The Musical Methods of Maltby and Shire
How the “Closer Than Ever” team creates their beloved shows
In the program for the first major New York City revival of Closer Than Ever, now at York Theatre Company, lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. adds an insightful note: “If from time to time you catch the faint whiff of people talking about a different age, well, they are.”
The show is a revue of thematically linked songs about, as one number puts it, “overeducated, understimulated, overoptimistic, underprepared” thirty- and fortysomethings looking for love, direction, and fulfillment. It debuted Off Broadway in 1989—about a decade before e-mail, Facebook, Skype, and cell phones transformed the way we communicate—but rather than retool the musical for the modern age, Maltby and his longtime collaborator, composer David Shire, more or less left it alone. Aside from a pair of new songs and the odd updated reference—a joke about Dan Quayle now uses Glenn Beck as the punch line; a depressed widow sings about having lost her wife instead of her husband—Closer Than Ever hasn’t changed much since the first Bush presidency.
Not everyone involved was initially convinced that was the right way to go. “[Co-producers] Neil [Berg] and Adam [Freidson] were on a big campaign to get us to write a new opening number,” says Shire. “They said, ‘Write a song that will make the audience see the show in a contemporary way.’ But we thought, what are we going to write? Put in a number about the internet and it will make everything else seem older rather than newer.”
And yet Closer Than Ever isn’t a nostalgia trip. With clever songs about unrequited love, secret lunchtime trysts, broken marriages, and aging parents, the emotions are still relatable today.
This production, which closes out the York’s season dedicated to Off-Broadway musicals of the past, started life two years ago as a limited-run revival at the Queens Theatre in the Park. In that incarnation, George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano starred alongside cast members from the original production, Lynne Wintersteller and Sally Mayes, but along the way, the vets dropped out and were replaced by Christiane Noll and Jenn Colella.
With the all-new cast, Maltby and Shire feel like they’re working on an entirely different show. “They’re finding every little nuance,” says Maltby. “I keep saying to people who know the show, come see it because it’s a revelation. It certainly is to me. And I was always very happy with the other versions!”
Maltby’s also directing this production, and he feels his intimacy with the material allows him to bring out the best in the performers. “I’ve made the mistakes already, so I know when it’s not worth going down a certain road,” he says. “These are tricky songs. They all have traps in them: They have pretty melodies, but you must not sing them pretty. They need to sound conversational, but you must not vary from the strict written rhythm because otherwise the sentences don’t make sense.”
Shire adds, “We write a curious kind of song. They don’t go for the jugular like a Jerry Herman tune. As soon as you try to do something with our songs other than what’s intended, the audience backs away and [the songs] become intellectual. It’s a natural tendency of an actor to go out rather than go in, and that’s why it saves time when Richard directs.”
Maltby and Shire’s collaboration dates back to their college days and includes the Broadway musicals Baby and Big. Their creative process is uniform. “We talk through an idea, maybe come up with a title or a line, and then David writes these quirky melodies that have surprising speech patterns in them,” explains Maltby. “Then I go back and craft something that really makes use of the zigs and zags. We always say that the words are already in the melody—it’s just a matter of hammering them out. David comes in and saves my ass all the time. Many of the lines are his.”
“I’m a frustrated lyricist and he’s a frustrated composer, so we take every advantage of each other,” Shire adds. “We’re after the same end result. We’re not that proprietary about what we do…”
Maltby finishes his thought. “Both of us, left to our own devices, will write generically. It’s not until the characters start talking that we find our way.”
So what’s next for the team? After all, they also wrote the 70s revue Starting Here, Starting Now about the romantic struggles of twentysomethings. Is there an AARP musical coming our way?
“We have things in the works,” says Shire, smiling slyly. “At times we feel like dinosaurs. We wonder, do we only know how to do stuff that’s retro? But we realize we’re not writing for people in their twenties anymore.”
Raven Snookregularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Carol Rosegg