Based on Alberto Casella's 1928 play, the work imagines what would happen if Death took a weekend off and got to learn what life is all about. Yeston recently spoke with TheaterMania about the enduring power of the story, his creative process, and the particular challenges of adapting well-known works to the stage.
THEATERMANIA: What was the impetus for this show?
MY: About half a year after we did Titanic, Peter Stone and I realized that you couldn't do more of mega-musical than that show -- with 37 people on stage, 26 people in the band, and millions of dollars of scenery. So we thought, you know what, let's go in the opposite direction and write a chamber musical, an intimate and romantic, funny, ensemble piece with a maximum of 15 people. And then Peter said, "What about Death Takes a Holiday? It's a story that's been beloved for more than 80 years
TM: So you were instantly convinced that this was the right material?
MY: No, I said to Peter, "I don't know if I want to do that. It's death, death, death." And he said, "No, it's holiday, holiday, holiday." I realized that even though the show may seem to be about one thing when you read the title, in fact, it's really all about the joy of life. It's about Death taking the weekend off, and nobody dies. He just has the best time in the world, and he finds out why life is so wonderful because he falls deeply in love with a beautiful girl, and she with him. The last thing he thought of is he'd have to leave her Sunday night, and all of sudden he realizes why it is that men value life so much. We don't have all the time in the world, so we fill it with love and the best things in life, and that's why we so dearly want to hang onto it.
TM: What was the creative process like for you in creating this show?
MY: Peter and I used to meet two or three times a week and literally talk the show into existence. Come up with ideas of how this would sing, how we would change the story to magnify the exuberance and celebration of life and the romantic story while bringing great comedy to it. It's really a matter of talking the structure of the show. It's not so much that you look for lyrics or music or even scenes, you look for the idea of a premise. It's the same way when you have a guy like Tevye who has no money -- you come up with the premise "if I was a rich man." That's something to sing about. The same is true of this show. You start coming up with, "what wonderfully ironic way is there to get into this story that will delight the audience and surprise them?" That's really the genesis of the idea.
MY: The answer is you have to do two completely opposite things: you have to honor the original work, which is essential. But you also have to have the courage and the wisdom to change it, because a book can't be read onstage and become a play, and a movie cannot be transformed into a live theatrical work. No matter what the original inspiration is, it must change in order to adapt to the new form. You're constantly working towards two different goals at the same time.
TM: How did you specifically accomplish that with Death Takes a Holiday?
MY: Our show takes place on a bare stage, and it's only music, lyrics, words, and underscoring that harness the imagination of the audience to believe they are in the northern Italian lakes with the Alps in the background. It's just all done with theater magic.