Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Tootsie composer and lyricist David Yazbek: ‘I don’t want to write alone. I like collaborating and having fun’

David Yazbek performing at the 16th-anniversary party for the musical theatre record label Sh-K-Boom, at Symphony Space in New York, in 2016. Photo: Howard Sherman
by -

The Tony-winning composer of Broadway hit The Band’s Visit is no stranger to musical adaptations of films, but had misgivings about taking on Tootsie. He tells Howard Sherman why he changed his mind and why it proved a tonic…

Making musicals out of movies is one of Broadway’s evergreen trends. And while all of composer and lyricist David Yazbek’s past Broadway shows were based on films, he repeatedly turned down entreaties from producer Scott Sanders to work on a stage adaptation of Tootsie. Ultimately, he relented, and the decision has paid off – as Yazbek is among the nominees for best original score at the Tony Awards, which were announced last week.

So why the change of heart?

“With these long, hard projects, sometimes you have to go off a gut instinct that it’s going to work,” Yazbek says, speaking before the Tony nominations were announced. “You can’t solve the entire equation right at that moment. You have to go with a feeling of: ‘I think there’s an answer there’, and as soon as the teeter-totter [seesaw] gets to the point where gravity is on your side, I get excited about it.”

Yazbek, who started his career as a comedy writer for chat-show host David Letterman and whose acerbic wit is evident in everything from his five self-penned solo albums to his Twitter feed, doesn’t wax rhapsodic about being attracted to Tootsie’s leading character, played on screen by Dustin Hoffman.

“The thing I always liked about it was the fact that it was about a person who wants something very badly, who feels under-appreciated, but who’s also an asshole, and gets the thing they want by pretending to be someone they’re not.”

He continues: “By doing that, there are two repercussions. One is negative, which is that he loses everything, in a way. The other is positive, in that he learns, literally by being in someone else’s shoes, how to be a better person.”

As for the updating of the film’s complicated gender politics 37 years after its release, Yazbek says that he and book writer Robert Horn were grappling with the material even before the #MeToo movement put a glaring spotlight on the discriminatory and predatory behaviour of men in the workplace.

Saying that, there was a lot of sexist, racist and tone-deaf material in comedy in the 1980s and 1990s, and the pair were determined not to replicate it, in particular with the character of Julie, played on stage by Lilli Cooper and in the film by Jessica Lange.

Santino Fontana and Lilli Cooper in Tootsie. Photo: Matthew Murphy

‘What I like about Tootsie is that it’s about someone who wants something very badly but is also an asshole’

“In the movie, she’s just kind of a victim,” Yazbek says. “We couldn’t have that. Having the #MeToo issues in our heads while we were writing it helped. We wanted her to motivate action, not just react to it.”

Yazbek’s nomination comes just a year after he won a  Tony for his intimate, low-key, seemingly atypical, score for The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian military band stranded in a tiny town in Israel. With songs that slide seamlessly in and out of Itamar Moses’ dialogue, Yazbek’s work on the show seemed a major departure from his energetic scores for shows such as The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The composer attributes this to the score of The Band’s Visit being his most personal to date.

“A lot of the music came from these kinds of whispers from my past that are embedded in the same way as certain smells from your childhood. More importantly, every character, every piece of story and every movement and action had a spiritual seed to it, or a spiritual heart to it.”

Which new Broadway musical would you most like to see in the West End?

While he grew up hearing musical theatre, Yazbek says it wasn’t his ambition to work in it. He was focused on a career as a singer-songwriter, though he had begun to tire of that in his 30s. He groused about his prospects to friend and one-time rock bandmate Adam Guettel, composer of Floyd Collins and The Light in the Piazza, and that set in motion the chance to work in musical theatre. When producer Lindsay Law and director Jack O’Brien were looking for a composer for The Full Monty, Guettel suggested Yazbek.

After the success of The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Yazbek’s subsequent show, an adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown with book writer Jeffrey Lane, had only a brief Broadway run. Yazbek says the brevity wasn’t a surprise to anyone involved.

“We delivered that show in a state of chaos,” he says, adding that a major error was not first trying the show out of town and instead opening directly on Broadway. “We didn’t have enough time. The wrong things were stressed and concentrated on. Costume decisions were put in front of story decisions. It was overstaged. The little things added up.”

The company of The Band’s Visit in 2017. Photo: Matthew Murphy

He also cites the New York casting, with a large group of leading ladies in the company, as challenging. “Once you have a bunch of big stars, people get disappointed if one of the big stars has only two songs. But you have to write for the character. It’s really interesting, that juxtaposition for Broadway audiences of star actors with the characters.”

Yazbek says that unlike most shows, he and Lane continued working on the Almodóvar musical even after it opened in  New York and feels that the show was improved even two weeks later. Then, anticipating a potential further life in licensed productions, he and Lane spent a month reworking it, even before a London production became a possibility.

Q&A David Yazbek

What was your first non-theatre job?

What was your first professional theatre job?
Produced, directed and musical-directed a production of Hair in Boston.

What’s your next job?
Musical version of The Princess Bride.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t listen to idiots.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
Zen master Dogen, Andy Kaufman, Captain Beefheart and the Beatles.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Listen carefully to what the director tells you.

If you hadn’t been a composer and lyricist, what would you have been?

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?

But the London production yielded even greater benefits. “We went to England with an improved libretto and a couple of new songs,” he says, “and then I wrote a couple more, replacing some when we were in rehearsals. We also had a leading lady in England [Tamsin Greig] who just has so much heart and is so warm that it helped me write a couple of new songs for her.”

He adds: “We pulled it off. It was just simple, small, hysterically funny at times, and very, very moving. I would love to bring it back to New York somehow.”

Women On the Verge has tried again – and failed better

Given his writing experience with Letterman and his musical and lyrical versatility, will Yazbek write the book, music and lyrics for a show? He says it’s unlikely, unless perhaps it was a sung-through musical. “I really like collaborating with smart people,” he adds. “I like having fun in the process, and I think being by yourself and figuring out those ideas isn’t probably that much fun.”

The composer and lyricist ticks off other shows he’s currently working on with past collaborators, including Lane, Moses and Horn. With the latter, he’s writing the lyrics for a musical about televangelist Tammy Faye Messner, for which Henry Krieger is writing the score. His project with Moses comes from an idea he’s had for 25 years, and he has brought in the longtime guitar player in his band as a third collaborator.

Also on the horizon is the long-discussed musical version of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, which, at one point, was to be written by Goldman and Guettel. Now it’s a project for Yazbek with The Drowsy Chaperone’s Bob Martin and Jersey Boys’ Rick Elice. Yazbek anticipates a table reading of the first draft in August, under the aegis of Disney Theatrical Productions, though he’s quick to say: “It’ll have a different feeling to most of the Disney stuff.”

Speaking less than a week after Tootsie’s opening, Yazbek says working on the show had a salutary effect on him, that the main currency of the show is laughter and that he, Horn, director Scott Ellis and the cast spent a lot of time trading in that currency.

“There’s no way I’m not healthier now than I was when I started doing Tootsie,” he says happily. “Laughing sort of clears out your bronchial stuff and purifies your blood. The experience of doing Tootsie feels extremely authentic, because the laughter was so deep and still is.”

CV David Yazbek

Born: 1961, New York
Training: Bachelors degree in English and American literature from Brown University, Rhode Island
Landmark productions (all Broadway):
• The Full Monty (2000)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005)
• Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Lincoln Center Theatre (2010)

• The Band’s Visit, Atlantic Theater Company (2016); Broadway (2017)
• Tootsie (2019)
• Emmy for writing Late Night with David Letterman (1984)

• Drama Desk awards for The Full Monty (2001) and The Band’s Visit (2017)
• Tony for The Band’s Visit (2018)
Agent: Olivier Sultan at CAA

Tootsie – A New Comedy Musical is playing at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway: tootsiemusical.com

Tootsie review at Marquis Theatre, New York – ‘superb performances, ho-hum score’

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.