David Yazbek takes a leap composing for 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' and more

BY NANCY STETSON, Florida Weekly

When it comes to creating music, David Yazbek believes in jumping off the cliff.

"I still remember Stephen Soderbergh's Oscar acceptance speech," he says. "He dedicated it to anybody who picks up a piece of paper, writes something new, makes a piece of art. If you're doing it right, you often are jumping off a cliff."

Mr. Yazbek is known for his quirky lyrics with unique rhyme schemes and hybrid melodies that blend jazz, rock and pop. His most recent album is "Evil Monkey Man."

But he's probably best known for his Broadway scores, including the lyrics and music to "The Full Monty" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."

Both Broadway musicals were nominated for Tony Awards for Best Score, and "The Full Monty" won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music.

How 'Scoundrels' came about

Mr. Yazbek had been trying to get the rights to a movie, but found himself stonewalled. He was watching television one day, and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" came on.

The plot revolves around two con men — one classy, the other uncouth — who find themselves in the French Riviera. Feeling the town isn't big enough for the two of them, they make a bet that whoever can swindle a certain woman out of $50,000 can stay, and the other will have to leave.

Starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the film was named No. 85 in Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies. (The 1988 movie is said to be based on "The Bedroom Story," a 1964 movie starring David Niven and Marlon Brando.)

"I thought, 'Wow, I could have fun doing a musical about this,'" Mr. Yazbek recalls. "I can try to write classy kinds of stuff, like Cole Porter, and try to be funny in a clever way, and then turn around and do fart jokes. You have these two extremes embodied in the two con men."

The first song he wanted to write was a scene where Lawrence, pretending to be a Viennese psychiatrist, whips Freddy's feet and legs. (To garner sympathy, Freddy is pretending his legs are paralyzed and have no feeling.)

"You see something like that, you hear how the whips are going to fit in with the music, have pauses for screeching," he says. "It came together within a second in my head."

When Mr. Yazbek had his agent approach MGM about acquiring the rights, they discovered Jeffrey Lane was also trying to acquire the movie.

"He had just left the field of being a television producer and writer, and he had a lot of big successes," Mr. Yazbek says about Mr. Lane. "He produced 'Mad About You' for several years. He's done a lot of stuff. We didn't know each other, but he knew my work, and he said, 'The only person I can think of who could do this is David Yazbek.'

"On two different coasts, independently, we were closing in on the same property. We met, and we had pretty much the same vision for it." Both men had been TV comedy writers. (Mr. Yazbek received an Emmy for writing for "The David Letterman Show.")

Breaking the fourth wall

Those who see the show will note that not only is it irreverently humorous, but self-referential, breaking the fourth wall at times.

For example, in "What Was a Woman to Do?" an usherette in an aisle suddenly joins in and sings a verse. On "Great Big Stuff," Freddy, the class-less con man, sings about all the things he wants, including his dream of being so rich that he could afford a ticket to a Broadway show. And Lawrence, the urbane con man, in "All About Ruprecht," sings an excessively long opening verse that he concludes with, "Thus ends the verse."

In his lyrics, Mr. Yazbek rhymes "silk pajamas" with "Lorenzo Lamas" and "Oklahoma" with "melanoma."

And some of his lines are definitely R-rated. In "Great Big Stuff," in which Freddy fantasizes about women flocking to him because he's so rich, he claims that "The fashion plate I date'll give me/Hummers in my Hummer," and gleefully sings, "Oh give me a home/Where the centerfolds roam/ Guccione on the phone, he/Got a party going on/And He'll have me over/To play some naked Twister/Blotto in the Grotto/With a Playmate and her sister."

Musicals on a different note

Mr. Yazbek is developing a reputation as someone who writes musicals for those who generally don't like musicals. And with lyrics like that, it's easy to see why. He even won over heterosexual men with his lyrics for "The Full Monty," a show in which a gay couple fall in love and out-of-work men strip to make money.

"That was one of the interesting marketing questions when we opened ("The Full Monty") on Broadway," he says. "A lot of guys would initially be nervous about the guys stripping in the shows. When it's a movie, you're not worrying, but there's all this baggage attached to theater. The idea of seeing a musical itself seems like not a guy thing; the wife buys the tickets.

"There were two things people said (about 'The Full Monty'): 'This is a musical for people who hate musicals' and 'This is a guy's musical.' It's all about guys, all about men. There's even a song called 'Men.'"

He continues that appeal with "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."

Theater aficionados will note that Mr. Yazbek wrote a song called "Oklahoma?" Unlike the title song of the classic musical of the same name, however, his ends with a question mark rather than an exclamation point.

The character who sings it is a crass woman from Oklahoma.

"I know people from Oklahoma who are erudite, but she's supposed to represent nouveau-riche western," Mr. Yazbek says. "It's me poking fun at Oral Roberts U., trying to come up with something that paints her as a very rich rube."

He says the title is "me winking at Adam Guettel," who is Richard Rodgers' grandson and a friend of Mr. Yazbek's. ("Oklahoma!" was Richard Rodgers' first musical.) It was Mr. Guettel, perhaps best known as the Tony Award-winning composer of "Light in the Piazza," who got Mr. Yazbek involved in musical theater. When Mr. Guettel was approached to be the composer of "The Full Monty," he declined, but suggested Mr. Yazbek.

"We were in a band together in 1985," Mr. Yazbek says. "He said, 'You gotta do a musical, you gotta jump in.' Great advice — what the hell do you mean by that?"

The people producing and directing "The Full Monty" were looking for an atypical composer.

Mr. Guettel, he says, "is brilliant, more than anybody composing music in theater. But he wasn't a 'Full Monty' kind of composer. "He said, 'Try this guy Yazbek.' I had maybe one album out by that time. I gave it a shot.

"It's sort of like winning the lottery, but not really… The luck was more grace in that my friend was generous enough to suggest me for the job."

Ossification not allowed

In an interview with USA Today, Mr. Yazbek said that about 96 percent of his score was inspired by his hatred of 80 percent of musical theater.

"Here's the thing: I'm a big fan of quality and innovation," he says. "And in the same way I can't stomach smooth jazz and in the same way I can't stomach stupid, easy conceptual classical music or art. (It's like) when I teach master classes, and someone plays something really good, but it sounds just like everything else — Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, people who did their own thing really well. But the conventions of musical theater become ossified, and that's what young composers just do."

He tells them it's obvious that from an early age, all they cared about doing is musical theater, and that's all they've listened to. Then he gives them an assignment, telling them that for the next year, they should listen to Chinese opera, Monk and Coltrane and Miles Davis, Zappa, Captain Beefhart, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles — anything and everything except musical theater. "Reach down and get original," he tells them.

Mr. Yazbek listened to everything while growing up: "West Side Story," Robin Trower, Led Zeppelin. "My mother would always say, 'You have to have a wide frame of reference,'" he says. "My parents took me all over the world when I was fairly young. I have memories of seeing Miles Davis play outdoors in Lebanon in the ruins when I was 11 or 12; he was at the peak of his creative power… My parents took me to the opera, the theater. I was a voracious reader.

"That's what serves you," he adds. "Without even trying, the brain will say: Here's your music, here's the waltz you want."

In a world of talent and creativity

When he started conceiving the orchestral palette of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," he says, he wanted "Swingle Singers faux classical jazz stuff… but we ended up with dancers who could sing a little bit instead of singers who could dance a little bit."

There's a touch of that in "Great Big Stuff," but not as much in the musical overall as Mr. Yazbek had originally hoped. That song, he says, "just kicks your ass over and over again. It's loud and funky, doofy funk. It's got a real groove to it, but it's stupid, too."

To psych himself up to write, he watched all of Martin Scorcese's films.

"There's a scene in 'Taxi Driver' where the camera does this stuff, it follows him but also shows everything surrounding him. It's a real dance they had to do to get it. That moment alone made me so excited about writing something… I'm so excited by talent and creativity that it will get me going: Oh, my God, I can be in that world, I can be part of this world of creating if I write something good. That's what it is, I guess."

More than musicals

Despite his success with "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "The Full Monty," Mr. Yazbek doesn't identify himself as a theater composer.

"I don't live and die by that label," he says.

He's released five albums of his own music. The latest, "Evil Monkey Man," is with his band His Warmest Regards.

"The stuff I do for my albums is what I want to do and what I want to sing, what I want to show people of myself," he says. Whereas with scores for musicals, he adds, "You're writing to a pre-existing story, or a story you may be writing with a collaborator. It might not be your story… (they're) characters with their own lives and their own stories."

For a musical, the songs have to fit the characters, he explains, so what he does is go into his room by himself and pretend he's the characters "to see what comes up. I'm trying to reach down and bring stuff up, the way I do with my own music, but it's not me, it's for the character and for the show. It's a real challenge."

He's working on two new musicals: an adaptation of Pedro Aldomovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and "Bruce Lee: Journey to the West" with David Henry Hwang.

"And other things are bubbling," he says.

"What I love about musicals is that first of all, it's such a classical American art form. It has the potential of being tremendously entertaining and occasionally, at its best, kind of liberating and revelatory. That doesn't happen often. It almost never happens.

"But when it does, it's really amazing."