Tony Winner Yeston Discusses Nine, From Screen to Stage to Screen Again

By Harry Haun
November 12, 2009

Action! Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Maury Yeston talks to about the journey of the Broadway musical Nine, and how its score evolved for the new musical film version.


One spring day in 1982, a platoon of theatre press — outfitted in construction-site hard hats — snaked their way through the proud ruins of the New Amsterdam Theatre, then decaying from decades of inactivity and still years away from Disney's restorative touch. Their destination was the rooftop penthouse-turned-rehearsal hall where a fresh-faced Donald O'Connor-lookalike sat at a piano, bright-eyed and eager to introduce the assemblage to his new Broadway score. That score won him a Tony Award four months later, and the show it was written for — Nine — would win Tonys, first for Best Musical and again, in 2003, for Best Musical Revival.

"My God, the ghosts in that room!" Maury Yeston sighed wistfully, remembering that fateful day. "You know, I don't think the show was ever as great as it was in plain clothes in that room because the energy of the discovery of it was so exciting.

"It had been a nightclub. It had a stage where Flo Ziegfeld used to have after-dinner entertainments and parties. There was even a kitchen up there, and many Broadway shows in the old days used to rehearse up there — My Fair Lady, for one."

Yeston can be pardoned for his Cloud-Nine nostalgia these days, now that the long-time-in-coming film version of the musical will reach theatre screens Dec. 18.

Only Oscar nominees or winners appear to have applied, starting with the director, Rob Marshall, whose specialty appears to be turning long-overlooked musicals that started out as films back into their original cinematic state — plus songs. (For instance: the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 2002 — Chicago, which, like Nine, had to be successfully revived on Broadway before Hollywood would give it a tumble.)

"There are only two ways to approach Broadway shows becoming movies," Yeston advanced. "One of them is to be an over-controlling fuddy-duddy and not let anybody change anything. The other is to step back and go with the new medium."

Clearly, he subscribes to the latter. "Look at how Shakespeare is treated over the centuries. People take it and adapt it to reflect changing times and mores and styles. I have always wanted my work to do that. If they're going to do Nine in Sweden or Japan, I want it to work in that country for that culture. I want Nine to work not because it was written that way in 1982. I want it to address and be relevant to where we are in 2010. I'm so lucky to be alive and able to, with wonderful collaborators, make those adaptations. You can't point a camera at a stage and expect it to be a film. You have to make a movie. That's the first thing I said to Rob. I said, 'Film is a director's art. Take this piece and make it work as film.'"

After all, Nine started as film, a fraction shorter — as '8½' (but not in Yeston's mind). At age 18, he was absolutely floored by Federico Fellini's quasiautobiographical mindsweep of a movie director in libidinous disarray. "I fell in love with it. I was obsessed with it, and, as soon as I started writing musicals, this was the musical I wanted to write." That was 1973. Flash forward to Paragraph One of this piece where, in 1982, he displayed the fruits of his loving labors to the press.

"All of the effort that I had to make over the eight years of creating Nine was an effort to adapt what was essentially an intrinsically cinematic piece onto a live stage. Film works so much in close-ups, and, of course, there's no such thing as a close-up from the third balcony of the St. James. You have to find other metaphoric ways of portraying things on stage. One reason I created the whole idea of Casanova and the Grand Canal in the stage musical was because there was no way to duplicate this small segment in the film, so, as a result, I had to create a far broader canvas.

"We did our job so well in adapting the film to the stage that there are things on stage that couldn't possibly work as a movie. If not, we didn't do our job right.

"The stage show is very stage-y. In the second act, there's a series of strong ballads, one after the other — 'Simple,' 'Be On Your Own,' 'I Can't Make This Movie,' 'Getting Tall' — you can't have somebody plant his-or-her feet, sing a song under a spotlight and bring the house down. Not four times in a row in a movie. There's no action. Film works by gigantic visuals. Therefore, many of those songs had to be adjusted. Lyrics had to be adjusted. In some cases, songs had to be replaced with other songs."

Kate Hudson in "Nine"
photo by David James ©2009 The Weinstein Co
The storyline of Nine is a free-fall affair, following the mental meanderings of a moviemaker, one Guido Contini (but read: Fellini), among the women in his life. They come in all shapes, sizes and roles, and the cast was mined from Oscar gold, save for Kate Hudson, a mere nominee allowed to pass because of her dancing skills.

Daniel Day-Lewis, of all improbable people, is your gal-guide, Guido, replacing Javier Bardem, who dropped out due to exhaustion and needed a year off to recuperate from his Oscar-winning work ("No Country for Old Men" — take two, Javier).

Among the ladies running around loose in Guido's feverish brain are his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz, who was cast Oscar-less but won one during the shoot), his muse (Nicole Kidman) and his producer (Judi Dench).

"The adaptation of Nine: The Musical back into film was a very organic one that made a tremendous amount of sense," Yeston stressed. "It was a great opportunity to allow this piece — which had been so cinematic, to begin with — to find again its place in the grammar of cinema. That means things like dissolves, edits, close-ups, lighting effects — things film can do for exposition to get inside the mind."

Which is where one wants to be with Nine. "It's a series of dreams inside Guido's mind — reveries, fantasies, nightmares. All that had been translated onto the stage — and going back to film gave us a chance to rethink these things as cinema."

Case in point: the wife's 11 o'clock number, "Be on Your Own," sung as she hits the exit for good. The closing lines of it — "You'll take with you all you own / From A to Z / . . . And all of me" — inspired, at Marshall's suggestion, a new number: "Take It All."

"'Be On Your Own' is a song that made me very proud when I wrote it the first time," Yeston admitted. "It always had a wonderful and scathing effect on stage, but, as I have said, you need action in a film. Film is far more literal and far more specific than a stage show. No matter how detailed the set of a stage show is, it could never be as detailed as actually being in an actual place in a movie. You see the details of every room, you see the props, you see the lights. You are meant to accept this as literally the real world, whereas in theatre we give you a white tile set or a unit set in the abstract and we ask you to use your imagination. Because film is more literal, you really do have to go farther out on a limb to become theatrical."

Maury Yeston
Yet another Oscar winner, Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"), weighed in on that number. He did the final polish on Michael Tolkin's screenplay, finishing it just days before his death, and it was his suggestion that the number be shared with Kidman and Cruz. "Three women are leaving Guido at the same time, but only one of them devoted her life to him. Only one of them has been married to him for 20 years. Only one of them is giving up everything in her body and soul. Once we explored it, it did not make any sense for three women to share and participate in the depth of despair and anger that only one of them had really earned. So we restored it to a solo.

"I saw Marion Cotillard's movie three times, and 'Take It All' is as much inspired by Marion Cotillard as 'Folies Bergeres' was inspired by Liliane Montevecchi. I think that's, sometimes, when you do your best work because you realize 'Nothing that I write makes any sense if I don't have a brilliant actor to put it across the footlights to the audience.' Here, I knew I was writing for the specific gifts of a brilliant actress."

Kate Hudson also rates a new number — because, as a Vogue writer in Rome, she was uniquely suited to fill in some important background blanks for a modern audience.

"The greatest sin that you could make in a musical is to make an assumption that the audience knows all this before they come into the theatre. Quite the contrary. Why would younger audiences today know about the '60s? You need to give them this information so they can understand the nature of the character of Guido, the nature of his world, that he is the king of Italian cinema. The 1960s was a time when the whole sweep of Italian art films was thrilling the world. This was a world of glamour and style. Remember skinny ties, pointed leather shoes, the sports cars, the sunglasses? Remember café latte and the mod clothes, stars like Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale? They exuded class and intelligence.

"Therefore, Kate as a Vogue reporter — American to the core, seduced and enchanted by Guido's work, by his style, by his world — can educate contemporary audiences about this era while celebrating the 1960s. She can tell us everything about what Italian movies meant to the world at that time by singing 'Cinema Italiano,' a production number in which I could pull out all the stops, characterize her, entertain and, at the same time, depict this whole world that we're talking about."

Nine is blessed to have in its cast an authentic fixture from that vintage of Italian cinema — Sophia Loren, who won her Oscar in the '60s — a fact that sent Yeston scurrying back to the drawing board to come up with another new song.

In truth, the melody of it is in the stage show — a little waltz in the second act. "I've always been told that a lot of people who know the show consider it their favorite music. It wasn't sung. so I added a lyric. The number replaces a song called 'Nine' which Taina Elg sang as Guido's mother. It was a song for a high soprano. Sophia Loren is not a high soprano, so, in the same way that I was inspired to write certain things for Raul Julia, I was inspired to write 'Guarda la Luna' [Look at the Moon] for Sophia. It accomplishes exactly the same lyric function and dramatic function that the equivalent song did in the stage show, except that it does it in a way that capitalizes on the brilliance of Sophia Loren. That's the thrill of doing this — of being allowed to do something fresh, do something that could evolve into a form that would work not only in the film but work for the actor in the film."

A chronic and eternal tinkerer, Yeston believes in going with what you've got and admits to being very susceptible to the talent put in front of him. "I was inspired by Anita Morris to completely rewrite 'A Call From the Vatican.' I was inspired by Liliane Montevecchi to write 'Folies Bergeres,' which never even existed in the score — and she won a Tony Award for it. When we did it with Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera in 2003, the first thing I did was write a new tango for them in the first act. Well, of course. How could I not? I have two showbiz legends on stage. You don't just say, 'Let's make the show literally what it was 20 years ago.'"

In the past 27 years, Yeston has risen well beyond the rooftop penthouse of the New Amsterdam. When he checked out the fine print in his film contract, he discovered he had been anointed executive producer. "We obviously made whatever deal we're supposed to make in order to allow The Weinstein Company to produce the film of Nine," he said, "but, when I looked at the contract, I discovered that the contract made me and Arthur Kopit [who wrote the musical's book from Mario Fratti's adaptation from the Italian] executive producers. I had no idea. I didn't ask for it, and I'm very grateful. It was just given to us, sorta like The Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai."

("Nine" is rated PG-13 and will open in limited release on Dec. 18, expanding to nationwide markets on Dec. 25.)