Unfortunately, rather than a holiday, Death stalled the career of one of Music Theatre’s most promising, not to mention sexy, stars.
Musical fans of the Man in Chair variety love Maury Yeston. His name is not known to the same degree as Stephen Schwartz, or even Frank Wildhorn (perish the thought), but his richly melodic scores share a trademark, which is the pleasure they deliver upon repeated listenings. The cast recordings for Nine or Titanic would surely be right up there on many a desert island list.
Yeston musicals are few and far between. Death Takes A Holiday was begun after 1997’s Tony-winning Best Musical Titanic. Yeston, who writes music and lyrics, collaborated again with book writer Peter Stone, a Tony winner for his books for Titanic, Woman of the Year and 1776. Sadly, Stone was not to see the project through to fruition as he passed away in 2003.
Picking up where Stone left off was an unlikely candidate for a musical with the somber tone of Death. Thomas Meehan is best known for comedy, having written some of the funniest musicals seen on Broadway. He won Tony Awards for The Producers, Hairspray and Annie. Meehan completed the book of Death and the show was ready to be staged in 2011.
The musical is based on the 1934 Frederic March film, Death Takes A Holiday, which in turn was based on the 1924 play La Morte in Vacanza. The plot follows the lonely character of Death, who takes human form for a weekend as a handsome young prince at an Italian villa. He falls in love with a beautiful young woman, raising the stakes in the usual boy-meets-girl musical scenario in that she would have to die to be with him forever. Is love stronger than death? Find out in the final moments of Death Takes A Holiday.
Think you may have heard the plot before? Perhaps you know the story under a different name – Meet Joe Black. The 1998 film starring Brad Pitt was so long and dull it had many audiences wishing for death as a relief.
Considered somewhat of a commercial risk, Death Takes A Holiday was produced off-Broadway by the not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre Company, whose large subscriber base allows plenty of exposure for lesser-known shows. It opened at the Laura Pels Theatre on 10 June 2011 for a limited run, but tragedy was to strike before the official opening night came around.
A first rate cast was assembled for the production, presumably with several hoping that, as with many off-Broadway shows, the musical would transfer to Broadway. Jill Paice, star of The Woman in White and Curtains (pictured above with Man in Chair) played the beautiful Grazia. As the Duchess Stephanie Lamberti, Rebecca Luker had one of the most touching, heartfelt songs in the score, “Losing Roberto”. Luker, Broadway’s Marina Prior, has had a prolific career, starring in The Phantom of the Opera, The Secret Garden, Showboat and Mary Poppins amongst many others.
Major Eric Fenton was a relatively small role for Matt Cavenaugh to play, having recently starred as Tony in the revival of West Side Story. He was blessed with a lovely solo, “Roberto’s Eyes”, which described the death in aerial combat of Grazia’s fiancé Roberto. Fellow talented male cast members included Michael Siberry, as Duke Vittorio Lamberti and Max von Essen, as Corrado Lamberti.
Man in Chair had the good fortune to see Death Takes A Holiday twice, all the more fortunate in that it was before opening night and the original cast was still intact. The staging was elegant but quite simple, with basically the one set of a curved, trellised backdrop and star cloth. The opening car scene was represented by the characters sitting on chairs in formation of a car. A much grander scenic design would have been required for a Broadway transfer.
Still, the score was the star and Yeston delivered a beauty, full of romantic soaring ballads and duets and expressive company numbers. Counter melody is a bit of a specialty of Yeston’s – “The Germans at the Spa” from Nine is a joyous classic and Titanic gave us “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive”. In this style, Death features “Shimmy Like They Do In Paree”. The stirring duet “December Time” recalls the moving “Still” sung by Isidor & Ida Straus in Titanic. The female trio “Finally To Know” is another gorgeous highlight of the score of Death.
With the plot stating that Death takes on the body of a handsome prince, the lead tenor had to be quite special to look at, as well as being a talented actor and singer. Having seen Julian Ovenden (twice) in a recent London revival of Annie Get Your Gun, Man in Chair was not at all surprised to hear he had been cast here. You remember the shirtless scene in Annie GYG where Frank Butler is in his hotel room with two girls? No? Maybe Ovenden has a shirtless clause in his contract, as he bared his abs a couple of times again in Death. Ovenden’s voice is absolutely thrilling. He can be heard on the CD of the short-lived Boublil & Schonberg musical Marguerite.
Ovenden gave an interview in the NY Times in which he described the role as “a big sing” and this was prophetically to have a significant impact. Ovenden
lost his voice had a severe muscle spasm in his neck two days before opening night, by which time many critics had already seen him in the role. His understudy, Kevin Earley, went on for the opening on 21 July. Ovenden attempted to return on 2 August but could not get past the first few bars. On 3 August, Ovenden formally withdrew from the production. Unfortunately, the cast recording was not made until after opening so Earley is heard on the CD. No further news is available on Ovenden’s potential recovery at this stage but please join Man in Chair in sending positive vibes his way.
Man in Chair with Julian Ovenden:
Highlights from Death Takes A Holiday:
This article was originally published in Theatre People on 8 January 2012