Sherman Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, with a score by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which he and Harnick have recently reimagined as Rothschild & Sons. Sherman wrote the libretto for the Will Holt and Gary William Friedman musical Treasure Island, winner of the Broadway World Best Regional Musical Award (2012). Among his many theater works is his satirical sketch “Delicious Indignities,” which appeared in the New York and London revue Oh! Calcutta! His straight plays on and off Broadway include New Gods for Lovers, Strangers, and December Fools.
Sherman was librettist and lyricist for Josephine Tonight, an original musical he wrote with the late composer Wally Harper, about the early life of Josephine Baker, which The Chicago Sun-Times called “a shining new musical” and which the D.C. press praised for being “so hot that it sizzles.”
In his youth he worked as a librettist with legendary composer Richard Rodgers. Together with Sheldon Harnick they recently revised the Rodgers-Harnick musical Rex about Henry VIII. This new version had a successful premiere in Toronto. Yellen’s teleplays have won him two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America broadcast on NBC, as well as an Emmy Nomination for his Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Beauty and the Beast starring George C. Scott. Sherman’s screenplay adaptations of classic novels range from Great Expectations to Phantom of the Opera. He has received awards in Arts and Letters from Bard College, and he is a frequent contributor of essays on the arts, literature, and politics to online publications such as The Huffington Post.
Sherman recently published his autobiographical novella Cousin Bella–The Whore of Minsk, available in a volume, which also includes his holiday short story “A Christmas Lilly,” and a collection of three plays, December Fools and Other Plays (December Fools * Budapest * Gin Lane). Sherman is married, the father of two sons, Nicholas and Christopher, and has three much loved granddaughters. He has lived in London and Los Angeles, worked in Berlin and Budapest, but home was, is, and always will be New York City.
Sherman Yellen talks, with SV’s Bob Shuman, about his new memoir Spotless: Memories of a New York City Childhood. The second part, of this three-part interview, will appear, 6/26.
View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x
How are the Yellens, the Rothschilds, and the Adamses the same; how are they different?
When I write about people I can only do so by connecting them to myself, my character, my beliefs, and my experiences. All three: the Yellens, the Rothschilds, and the Adamses come from very different cultures, but what they share is a deep belief that the world must be better, and we must work to make it so. It may sound foolish but, while writing these very different works, I became John Adams, Mayer Rothschild, and the little boy who inhabits Spotless, the saga of my family. If we don’t bring ourselves to everything we write, there can be little truth or passion in the writing–it becomes a dry history rather than drama. The trick is to find some part of yourself in every character you write, even the nasty ones. For a while I had the joy of being John Adams, Mayer Rothschild, and, late in life, the observant child that I was.
Did you ever believe that you would excel in writing about families–or how would you describe your new book?
I’ve always had a deep interest in families–what holds them together, what pulls them apart–probably flowing from the closeness of my own family– both my first family, the one in Spotless, and the second, with my wife, Joan, which has lasted nearly 64 years. I am deeply interested in how we remember those who are gone: For me, Spotless was an attempt to recall and recreate what I had experienced as a child of the ‘30s and ‘40s–to go deeper yet into that world of my grandparents and parents: their journey, from European and Lower East Side poverty to affluence, and the cost of it, for everyone who traveled that very American path. It is summed up by critic/novelist Christopher Davis who said, “Spotless is a story of family love trapped in the old world’s hurricane of desire to share in American dreaming.”
How did you decide on the title? Tell us about it.
The title Spotless has several meanings–it certainly has little to do with that questioning, and somewhat judgmental, child on the cover of the book, a born observer: indeed, the title has more to do with my mother’s use of the word to describe the character of a friend, a housekeeper, or the kitchen floor in our apartment. In a sense it was her ideal. She came from a world where half her family died of TB–spots on the lung were the sign of that disease. To be Spotless was, for her, to be safe, healthy, and to be alive.
You write that hardship “doesn’t often make people better, it just makes them harder.” You are referring to the Depression and the ‘40s. Have you noticed other periods when people became harder–and have there been times when they seemed otherwise?
My observation is a generalization, and, like most, it is only partially true. There are people who rise up from their own despair to help others in the worst of times, but I have observed that many who have suffered are locked into their own cages of suffering, and they have not found a key to escape. I do believe that we learn and grow more from kindness than from suffering. Corny? Maybe. But I have found the truth in this over a long lifetime.
What do you miss most about the New York you grew up in (the book brings up cultural references, such as Baby Peggy, Olive Thomas, and Sonja Henie)?
I miss so many of the old pleasures of the old NYC: the trolley cars in the Bronx, the double-decker buses on Fifth Avenue, the old Schrafft’s restaurants, where my parents took me for a Sunday lunch, and I miss the mom-and-pop stores that helped to create the New York of neighborhoods–I miss the old Reuben’s Restaurant, of the 1950s, which allowed my wife and I to dine with our schnauzer Gus seated beside us–before the health police took charge of the city. I love the spirit of that city, before real estate became the King of New York, driving the small shopkeepers out and bringing in those ubiquitous banks and chain stores. And I miss the affordable price of a theater ticket, and the smaller, more human scale of the city. An example of that is the old MOMA. I would go there with my friends and girlfriends, as a teenager at the High School of Music & Art–a kid who loved fine art–and it was a welcoming place. Today, it is a glass palace, an expensive tourist spot, not the warm, second home for many art-loving city kids. Needless to say, I loved the New York that didn’t have a Trump Tower and kept its Trumps sequestered in Queens.
I am not one who subscribes to the idea that the high cost of living in NYC is proportionate with the cost of living in the past. Baloney! The world was affordable for those who were not in the one percent. It was there for most of the residents–even during the Depression. I miss the courtesies that made for a gentler city, and oh Lord, do I miss those marvelous movie theaters–growing up, as I did, in the golden age of Hollywood. Nothing short of heaven itself can replicate the grandeur of the old Loew’s Paradise, on the Grand Concourse, and its sister theaters throughout the boroughs. I do not miss the bigotry of that time, but we may have traded it in for the repellant hard-nosed ambition that I often see today. But oh, the beauty of Central Park now–almost nothing compares with it in the past–and the everyday mix of races and classes in NYC makes me proud to be a New Yorker.
View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x
(c) 2017 by Sherman Yellen (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.
Yellen family photos: Courtesy of the Sherman Yellen. All rights reserved.
Central Park: Fodor’s Travel Guides.