Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 23 October 1945, Jersey City NJ) Composer, lyricist, teacher. He came from a middle-class family that loved music; a grandfather was a cantor. His mother played piano, and he began taking lessons at age five. In high school he took up folk guitar, the vibraphone (as a fan of Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and sang madrigals. Still a teenager, he had learned a thousand songs from fakebooks and was playing club dates.

At Yale he majored in theory and composition and minored in literature, destined to work on Broadway, because, he said later, in the musical theatre the lyrics are as important as the music. He earned a Masters degree at Cambridge U. in England, where he was involved with Footlights, and wrote a show based on Alice In Wonderland. Returning to the USA he taught several subjects at Lincoln U. in the town of Lincoln University Pennsylvania, founded in 1854 as the first college for African Americans, where he originated a course in black music history. Pursuing a PhD in musicology at Yale, he wrote a cello concerto which was played by Yo Yo Ma, and published his dissertation as 'The Stratification of Musical Rhythm' '76.

He was a popular teacher at Yale, but meanwhile had attended weekly classes at a BMI workshop in New York City for years, working since 1973 on the music show Nine, based on Federico Fellini's movie , which he had seen as as a teenager, fascinated by the theme of an artist who can't decide what to do next. The show was a hit in 1982 and was revived in 2003; it won a total of nine Tony awards, five in '82 and two for the revival, including one for Yeston each time for Best Original Score.

Yeston left his associate professorship at Yale, although he continued to teach a course there on songwriting. He was approached by actor/director Geoffrey Holder with the idea of a musical version of Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera, which he thought a strange idea, until he realized that the phantom could be turned into a sympathetic character, like Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yeston had written much of the new show when Andrew Lloyd Webber announced his own version, which became a smash hit in London in 1986, reducing Yeston's chances of getting produced on Broadway. However, Yeston's version, called simply Phantom, received a good production at Houston's Theatre Under The Stars in 1991 which was recorded by RCA, and has since been performed many times around the world.

Yeston also wrote In the Beginning (originally called 1-2-3-4-5), a musical based on the first five books of the Bible, presented at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1987. There was a recording of Goya: A Life in Song in 1988; opera star Placido Domingo had suggested a Broadway show, but the project was reduced to an concept album with Domingo in the title role, also featuring Gloria Estefan, Dionne Warwick and Richie Havens.

Tommy Tune (b Thomas James Tune, 28 February 1939, Wichita Falls TX, actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, director, winner of nine Tony awards) wanted to revive a flop musical from 1958 by Robert Wright and George Forrest, who had had a successful career adapting the music of classical composers for Broadway shows; their biggest hit was Kismet (Borodin). They had written At The Grand themselves, based on a 1932 movie; retitled Grand Hotel, Tune was having trouble with it, and asked Yeston to help. Yeston wrote six new songs and rewrote much of the rest; it opened on Broadway in 1989 and ran for over 1,000 performances. Yeston, Wright and Forrest were nominated for a Tony for best score.

Yeston wrote a song cycle, December Songs, for the 1991 centennial of Carnegie Hall, adapted from Schubert's Winterreise; it was performed by Andrea Marcovicci. An expensive production of a musical based on the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 finally opened on Broadway in 1997 to not-very-good reviews, but it was promoted by Rosie O'Donnell on TV, won Tony awards and ran for over 800 performances. His more recent projects included a musical version of the film Death Takes A Holiday and an adaptation of Frank Loesser's Hans Christian Anderson, both in 2003. A star-studded, heavily revised film version of Nine was released in 2009.