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By LINDA BUCHWALD
Shortly after the musical Titanic opened on Broadway in 1997, its composer-lyricist Maury Yeston and bookwriter Peter Stone were looking for their next project together. "We really felt that having done the complete blow-out, no-question-about-it, 36-people-in-the-cast, 26-people-in-the-orchestra, massive grand epic musical, we really wanted to do a chamber piece---something really small," Yeston says. Stone suggested the 1928 Italian play by Alberto Casella, Death Takes a Holiday. In the show, Death takes human form and vacations to an Italian villa where he falls in love.
At first, Yeston needed persuading:"I said, 'Look. I don't want to write this. It's death death death.' And [Peter] said, 'No no no. To me it's holiday holiday holiday,'"
He adds, "I think that was the secret. That we could write something that would be a very funny, absolutely romantic, complete celebration of life, the opposite of what you might think, because the truth is Death takes the weekend off and nobody dies [during that time]."
Stone and Yeston became friends in the 70s and first worked together professionally when they were asked to help fix the 1989 musical Grand Hotel. "I think until Peter died, we probably chatted on the phone every day and probably twice on Sunday to talk about the crossword puzzle," Yeston says. "We would meet 2 or 3 times a week at the same Chinese restaurant on 70th St. and 2nd Ave. and talk. Musicals get talked into existence and that's what we did."
They had a draft of Death ready to show producers in 2001, but after September 11, a show with the word "death" in the title felt like a hard sell in New York. When they were ready to revisit the piece in 2003, Stone died of pulmonary fibrosis.
Though it was tragic for Yeston to lose his partner of many years, he never considered giving up the project. The first person he asked to continue Stone's work was Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray), who signed on. "I like the mystery of it. It's totally different from anything I've done before," Meehan says.
Yeston gave Meehan about 200 pages that Stone had written (a typical musical book is about 100 pages). Meehan trimmed it down and made changes to bring out the romance and the humor in the story.
Though Meehan has worked with collaborators, such as Mel Brooks, this show is different because he never discussed it with Stone. "I knew Peter very well. I was a good friend of his. I admired him a lot and I liked him a lot," Meehan says. "It was sad when he went, but I hadn't anticipated this. I didn't know anything about the project while he was alive."
The silver lining is that Meehan and Yeston found new collaborative partners in each other. Meehan says, "He talks about lines he'd like me to change. I talk about musical things I think he can do better. Everything is open. We can say anything to each other. You have to be able to do that. You can't tiptoe around and say that's a great number if you don't like it."
With a revised book in hand, the show was once again ready for producers, but this time the economic crash of 2008 interfered. After the worst of the crisis passed, however, Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout, committed to the show. It's now in previews and will officially open at the Laura Pels Theatre on July 21.
Yeston says it feels wonderful to finally see Death Takes a Holiday come to fruition. "Nobody cares how long it takes you to do something and nobody cares how long it takes to make its appearance. All they care about is this a wonderful evening of theatre," he says. "I'm a very patient man."
Linda Buchwald blogs for StageGrade and her own blog, Pataphysical Science. Follow her on Twitter: @PataphysicalSci