David Yazbek is a composer who really got my attention about 15 years ago, not just for his wonderfully melodic musicals and his sharp, often hilarious, lyrics, but for the fact he is not afraid to create musicals that have a touch of the great musical comedies of the 40s and 50s. That is not to say that his style and musicals are dated. His work is contemporary, but it brims with the musical comedy joy that seems to be void in much of Broadway's current market (It's okay to laugh and to enjoy a great melody, people).
Yazbek's first big Broadway outing was with the musical The Full Monty, which had the great misfortune of opening in the same season as the gut-busting Tony hog The Producers. In any other season, The Full Monty would have walked away with half of the awards. The music is bright, funny, tuneful and heartfelt, and the story adapted by Terrence McNalley (based on the popular film), was timely (it still is). It is a testament to the musical's strength that, despite not winning a single Tony, it ran for a solid 770 performances. Yazbek perfectly captures the characters through song, blue collar steelworkers who find themselves out of work. Ditties such as "Scrap", "Big Ass Rock" "Man" and "Breeze Off the River" don't merely paint these men as caricatures, but rather, they infuse them with personality and heart. We feel their struggles, laugh with them in the face of adversity, and delight in their absurd plan to become strippers to support their families.
My favorite Yazbek show is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It remains, to date, the only Broadway musical that I saw as a matinee and, upon leaving the theatre, bought a ticket at the box office for the evening performance. It also happens to be one of the last times I left the theatre with an enormous smile on my face. It doesn't mean I haven't liked other shows, it just means Dirty Rotten Scoundrels gave me what I was looking for: downright musical comedy with a cheeky sense of humor. How rare it is, in this day and age, that we get both melody and humor in a Broadway musical. "Great Big Stuff", "What Was a Woman to Do?", "Oklahoma?" All About Ruprecht", "Here I Am", and "Dirty Rotten Number" are all wickedly delightful, but the piece is balanced with such pensive songs as "Nothing Is Too Wonderful To be True" and "Love Sneaks In", keeping the ribaldry and audacity in check. Jeffrey Lane's book, based on the 1988 film by the same name, brims with sarcasm and wit (my favorite brands of humor) and the whole show is just a jolly good time. I find myself humming the melodies often and laughing out loud when I think of any lyricist with the balls to write "Ruprecht's crazy about taxidermy and K-Y Jelly on a rubber glove." How can you not respect that? I assert that "Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True" is one of the ten-best torch songs to come out of Broadway in the last twenty years. Why aren't Broadway and cabaret artists recording this on their solo albums more often? Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a treat.
Of course, our most recent experience with a Yazbek score on Broadway was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Based on the popular farcical foreign film, it did not do as well on Broadway as its predecessors. Like most farces, they do not adapt easily to the musical medium. Farces rely on building energy and there are rarely organic moments for characters to stop and sing an internal monologue. Even the greatest of them, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, takes breaks for a lateral move of high energy comedy songs that keep the piece going instead of delving too much into character development. I think this is what most hurt Women on the Verge.... Yazbek's score, however, had much to recommend, especially the show-stopping "Model Behavior" and the haunting "Invisible", both of which are mini-plays unto themselves.
The Atlantic Theatre Company is preparing the present Yazbek's latest offering, The Band's Visit, which will feature a book by Itamar Moses and, perhaps most excitingly, will be directed by the great Harold Prince. The piece is based on a popular 2007 Israeli film of the same name. It tells the story of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who have arrived from Egypt to Israel where they booked to play an event. They go through a series of challenges and mishaps and the journey shapes and changes everyone involved. It will be interesting to see what music and lyrics this adaptation inspires in Yazbek. I am eager to hear it.
David Yazbek is a tuneful composer with a great sense of humor. He writes some of the best comedic, character-developing lyrics in the business. I have often thought I would love to see what he would do with a stage adaptation of the film In & Out. Surely, his sensibility and knack for writing music and lyrics for larger than life characters would be put to good use on this idea. But whatever he does next, I will eagerly anticipate what he has up his sleeve.