Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lyrics and Lyricists Downtown: David Yazbek

Though he has only written the score for three Broadway musicals--The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown--David Yazbek is one of the best musical theater composer/lyricists of the 21st century. I'm still bitter that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels didn't win a Tony for new musical or score in 2005 (sorry Spamalot and The Light in the Piazza). Yazbek has a true gift for writing clever lyrics (it's the rare modern score that doesn't contain lyrics that make me cringe), so he was a perfect choice for the series Lyrics and Lyricists Downtown at 92YTribeca, despite his claims that he doesn't like writing lyrics.

Yazbek was joined on Monday night by director Jack O'Brien (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty, and currently Catch Me If You Can) for a casual and intimate evening of conversation and music, backed by a terrific band--Marco Paguia (music director, piano), Brian Hamm (bass), and Dean Sharenow (drums). They began by talking about how The Full Monty came about. Interestingly, it was Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza) who suggested Yazbek to O'Brien, because "his music has edge and he knows the hook of a song." If you didn't know that before, the performances throughout the evening proved it.

Patrick Wilson and John Ellison Conlee from the original cast of The Full Monty were joined by Sean Altman (best known for Rockapella) for "Big Ass Rock," a song about being such a good friend that you'd help your friend commit suicide (it's a lot funnier than it sounds). As somone who wishes I had seen The Full Monty on Broadway, this was quite a treat. "You Walk With Me" (Altmen and Yazbeck), "Man" (Wilson and Conlee), and "Breeze Off The River" (Wilson) were also performed. After that last song, O'Brien told Wilson not to stay away from musical theater too long, and I hope he takes those words to heart.

O'Brien and Yazbek described the process of working on the show as a joyous one and this was obvious from the easy rapport between both them and the actors. One of the highlights of this portion of the evening was Yazbek explaining that he didn't want to write a ballad or an "I want" song (he ended up writing both), so he tried to write an "I'm stuck" song. Wilson gave us a sampling of that song from the wings. ( "Standing in the middle of a parking lot.")

The next segment focused on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This time, it was Yazbek who wanted to do a musical based on the movie and he teamed up with bookwriter Jeffrey Lane, who subsequently wrote the book for Women on the Verge. Mylinda Hull (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) performed "Here I Am" and Yazbek mentioned that that there were some moments in that song where he was patting himself on the back while writing them--the two main ones being, "Sort of in a spin since Cincinatti," and, "This nice sincere sancerre is French." Those pats on the back were deserved.

Setting up the song "Like Zis/Like Zat," which Hull and Altman were going to perform, O'Brien was explaining how original Broadway cast members Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbara weren't dancers, but choreographer Jerry Mitchell said he could get them to dance for the dance break. There were some exclamations from the audience, and it turns out Jbara was in the audience, wanting to make it known that he could hear everything they were saying. Altman ceded the microphone to Jbara, who ended up joining Hull for a surprise highlight of the evening. It says something about the relaxed atmosphere of the evening that he would go up and perform unrehearsed. I still say that Andre is the role Jbara should have won the Tony for, let alone have been nominated for, but that's neither here nor there. Because O'Brien and Yazbek spent so much time talking about how the actors influenced the work in The Full Monty, I would have liked to hear about how this came into play with Norbert Leo Butz and John Lithgow, but there was a lot of ground to cover in one evening.

When they moved on to Women on the Verge, Yazbek made it clear he is very proud of the show, which was largely panned by critics. He sang a cut song, "My Crazy Heart," the Spanish-flavored original opener which was better than most of what made it into the show, but will be a bonus track on the cast recording. Hull sang "Lovesick" and although I thought Women on the Verge was very flawed, hearing the song out of context made me think that maybe there is a lot to the score that I misjudged. Laura Benanti performed the show-stopper "Model Behavior" in all its manic glory and it was a joy to see and hear again.

The evening ended with some of Yazbek's non-musical theater music, which is just as entertaining. I can't wait to see/hear what comes next from Yazbek, and maybe in a few years we'll get Lyrics and Lyricists Downtown: David Yazbek part 2.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

Cool! Thanks for the recap - I thought about going, but couldn't add it to my schedule. I am so fond of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS - I think it's hiliarious, brilliant, clever, etc. I love listening to it and always wish I could go see it just one more time - I think I saw it around 10 times and that just wasn't enough.

Linda said...

Wow, 10 times! I only got to see it once and would love to go back in time and see it again, but I'm glad I at least got to see it. As you can see from this post, I also love it. I'm so happy whenever I talk to anyone who understands its brilliance.

Gil said...

Oh man, I wish I went to this. Thanks for the report. I love David Yazbek, but you knew that.