Composer David Yazbek has written some of our favorite musicals – and one of the best TV theme songs of all human history. We chatted with him recently about that, his upcoming gig at Joe’s Pub (May 30; mark your calendars), the secret unreleased tapes of his band with Adam Guettel, and being a Twitter superstar, among other things. Here’s how it went…
Lucky: Hey David! How are you doing?
David: I’m good. I’m entering the Twitter realm for the first time. I got followed by Jason Robert Brown.
L: That’s awesome!
D: I mean, he’s a friend of mine. I’m not surprised. He has a giant, giant list [of followers], so all of a sudden I got like, 40 emails from Twitter saying that people are following me and I’m thinking I shouldn’t let this come into email. Would you suggest not letting these confirmations come through your email?
L: Yeah, just shut them off. It’s going to be a pain, and it’s just going to clog up your inbox.
D: OK, before we start talking, I’m going to do that. Because it’s happening now and it’s driving me fucking crazy. So, it’s Notifications, right?
D: Email me when I get a direct message? Yes. When I send a reply or are mentioned? Yes. But not when I’m followed by someone new. One of my friends has like a million Twitter followers, I think.
L: Really, who?
D: Michael Ian Black.
L: I don’t think his Twitter is set up so that he gets emailed every time someone follows him.
D: Seriously, I just figured that out. OK, I’m feeling pretty secure.
L: So, how does it feel to have written one of the greatest TV theme songs of all time –- “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”
D: It’s a feeling of guilty satisfaction, but I’m proud of it. I like to think of myself as someone who can write a hook, and I think that song is like one big hook. And I’m happy about it.
L: Any residual royalties coming in for that?
D: A lot of people use it without permission and then we get money from them. And some people have used it with permission and we still get money from them. So it has been one of those gifts that keeps on giving.
L:You’re playing Joe’s Pub on May 30th. What can we expect from the show?
D: I’m approaching it as pretty much a selfish exercise in playing with these great musicians. It’s my usual band. I know it sounds corny but I feel a little honored to be playing with them. We’ll do a bunch of songs from my album, Evil Monkey Man, and we’ll do a few songs from Women on the Verge… because it’s really fun to play those songs.
L: So you don’t mind mixing the theater stuff and the rock stuff together in one show.
D: As long as it sticks, you know? Some of my theater stuff is so different from some of the stuff that I play with my band that it just wouldn’t feel right. But certainly songs from Women on the Verge… And sometimes songs from my other shows find their way into my concerts because they feel of a piece with whatever the song list is.
L: Do you feel kind of compartmentalized when you’re writing? Are you always focusing solely on writing a show, or solely writing an album?
D: There’s a big separation, and it comes in the form of intent. Writing for the theater is partially writing on assignment, and it’s also writing for character. I’m done a lot of screenwriting, too, and I’m used to writing for characters. When I’m writing stuff for my own albums, and for the band, it flows more freely because it’s just me saying what I want to say.
L: So it’s not like you’re writing a pop song, and something will come up that could feasibly go into a show…
D: I’m never thinking that while I’m writing it, but that has happened, where a piece of music will wind up in a song in a show. Music is an expression of a pure emotion. So if you’ve come up with some music that’s joyous or mournful or angry, it may very well fit how a character feels at the time.
L: Do you have any new projects brewing -– for Broadway or a solo album or anything else?
D: Yeah. Jeffrey Lane and I are writing a new show.
L: Can you say anything about it?
D: I can’t. He made me promise I wouldn’t. But I’m really excited about it. It’s the first show we’ve written together that’s for a broad, family audience. But it’s still smart and has a depth to it. I think it’ll probably be a big Broadway-type show, rather than a little chamber piece.
I’m also writing something with Henry Krieger. He’s doing the music and I’m doing the lyrics. I’ve never done that before and I’m really having fun working with him. It’s a show about Tammy Faye Baker, and Kristin Chenoweth is really hyped up to do the part.
And I think there’s going to be a Women on the Verge… production in London next year. So Jeffrey and I have done a lot of rethinking and rewriting the structure of it. There will definitely be changes. We’ve tried to make it more efficient. We didn’t really get the time we wanted or needed when we did it in New York. Now, we’ve had plenty of time to do some nips and tucks and we’re really looking forward to doing it. When the cast album came out, we got all these glowing reviews, we were like, shit. We’ve got to get this up on its feet again.
L: Do you always see a show as a work in progress?
D: I guess. Until I die.
L: Any Musicals that you seriously love?
D: There are shows that are right up there with my favorite classical or rock or jazz pieces. Guys and Dolls. Porgy and Bess is probably one of the five greatest pieces of American music, of any genre. I think Sweeney Todd was spectacular.
L: Are there any that you completely loathe?
D: Oh yeah, a lot of them. But I’m not going to tell you what they are.
D: I can’t tell you what I hate if it’s written by anyone alive. Because I run into these people all the time. But the truth is, I actually can’t think of anything that I really, really hate. You know, a lot of people in musical theater feel betrayed by stuff they don’t like. They feel like it’s betrayed the whole form — this great American art form. But I pretty much follow the rule that 95% of any art in any genre in any form is shit. Like 3% is OK and 2% is really worth it.
L: You were in a band with Adam Guettel when you were younger. Is he a good bass player?
D: He’s a brilliant musician and he’s a really wonderful bass player.
L: Who wrote the songs in that band?
D: I wrote most of them, and he wrote a couple.
L: I was wondering if there are any lost Adam Guettel/David Yazbek songs out there…
D: Oh, there are, yeah. He and I wrote a song called, “Help Us, We’re Cargo on the Train to Destruction” which featured him playing this incredible, like, Red Hot Chili Peppers-style bass line. And somewhere, there’s a tape of Adam, me, and a guy named Bob Golden on drums playing six or eight songs. We had so much fun doing that. It was really loud. If you heard this stuff, you would not expect that Adam Guettel was part of it.
L: I think you should put this tape out.
D: I would have to do it behind his back, and he would kill me.
L: Your shows can be kind of potty-mouthed and adult-themed. Has anyone ever put pressure on you to change your lyrics for content — whether it was from producers or anyone else?
D: I’ll sometimes get requests to modify things for content — if a song is being performed in the Bible belt, or somewhere where it won’t be appreciated. And almost always, I’ll say yes, unless it ruins a joke or something like that. I have a kid, so I kind of understand. The thing I won’t do, though, is if people want to change something because they don’t like the politics of it. There’s a line in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels where there’s a George Bush joke: “The Bushes of Tex were nervous wrecks because their son was dim.” I got a lot of feedback about that, even in San Diego, which is a pretty Republican town. And my response was, ‘Fuck you.’ I can say anything I want. But now there’s a show on Broadway that says “Fuck God in the cunt,” so I think the bar can’t get any higher or lower than that. So I can pretty much do anything I want now. Of course, I’m not one of the guys from South Park, so it might be harder for me to get away with that.
L: Give me your five desert island albums.
D: The Beatles, Revolver; XTC, English Settlement; Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica; The Tony Williams Lifetime, Emergency!; Louis Armstrong, Satch Plays Fats; and Buddy Rich and Max Roach, Rich Versus Roach.
L: Any stories you can safely share about either Patrick Wilson or Patti LuPone?
D: I love Patti. I really, really dig her. And I just think she’s great. Since we didn’t go out of town, it’s not like we hung out that much. We had several great dinners at Jeffrey Lane’s house, and I love talking to her. But I don’t have any big adventures with her.
With Patrick, I have a lot of great memories. I don’t know if he would remember this, but when were rehearsing The Full Monty out of town, there were these giant underground rehearsal studios at the Old Globe. We found like, five really nice, solidly built, upholstered wooden chairs, and they had wheels. So I marked out this course — because there were these big columns in the middle of the room. And Wilson and I — and I can’t remember who else, but there was usually three or four of us — we would race these chairs. And somebody broke their thumb. I don’t think it was Patrick. It was really violent, and incredibly fun.