Interview: Composer Maury Yeston Talks About Creating 'Nine', Writing 'The Star War Christmas Album'

Interview: Composer Maury Yeston Talks About Creating ‘Nine’, Writing ‘The Star War Christmas Album’

Back in 2002, Rob Marshall took the Broadway film Chicago and turned it into a big-budget Hollywood musical with names like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere. A few years later, Marshall tried to capture lightning in a bottle again by adapting Maury Yeston’s Nine.

The film was a major critical success, getting nominated for four Academy Awards and five Golden Globes. Rob Marshall had done it once again, with the help of his immense crew and the blessing, as well as the guiding hand of the show’s original creator, Maury Yeston.

We were lucky enough to speak with Yeston about his work on both the original Nine and it’s silver-screen adaptation, as well as possible film work in the future, and an interesting credit on his first published piece of music.

Check out the interview after the jump, and be sure to pick up Marshall’s Nine on DVD and Blu-Ray everywhere today.

The Flickcast: How did the idea of Nine first come to be?

Maury Yeston: I made it up in my head. It was the beginning of my career, I was in a workshop when my professor told us to come up with our own project. At the time, I was a film fan and I fell in love with this Fellini movie, so I just started writing it! Apparently it was so well thought of that it got developed, it got a staged reading in Connecticut, which turned it into a major production.

Believe it or not, Catherine Hepburn lived nearby and saw the production, so she wrote a letter to Federico Fellini. I didn’t even know that she was there, and I didn’t even know that she knew Fellini. Later on, when Tommy Tune fell in love with the show, I had to go to Fellini to get the rights to use it in the show, and he told me that he remembered this note from Hepburn.

I was very clear with him in explaining that this is his masterpiece and I can’t redo a Fellini movie about Fellini. All I can do is write a work of fiction inspired by his story. In the same way that South Pacific was based on a series of short stories called Tales of the South Pacific. So Fellini was gracious enough to give me the permission to do that, which was amazing.

TF: Now when Rob Marshall decided to bring the musical to film, how were you approached?

MY: I told Rob Marshall that in the same way I had been given permission to adapt this piece to the stage, which was essentially unmaking it as a movie and make it work so well on stage that you couldn’t even imagine it being a movie again. When Nine was done on stage, it was done as an abstract set, there were 20 women in the mind of the main character singing all night that we weren’t supposed to see but he saw, so it was completely reworked. So when Rob Marshall came to me, I told him that I have to give complete freedom to him and his team. I said that he should ignore me, because I think that film is a director’s art. You can’t point a camera at a stage and expect it to make a good movie, so I gave him the same freedom that I was given, and just asked for a ticket on opening night.

Given that, I was amazed when he called me three weeks later and asked if I would be involved and write some new songs and make a few changes. I was honored and I really had the time of my life, and I loved working with everyone involved.

TF: Speaking of new songs, what were you asked to add for the adaptation?

MY: There was no question about it, it was the exact same way it works on Broadway in the sense that the director literally gave me an assignment and said “these are our issues, and this is how we want you to address them”. So issue #1 was that Sophia Loren was playing the mother, and the song that the character sings on Broadway is written for a soprano, and Loren is definitely not a soprano. So instead of just writing everything in a lower octave, we decided to write a whole new song for Sophia that would have the same effect but that can really be tailored for her voice and brilliance as an actress.

Secondly, their notion of “Cinema Italiano” was a great assignment. In Broadway terms, not everybody is a musical theater expert but this piece was what we call in musical theater a “character song”. That song is something that not only defines a character, but it creates what is important to the story. Kate Hudson’s character was something they had created for the movie, and she is a kind of ditsy fashionista from Vogue who is high on Italian movies. She loves Guido’s movies for all the wrong reasons and is superficial, so when she sings this song, he comes to the realization that this woman that he’s attracted to likes his work for none of the right reasons. He sees how superficial she appreciates him, as opposed to how deeply and genuinely his wife does. It’s at that moment that Guide (for the first time) runs out of the room and doesn’t sleep with the girl.

So “Cinema Italiano” is not just a pop tune thrown into the movie, but it’s an important character song, which convinces the main character to make a turn-around in his journey and literally goes back to his wife.

The third song, “Take it All”, was Rob Marshall saying “the song that the wife sings in the Broadway show, she plants her feet on the stage, and everybody clasps.” But a film has action. So he had this idea that in the same way Guido had humiliated his wife in the harrowing revelation about how she became who she is, she would turn the tables by showing him the nightmare of his humiliation in watching men ogle her in a strip tease.

TF: It sounds like you had quite a time working alongside Rob Marshall and the crew of Nine. With Rob now moving onto Pirates of the Carribbean 4, many people have speculated that he’ll be bringing the musical element to the film. Would you be open to write a few numbers for the film?

MY: [laughs] I’d love to, but I don’t think he’s doing that. I joked with him the last time I saw him. We were at the Golden Globes and I said “so are we going to have a ‘Yo Ho Ho’ song for the pirates?” and he said “I don’t think so.” I would do anything for Rob Marshall in a heartbeat. He’s a wonderful director, and I had a blast working with him, and I love the medium of film, so yes, I would really look forward to doing more work in film.

TF: While Nine may have been your first major musical, it wasn’t your first work. You had actually written the lyrics for Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album and–

MY: [laughs] Oh, you got me now. See, that was my first gig, OK? I was a junior professor at Yale and a friend of mine said that there was this project that they were having trouble writing up some songs for it. At that time, I was writing musicals so I asked why they didn’t just make it a musical about R2-D2 and C3P0 being Santa’s little droids in space, making toys for the kids! And the next thing I knew, they said “write up a few songs!” So yes, I confess that my first opportunity to write something and have it recorded was a little album called Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album and I did actually get involved in writing the songs. [laughs] At the same time, I’m not the only guilty one. The album was produced by a record producer named Tony Bongiovi. He had a younger cousin in New Jersey, who was just starting out, and also got to write a little Christmas song for the album. And that was the first professional recording of somebody named Jon Bon Jovi. So I am not alone. [laughs] So that Christmas album has actually launched two careers!

Pick up Rob Marshall’s NINE on DVD and Blu-Ray everywhere today.