Maury Yeston: The music of art and life

by Minji Kim

A posse of 14 gorgeous, sultry women in black dresses trill la-la-las as they surround Guido Contini, a famous Italian filmmaker, who seems to simultaneously revel and drown in the women’s caresses. He is as magnetized towards the women as they are to him, and they cling to and push from him in turn.

This is the opening scene from Nine, a musical based on Federico Fellini's film 8 1/2 by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit '59, playing at the Boston Center for the Arts through February 26. The Learning from Performers and Harvard College Program in General Education worked together to host Yeston as a special lecturer for Professor Carol J. Oja’s course on American Musicals and American Culture on Tuesday, February 15. Yeston talked about his career and inspiration, but mostly about his personal connection to Nine.

As Tony Award-winning composer -- Nine won in 1982 for Best Original Score -- and lyricist, author and instructor, Yeston has his obvious talent, but also an ability to see music reflected in everyday life. In his lecture, Yeston recalled a moment in his childhood quite similar to this opening scene described above. When asked about the role of women in Nine, Yeston shared an anecdote of when he refused to get a shot in "the bare butt" at age 6 because a girl about the same age lay in the bed next to his. His stubbornness enlisted seven nurses who formed a human wall around him as he then calmly took the needle. As women are to Contini, Yeston speculates that the nurses were like a buffer for him in that moment, protecting him from the adversities of life and from having a female peer take a glimpse of his private parts.

In Guido Contini, Yeston saw his adolescence. When he watched Fellini’s film for the first time as a teen, Yeston felt the initial spark of inspiration. The mid-life crisis that Contini undergoes somehow resonated with the young Yeston, who was also asking himself questions of identity and purpose common at that age. Describing the 20s and 40s as the ages when men experience such crises, Yeston said that he began to work on Nine when he was, coincidentally yet appropriately, enduring a "second adolescence" in his late 20s.

Yeston easily mingles his art with life occurrences, his heart with those of the characters with whom he works. Even during the talk, he melded lecture with performance, jovially leaping to the piano at one point to demonstrate what melody he was talking about by playing it on the keys. One of the songs he performed, Germans At the Spa, was inspired by a group of lederhosen-donning Germans Yeston encountered while traveling in Carrara. He found their inability to correctly pronounce "buongiorno" hilarious and incorporated the German-Italian encounter into his lyrics.

This permeability of art and life, however, is not always intentional. Yeston described his art of writing (and rewriting) as one that integrates personal experiences, but does so subconsciously. It is only after one has written the lyrics or a story that, he says, "you realize that there’s something there from the past." Indeed, for Fellini, Nine was a fictional construct in which to explore what women were to men: muses, mistresses, nurses, nurturers, wives, critics. For Yeston, it provided a canvas onto which he could incorporate, through music, snippets of his experiences in an examination of human nature.

[Caption: "Nine" runs through Feb. 26 at SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston. Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo ]

[Caption: Yeston spoke to Harvard students about the evolution of the musical "Nine." Photo: Minji Kim]