'I feel like I've bathed in some type of stale dairy product and I still carry the stench. I feel like I've been wearing the same clothes for a month, took a shower and then put on those same clothes again."
This was David Yazbek speaking on Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after watching his musical adaptation of The Full Monty get shut out at Broadway's annual Tony awards. The show had carried 10 nominations into the evening but it, along with just about everything else, was crushed by Mel Brooks's behemoth The Producers. Yazbek, who composed the music and lyrics for The Full Monty (the musical's book is by Terrence McNally), was looking on the bright side, noting that at least he got to watch his six leading cast members strip on national TV during their Tony show production number.
"I found that very exciting," he says with a sharp chuckle. "But that's not a silver lining. That's just one little sequin on the vast quilt of bitter failure."
But Yazbek is kidding. Fact is, The Full Monty is anything but a failure, Tony shutout aside. After opening in New York last October to generous reviews, including a rave from the influential Times, the show has gone on to win many awards (including a Drama Desk award for Yazbek for outstanding music) and pull in very healthy box office. In fact, if it weren't for Mel Brooks's dancing Nazis, Sunday night might have seen a Monty monopoly.
But don't remind Yazbek of that, because it would deprive him of too much potential material: He thrives on turning failure and humiliation into comedy.
For proof, look no further than his clever and impressively broad musical work on The Full Monty, which has its Canadian premiere tonight at Toronto's Elgin Theatre. The stage musical is based on the hit 1997 British film about six unemployed and depressed steelworkers who earn cash and self-respect by turning to stripping. Made for less than $3-million (U.S.), the movie pulled in about $300-million at the box office around the world.
The musical relocates the story from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, N.Y., but retains its deft comic exploration of male identity. "The movie is funny, but why it did so well is that it's just an unstoppable metaphor for dropping all the baggage you're carrying around as a man," offers Yazbek.
When the show's producers put out a call for composers, they sought to hire an undiscovered musician who had never written for the theatre. The 40-year-old Yazbek, who had toiled in obscurity for years while working on his own musical projects, fit the bill. He submitted two CDs recorded by his pop band Yazbek, Tock and The Laughing Man, and a couple of sample songs for the show.
One of those numbers is Scrap, a discordant scene-setter near the beginning of the show that gives voice to the men's deep if comic despair. Like something written by Yazbek's friend, former XTC frontman Andy Partridge, the piece is built on offbeat rhythms and unusual vocal harmonies.
"That was the first one I wrote," Yazbek enthuses. "I just saw that number, and I heard it, too. I just heard the anger and the echoes of what they used to do, the factory rhythms," he says, splayed on a couch in the living room of his Upper West Side brownstone. This was a few days before the Tonys, and Yazbek was relaxed, in loose sweatpants and a T-shirt. There were no cameras around, so he was missing the ubiquitous bowler hat recommended by his press agent, which he wears to cover his balding pate. (Like the Full Monty guys, Yazbek is apparently still working through his own body/appearance issues.)
Scrap is one of the show's musical highlights, along with another dark comic jewel, Big Ass Rock. Sung by the two leading men to a depressed former co-worker, the latter song lists the ways they could help him commit suicide, all set to a dulcet soft-rock melody. The piece not only advances the story, it adroitly sends up the genre of gooey "You've got a friend" songs while allowing the audience a genuinely sentimental moment. It is an unexpected delight.
"I'd always wondered if I could write a song that could get the kind of laughs that a good sketch could get," Yazbek says. He certainly knows his way around a sketch. In 1983, he won an Emmy as a writer on David Letterman's late-night talk show. When he joined the show, he recalls, "I was so excited, because I thought it was going to be like Sid Caesar's show: We'll all be in a room writing, and we'll just go with it. It wasn't like that at all. It was just a cubicle experience. It was a great show, really funny, and yet the actual experience had a 10-to-1 toil-to-joy ratio. And even massive paycheques aren't worth it." He left after about nine months.
But there aren't many alumni of Letterman's writing staff who end up on Broadway. The unorthodox choice of Yazbek was a calculated risk to push the adaptation away from what made the original film a success and toward finding its own voice. The bold hire is a reflection of the producers' wish to push the creative team to discover new comedy and some new colours for the story, rather than leaning on the success of the original film. They also wanted someone who wouldn't pander to the audience.
"At the very beginning of doing our show, we all discussed how we were getting so tired of seeing shows that just were trying so hard, pulling to get applause -- using certain kinds of light cues, or using certain types of reprises that end a certain way, or certain dumb dance moves, anything to get applause." Those elements effectively function as built-in laugh tracks, directing the audience in its response. Though he is not referring intentionally to certain Tony-winning musicals currently on Broadway, the description is apt.
"So much of what you see in musical theatre is embarrassing to me, to the point of not being able to stand it," Yazbek says. "Literally. I'm squirming in my seat. It's the kind of stuff which we avoided so acutely."
With the success of The Full Monty -- after Toronto the touring production heads for London, Australia, Germany, South America, Italy, and elsewhere -- Yazbek finds himself for the first time in his life with real financial security. He, his wife, and their almost-5-year-old son have just moved from their one-bedroom apartment to this larger place, and Yazbek is gearing up for a gig on Saturday night at a downtown cabaret spot to promote Damascus, the new album by his self-titled band.
"I've always used money to fuel the creative ideas that I've wanted to realize, mostly albums. That's what I'm excited about, being able to do that and not to worry about paying the rent and getting my kid through school," he says. "If the show continues to do well, especially on the tour, then what I've basically got is the trust fund I never had. And it comes with the truly important aspect that I earned it." The Full Monty runs until July 15 at the Elgin Theatre in downtown Toronto. For information: 416-872-1212.