Death Takes a Holiday

January 17, 2012

Do you look for ravishing romantic beauty in your musicals? If so, Maury Yeston is probably on your list of favorite composers. Think of “Only With You” (Nine), “We’ll Meet Tomorrow” (Titanic) or “Love Can’t Happen” (Grand Hotel). If you are a regular follower of this column and took my advice last February, think of “I Will Paint Sounds” from Goya … A Life in Song.

The man knows how to craft a soaring love song or a joyful burst of exultation.

That he took on the project of making a musical of the play Death Takes A Holiday is not at all surprising if you look at the titles of the musicals above. He has a habit of taking on extremely romantic material. “Titanic romantic?” I hear you asking. Yes, in his hands along with those of book writer Peter Stone, the tragic tale of disaster on the frigid high seas became an overwhelmingly romantic treatise on love, destiny and duty.

The team of book writer Stone and composer/lyricist Yeston moved on from Titanic to attempt this musical about a weekend when Death abandoned his duties in order to assume a human form so he could learn what it is about life that human beings value so highly.

If the story sounds familiar, and you are a fan of Italian theater, you probably are thinking of Alberto Casella’s 1923 supernatural comedy. If you are a fan of the American theater you may be thinking of Walter Ferris’ 1929 adaptation. If you follow movies, you may think of the 1934 movie starring Frederic March or, if your taste is to more recent films, Brad Pitt jumps into your mind from the re-titled remake, Meet Joe Black.

Stone died at the age of seventy-three in 2003. At that point the musical was not ready for public exposure. The project was brought to completion by Thomas Meehan, the owner of Tony Awards for the books for Annie, The Producers and Hairspray. Both Stone and Meehan had strong story-telling skills and the resulting book sticks fairly close to its source material. Even its setting remains in the lake country of Italy in 1921 where a houseguest in the guise of a prince would be accepted without question, rich people dressed for dinner and and a glorious melody would feel right at home.

Yeston provides just such melodic glories. Yes, some of the melodies tend to demonstrate how you are supposed to feel rather than make you feel the emotion in question. Still, time and time again, you become aware of the beauty of the music. He’s particularly effective in communicating the joy of living, not only in the song “Life’s a Joy” but elsewhere in “Alive!”

There’s also the fun of life, his “Shimmy Like They Do In Paree” gets your feet tapping and puts a smile on your face.

The somber side of life isn’t ignored. Longing is communicated through a lovely long melody for “What Do You Do”.

Yeston isn’t just a composer, however. He is a lyricist and here he gives us a bit less magic. He and his book writers have clearly identified the points in the story that call out for musicalization and offer the most promise for affecting lyrics, and Yeston crafts lyrics that deliver plot points quite clearly while landing some telling emotional images.

But his points are rarely delivered with much subtlety and his rhymes are rarely clever. What is more, they can be seen a line or two ahead.

He often stretches to reach a point or a rhyme while being less than precise in his language. Some examples:

– “How will I know if I’m destined for somewhere far beyond what my eyes can see.” (Not “where” my eyes can see?)

– “Death is in the house / Bringing on this fear I’ve got.” (Does anyone refer to being fearful as having a fear?)

- “We’ll be ‘specially more thankful.” (I could see using either “‘specially thankful” or “more thankful,” but both?)

Still, he does come up with a fine phrase from time to time, as when Death longs to experience human existence as “to be inside the world of you.”

Perhaps his finest lyric is one of sadness. It is sung by Rebecca Luker as the mother of a character named Roberto who died during The Great War a few years earlier. Yeston compiles a host of memories to torment the grieving mother, topping it with “Look! In that mirror. Combing his hair. No Roberto where once a Roberto was there.”

The show had its Off-Broadway run last summer at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre. Julian Ovenden was set to star as the Prince who is really Death. He sang the role through most of the previews, but what was said at the time to be laryngitis kept him out of the final previews and his replacement, Kevin Early went in. By opening night, July 21, it was Early who was singing the role. Ovenden attempted a return, but the vocal problems continued and he had to drop out again. It is Early who sings the role on this recording.

The off-Broadway orchestra of 10 has been augmented by two additional violins and one cello playing the lush orchestrations of Larry Hochman. This gives a satisfyingly solid sound under and behind an impressive list of vocalists including Linda Balgord, Matt Cavenaugh, Rebecca Luker, Jill Paice, and Don Stephenson.

No Yeston score should go unrecorded. Each is too rich musically. This one is a welcome addition to any theater shelf.

Death Takes a Holiday
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Running time 66 minutes - 21 Songs
Packaged with notes, synopsis, full lyrics and 13 color photos
PS Classics PS-1104
List Price $15.95