A Peek Behind Their "Doors": Closer Than Ever Songwriters Maltby & Shire Revisit Their Classic Musical Revue

By Harry Haun
19 Jun 2012

Brent Barrett in the original production.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Maltby, however, looms a lot like a Renaissance man on PlaybillVault.com: "Director, Book, Lyrics, Creator, Conceiver, Conception." He helmed the only revues to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, ascribing pronounced character-readings to Fats Waller songs (Ain't Misbehavin') and Bob Fosse dances (Dancin').

He's a playwright who just happens to rhyme, producing lyrics that are often described as one-act plays. They are eminently actable for singers working from the point of view of a specific character. This character may exist in the musical book he is writing or only for the life of a single song. But they come from the real world, and singers feel fortified when he reveals to them the backstory of what they're singing.

"I tell them where the song came from, who the character was — the reality of the song," he says. "Mostly, the songs come from people — people we knew or things we observed about ourselves or stories that people told us about other people. They told me stories no fiction writer could invent. The only reason they could possibly exist is that they would be true. People have complex lives that we can't imagine."

Consider the hilarious musical rant, "You Want To Be My Friend?" It came from an actress, whose name has conveniently slipped his mind. Her boyfriend was breaking up with her and trying to let her down easy at the same time. One line from her original diatribe is quoted verbatim in the number: "I got enough 'friends!'"

Then there's "There," the lament of a wife whose husband is off in another world far removed from hers. "Well, I didn't have to go very far afield for that one," Maltby sheepishly admits. "I've been accused of that through a couple of marriages."

Sal Viviano in the York Theatre production.
photo by Carol Rosegg

"Miss Byrd" is about not telling a book by its cover — in this case, a very bland cover that conceals a throbbing emotional life. "I invented a woman who would be totally nondescript. Do we not pass these people all the time, and do we not write them off? They have no interesting lives. One thing I do know: Every time you write someone off as being hopelessly dull, you find out some fascinating fact about them."

Maltby has a million of 'em. "People tell me stories, and I think, 'That's a song,' so I started collecting these ideas and putting them in this file that I call 'The Urban File.' Every once in a while, I'd take one out, work on it, get a little stanza going and David would write a melody for it, then I'd put it aside and come back later and finish it.

"Suddenly, we had about seven or eight songs, and we played them for Manhattan Theatre Club, which was then planning a revue of songs and sketches. All of them went into a show called Urban Blight. Then, Stephen Scott Smith asked to do a nightclub act at Eighty-Eights with those songs, and they got terrific reviews. That's when David and I decided we should expand those songs into a real show."

Enter Closer Than Ever. And now, 23 years later, enter again — without too much airbrushing, a show still true to the times. "I guess I've come to realize, over a time, that David and I write things that are just not like what other people write," Maltby reflects. "I place no value judgment on that. We just have a different voice."

Check out Playbill Video's visit to the Closer Than Ever rehearsal studio: