Behind the Music: Maltby & Shire on a Half Century of Collaboration and How They Made it to Their Golden Anniversary

The Tony-nominated songwriting pair talk new projects, old friendship, and their upcoming concert at 54 Below.

It’s not hard to tell which of the Maltby and Shire composing team is the wordsmith. The soft-spoken composer David Shire makes the occasional thoughtful comment while Richard Maltby Jr., the lyricist, takes the lead as the spokesman for their partnership, which has enjoyed over half century of creative success.

Best known for their Tony-nominated collaborations on original musicals such as Baby and Big as well their award-winning musical revue Closer Than Ever, Maltby and Shire are far from closing up their piano. TheaterMania sat down with the prolific pair, who are preparing to preview some of their new work (and share some old favorites) at 54 Below on December 17. While hinting at some new projects coming down the pike, the seasoned duo shared a few secrets that they believe have kept their partnership alive and well all these years.

David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr.
David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr.
(© David Gordon)

Was this show your idea?
Richard Maltby: This one is a 54 Below idea. We thought it was a good idea and then the next day [we] got terrified. I came in and saw a couple of shows here and thought Oh, this is New York. This is the big time. We’ve got to take this more seriously. So we’ve arranged to get all these wonderful young performers who are going to be in the show. Some of them are new people [who] we don’t know and I think that’s really exciting. There’s a huge crop of people [who] have come out of colleges in the last five years [who] we don’t know but they know our stuff. They studied it in school. The talent pool in New York is simply unbelievable.

Will you be singing?
Maltby: I will do one song. A new song that’s in the show called “Stars of David,” which is a big mouthful of words.

Do the two of you get excited to perform your own songs?
Maltby: Usually when asked, we get kind of excited and think it’s a great idea, and then absolute terror and depression [set] in. I can never remember my own lyrics. At least he gets to use the music. I have to actually remember it. I can’t remember where the ideas ever came from.

You two have been writing partners for about fifty years now, correct?
David Shire: Fifty years and change.

What would you say is the key to a successful writing partnership?
Maltby: We like each other.

Shire: We hang out.

Maltby: I think the most important thing is that David’s ideas are really worth listening to and I think he thinks my ideas are really worth listening to. We listen to each other. We talk together. There’s never been a moment where it’s “You’ve gotta do it my way.” As soon as [the discussion] is, “You gotta do it my way,” I think the collaboration is over.

Shire: And your marriage too.

'What new projects are the two of you working on?
Maltby: We’re working on a big musical, which is currently called Behind the Painting. It’s a love story set in Tokyo. We’re really excited about it. There are a couple of songs from that that I think people will be intrigued to hear. And we’ll do a song from Take Flight, which has not been done in New York, although it’s been recorded so a lot of people know the score.

What do you think defines the Maltby/Shire voice?
Maltby: They’re acting songs. They’re songs that have a dramatic arc to them. They’re like scenes. In Closer Than Ever they’re referred to as little plays. They have a satisfactory conclusion and that’s why they play well. That’s why actors like performing them.

Shire: We throw away a lot of stuff.

Maltby: And we put them into revues!

Shire: Or just in trunks. That’s one thing I think we do. We tend to not settle for anything less than what we feel is the best we can do. Often, we write something we think is terrific, then we listen to it a couple of days later and realize it isn’t. He goads me to write a better melody or I goad him to change a few lines in the lyric. It’s a good reciprocal relationship.