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 final part, of this three-part interview, will appear, 7/5.
View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x
What can playwriting teach a memoirist?
Plenty. Playwrights learn to create a world onstage made up of scenes, comic and dramatic ones. A memoirist, who has some experience as a playwright, can recreate the past in terms of scenes–and, just as a playwright must often choose to kill his favorite bit of dialogue, in order to advance the plot, a memoirist must know how to select from a full life of events, and select only those that are the most telling. Although I have tried to adhere to the truth of the events in my life in Spotless, there are moments when I depended upon remembered dialogue to flesh out a character or an event. I am about to become immodest but who cares?
Sheldon Harnick, after reading Spotless, wrote of it, “In Spotless, Sherman Yellen has brought his skill as a playwright to bear. Reading his memoir is like watching a totally absorbing play: the characters come to vivid life and the event they experience registers as first-rate drama. Bravo, Mr. Yellen! Bravo!” I am not only kvelling inside, I am bowing.
Your father suffered from depression–to what extent did you or could you understand him growing up?
My father Nat’s depression was something I took for granted growing up. It was simply part of the world, as I knew it. As children we accept the most aberrant behavior as normal if we are faced by it daily. Since he was also capable of euphoria and great generosity it was confusing as hell. His was a world before tranquilizers, although his severe depressions ended in electroshock therapy–treatments that I took him to as a boy of fourteen. As a small child I never knew who would walk into the room, that angry depressed man, or the loving, generous father.
My very calm mother kept the family together, despite the many tantrums of my father. Divorce was not an option in those days. She balanced his instability; like many women of her time, she placed her children first, and protected us as much as she could–particularly when he became violent. And despite having this unstable father, as the book reveals, there was so much laughter in the house. My sister and I grew up with a precocious sense of irony, an awareness of the ridiculousness of most human pretentions–and, later in life, I would try to bring that to my work. As an adult I experienced some depression, that unwelcome guest who tells you he will only stay for a few days and always overstays his visit, but I managed to master it, and, for most of my life, I have been depression free–thanks, in part, to a life spent with a wonderful wife, great friends, and a loving family. And a devotion to my work.
How did your father react to your going into the theatre?
My parents enjoyed my early success–I was one of the lucky few. They saw my first TV show produced, when I was in my early twenties, and I was still relatively young when my plays were done. They knew that I was living the life I wanted–and for all their concerns about my security (some of that justified)–they only encouraged my work. My father loved theater and took my older sister, Simone, and me to theater every Saturday, from the time I was ten years old. I am one of the few alive who saw the first NYC matinee of Oklahoma!, as well as the opening of Streetcar and Death of a Salesman. Not appropriate for a kid? Perhaps. But I loved the truth that I saw in those plays on those stages. My father very much wanted us to enjoy our lives, but his demons often intruded on that enjoyment.
You seem to have been witness to important people and events. One of them is the crash of the Hindenburg–do you feel that there was a continuing impact because you saw that, or how do you think of it in terms of your own history?
I don’t believe that my accidental viewing of the Hindenburg explosion–altered the course of my life. These were not of my making, and even as a child, I knew that what was most interesting were not accidents but character. I was, I suppose, remarkably precocious in my desire to study people and try to take them apart, like a clock, to see what made them work. My first ambition was to be a fine artist, and I sketched everyone and everything I saw. As far as some of the notable people who came into my life–I can truly say I did not seek them out. My friendship with Norman Rockwell, who provided a cabin in Vermont for my wife and I on our wedding trip, came from my friendship with his son. Other notables, like Richard Rodgers and Sheldon Harnick, became friends because we worked together, in harmony. The experience of success or failure only drew us closer together. It may seem odd to say this but I am a good friend–I care about the people in my life–and I learned early on that you do not abandon people in their difficult years–not if you wish to live comfortably with yourself, or your idea of yourself.
You’ve worked with both Richard Rodgers and Eileen J. Garrett, two people from very different walks of life–but who would you say influenced you the most growing up?
You mention my work as an editor for the medium Eileen J. Garrett. She was never a real friend–just a boss at my first after-college job as an editor at Tomorrow magazine. Later, she was a patron who made it possible for me to live in London and work on a Shakespeare study by giving me a grant from her foundation. A great year in my early life. She told me that I had a wonderful “aura”–God knows what that is–I think it is a halo that mediums can see–and in this I feel she was off course in her mystical declarations. If I ever did have a halo, it has slipped off me or tarnished in my eighty-five years. I believe that she was the inspiration for Madam Acardi in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. And I was told that she also inspired the character of Auntie Mame–Patrick Dennis having worked at her publication, a few years before I did. I do love eccentrics–not as much as I love dogs and cats–but they come in a close second. She was imperious, generous, a tad frightening, but I feel fortunate in having known her. Through her I met Aldous Huxley and Gloria Swanson and other notables–great fun for a very young man.
My friendship with Richard Rodgers is one of the subjects of my next book, Absent Friends. I met him late in his life, when his health problems were tragically debilitating, yet I found him wonderfully creative, generous in praise, a true creative collaborator, and a man who did not look to blame others when a musical play did not succeed. Rex, the musical that we worked on together, was not a success at the time–although after forty odd years Sheldon Harnick and I have revised and reimagined it so that it is now the fine show we always wanted it to be. It is soon to be seen, this summer, in repertory at the Utah Festival of Opera and Musical Theater in Logan, Utah . . . and to my delight, it’s sold out for its run. Rodgers was very much a man of his time, one who did not show emotion easily–he expressed it through his music–and how wonderful that music is. There is some stunning music in Rex, and I take no small pride in that, hoping that it is was inspired by my libretto. Rodgers was a brilliant, witty man, a political and social progressive who lived what he believed–and he influenced my life in one important way. I learned from watching him how one survives illness, old age, and losses by continuing to work–to keep drawing from within, rather than looking to the world for pity or comfort. After Rex my wife and I were frequent guests of Dorothy and Dick Rodgers, both in NYC and in Connecticut–they were gracious and so appreciative of our friendship. Friendship is a talent like any other. It requires the ability to look beyond the self and take a true interest in the lives of others. Many biographers have stressed the negative side of Rodgers–a view encouraged by his late daughter Mary. My experience, however, as his friend was altogether different. But I know, from my early life, that we are many things to different people. My father employed the handicapped and minorities in his sweater factory–nobody did that at that time. He had an understanding of suffering and, in his work, he acted on his best instincts–this man, beloved by his employees, was an altogether different man than the terror we faced at home. That is part of the mystery of being human.
Do you consider yourself lucky?
Yes, in family and friendships. Some days when I consider the plays I have written that I love, those which have yet to find a production, and the best of my musicals Josephine Tonight, written with the late composer Wally Harper, one that received superb reviews in Chicago and in Alexandria, I get exasperated that my best work has never come to NYC–I feel unlucky about this musical but I get over it. It takes so much energy and so much financing to get a play on in this city today that I am happy that I can now devote myself to my memoir writing, and see my work produced in regional theaters.
Thank you so much. We’ll look forward to next week.
Read Part 1 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10594&action=edit
View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x
Yellen photos courtesy of Sherman Yellen.
Sheldon Harnick and Sherman Yellen: The Forward.
Norman Rockwell: Saturday Evening Post.