ‘90s, Nine, Grand Hotel, and Titanic.
Yeston was born on October 23, 1945, the son of David Yeston and Frances (Haar) Yeston, who ran an import/export business. Yeston's mother was also a pianist, and she began giving her son piano lessons when he was five. He attended Yale University, 1963-1967, majoring in music theory and composition. After graduating, he went on a fellowship to Cambridge University in England, where he obtained a master's degree in 1972, meanwhile beginning his career of writing music and lyrics for the theater by composing songs for Alice, a musical version of Alice in Wonderland, produced at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1970. Returning to the U.S., he obtained a doctorate from Yale in 1974, publishing his dissertation as a book, The Stratification of Musical Rhythm, in 1976, and he became a music professor at Yale. He still aspired to write for the musical theater, however, and his pet project was his musical version of 8½. While working on it, he made his off-Broadway debut writing a title song and incidental music for the play Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill, which ran 971 performances after opening on May 18, 1981. This marked the beginning of his collaboration with the director Tommy Tune. He was then commissioned by Tune to write the score for what was intended to be the director's next effort, a musical version of the French comedy La Cage aux Folles, to be reset in New Orleans and called Queen of Basin Street, but the project fell apart (only to be resurrected with its original title and a score by Jerry Herman), and Yeston returned to work on adapting Fellini, giving up his full-time position at Yale in 1981 to devote himself to it.
After almost a decade of preparation, Nine (directed by Tune) opened on Broadway on May 9, 1982, and Yeston won the Tony Award for best score. An original broadway cast album was released by CBS Masterworks Records and earned a Grammy nomination for best cast show album; the production ran 729 performances. It was revived on Broadway on April 10, 2003, for a run of 283 performances, and another cast album was released by PS Classics, co-produced by Yeston, who got another Grammy nomination for best musical show album for his trouble. A film version was released in December 2009, accompanied by an original soundtrack album on Geffen Records that reached the Top 100. (The 1988 Australian production also had a cast album, and there was a 1992 London concert recording, while the song "Unusual Way" has attracted covers by Karen Akers, Thomas Hampson, Rebecca Luker, and and others.)
With the success of Nine, Yeston again teamed with librettist Arthur Kopit, who had written the book for Nine, on Phantom. Kopit had obtained U.S. rights to the work, but it was already out of copyright in the U.K., and though Yeston had completed his version by 1983, financing for a production dried up after the better-known Lloyd Webber announced his plan to make a musical of the same property. Thus, Yeston's Phantom was not produced in New York or London, but eventually earned a production in Houston in 1991, then was recorded by RCA Victor Records for a studio cast album produced by Yeston and released in 1993. There have been many other regional and international productions since.
Yeston's next musical, One, Two, Three, Four, Five, based on the first five books of the Bible, had a three-week "work-in-progress" production off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club beginning on November 10, 1987, with a second, more developed, production for six weeks at the same venue a year later. (A revised version called History Loves Company was subsequently produced in Chicago, and after another revision, the show became known as In the Beginning.) Included in the score was the lullaby-like song "New Words," which became one of Yeston's more recorded compositions, attracting covers by Mimi Bessette, Andrea Marcovicci (on an album named after it), and Mandy Patinkin, among others. When the renowned Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim was asked to compile a list of songs he wished he had written, he included "New Words" on that list.
In 1988, Yeston's Goya...A Life in Song appeared in the form of a concept album on Columbia Records with Plácido Domingo singing the title role, supported by Gloria Estefan, Richie Havens, Dionne Warwick, and others. It was intended that the album would set up a stage production, but that didn't happen. The score included the song "Till I Loved You," recorded by Barbra Streisand and Don Johnson for a Top 40 hit. (It got to number three in the Adult Contemporary chart, and Streisand's Till I Loved You LP reached the Top Ten and sold a million copies.)
Yeston was brought in during out-of-town tryouts to work on the musical Grand Hotel by its director, Tommy Tune, who was looking for someone to augment the score written by Robert Wright and George Forrest. Yeston added five songs and revised many of the lyrics. Grand Hotel opened on Broadway on November 12, 1989, and ran for 1,017 performances. An original broadway cast album was released by RCA Victor in 1992.
Yeston was commissioned to write December Songs, a song cycle based on Schubert's Winter Journey, for Carnegie Hall, and it was premiered there by Andrea Marcovicci on April 16, 1991. Marcovicci recorded an album version co-produced by Yeston in May 1992, and it was also recorded by Harolyn Blackwell as part of her album Strange Hurt, also co-produced by Yeston, in 1994 and by Isabelle Georges with Stan Cramer at the piano (again produced by Yeston) in 2006. It was also adapted into a ballet by Lynn Taylor Corbett and premiered by the Carolina Ballet with Marcovicci in 2002.
Yeston's Titanic opened on Broadway on April 23, 1997. It won him his second Tony Award for best score and was recorded by RCA Victor for an original Broadway cast album produced by Yeston that reached the charts and earned a Grammy nomination for best musical show album; the show ran 804 performances.
Yeston continued to work on proposed musicals after the success of Titanic. His new musical version of Hans Christian Andersen was given a production in Maine in 2003, and he also prepared a musical based on the film Death Takes a Holiday. In 2006, he was himself heard singing a song, "Nowhere to Go But Up," from another work in progress, Ramayana, on the album If I Sing: The Songwriters Album, credited to Jamie deRoy & Friends. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi