(SHERMAN YELLEN WILL BE INTERVIEWED ABOUT “SPOTLESS,” BY DONNA HANOVER, ON CUNY TV IN THE “ARTS IN THE CITY” SHOW.  THE PROGRAM FIRST AIRS ON FRIDAY, JULY 14TH, AT 10 A.M.  THE EPISODE WILL SUBSEQUENTLY BE SHOWN SEVERAL TIMES DURING THE MONTH—THE OFFICIAL SCHEDULE IS: 2ND AND 4TH FRIDAYS IN JULY, AT 10 A.M., 3 P.M., AND 8:30 P.M. THE SHOW THEN CAN BE SEEN THE FOLLOWING SUNDAYS AT NOON.  SHORTLY AFTER THE FIRST AIRING, THE INTERVIEW WILL BE ONLINE AT WWW.CUNY.TV. CLICK ON ARTS, SCROLL DOWN TO “ARTS IN THE CITY,” AND THERE THE SHOW WILL BE.)

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 LoversStrangers, 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 

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 LoversStrangers, 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 in the interview’s final installment.

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x 

Best time of the day for you to write?

I rise at five or six and I write early in the morning.  Walk my dog at eight, and go back to work later that afternoon.   I love mornings when the world is beginning to awaken.  Living in NYC, the early mornings allow me to hear birdsong from the warbler who is sitting on the fire escape outside my window.   Stillness and quiet give me a blank page for thinking. 

Best piece of writing advice you can give someone?

To playwrights or memoirists?   Do not be afraid to produce a terrible first draft.  Be the totally driven writer, not the destructive self-critic when you start on a project.  Let the critic in you come out in your revisions, your subsequent drafts–but get that first draft down–and be generous with yourself as you start to work.  The ruthlessness can be put off for later.  And read–read plays–read Ibsen, read Dickens–just read during dry periods–and the company of a great book or a great writer will urge you to go on. 

What was the easiest part of writing Spotless?  The hardest?

The easiest part of writing Spotless was dealing with my mother’s early life on the Lower East Side, her life as a runway model, and her meeting with my father.  She had told me enough during my childhood to give me the material I needed.  And being a curious child I never stopped asking questions about the past.  As I note in the book she was an intelligent woman totally lacking in imagination–so she spoke the plain truth and although she had risen in the world from the worst poverty to affluence–mainly through her astonishing beauty–she felt no shame about her humble origins.   It was harder for me to write about my father.  I knew that I didn’t love him as a son should–because of his intermittent rages and the violence that often accompanied them, and I was afraid that I would demonize a man who was at his core decent and loving.   No, I did not love him in life and yet writing this book allowed me to look closely at his life and my own early years, so, strange as it may seem, I came to love him, if only posthumously.    Spotless also allowed me to live again with those I deeply loved, my late sister and my mother, and all the odd uncles and aunts who are long gone.  Although it is an intensely personal book ,so many readers of different backgrounds and religions tell me that they found their own past in mine, so it confirms my belief that the universal lives in the particular.  

You don’t seem to have been deeply religious, but how important is being Jewish, identifying as Jewish to you today?  Did it become more so as you wrote The Rothschilds?

I was raised as a cultural Jew.  That meant that in our house bacon had undergone a religious conversion together with milk accompanying meat, so that my mother’s two skinny children could put on some weight.   I had to do much research into Jewish life in the 18th and 19th centuries in writing The Rothschilds, since I decided only to use the first few pages of Fred Morton’s wonderful biography of the family as my material.   As readers of Spotless will discover in the last chapter, “An Italian Table Cloth” I came to understand the meaning of being born a Jew through life itself.   

How do you recover from failure?  Or the failure of not seeing your favorite works produced and embraced?  

The first answer is just keep working–you train yourself to live in the day and let go of the past failure, as best you can, or of the lost work that you loved.   Easy to say.  Hard to do. Not so sure I can ever do that with my musical Josephine Tonight or with my play Budapest–the best of my unproduced dramas –but I have the plays published in the book December Fools and Other Plays so if they do not reach the stage as I want them to do, they can reach the minds of readers.  

Spotless seems to be about New York, as much as its characters.   How hard would it be for you to leave it–or would that be easy for you to do?

For years NYC was my base.  I worked in London, Budapest, Berlin, but NYC was always my home.   Summers were spent in a ridiculously cheap farmhouse in Bridgehampton when it was a world of potato farmers and fishermen.  And there was a lost decade in Los Angeles when I worked in TV, writing the scripts that would allow me to pay for college for my sons.  But I am in love with my city and the people in it. Leaving it is inconceivable–certainly not at this stage of my late life.  Hell, I am eighty-five, still working, still hoping, still walking, still loving my family and friends and the world I inhabit. 

No, I do not leave NYC these days–not even for weekends.  The city has become one of my best late-life friends–and I assume that it would strongly object should I abandon Central Park and my surviving friends and family even for a weekend.  Spotless is more than about NYC–I think it is NYC.   At the end of the day it is not so much the story of a precocious child in an odd family but a love story between that child and the city of his birth. 

Thank you so much for this interview.

(c) 2017 by Sherman Yellen (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved. 

Read Part 1 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10594&action=edit

Read Part 2 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10694&action=edit

Read Part 3 of this interview at: http://stagevoices.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=10782&action=edit

View ‘Spotless’ on Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/y7hp725x

Photograph permissions

Yellen photos courtesy of Sherman Yellen: (top to bottom) Sherman Yellen’s twin granddaughters; Sherman and collaborator Wally Harper; himself at age 40; Sherman’s wife, Joan.

3 thoughts on “SHERMAN YELLEN’S OWN LIFETIME (iii): WRITING TIPS FROM THE WINNER OF TWO EMMYS, DEALING WITH HARD KNOCKS IN SHOW BIZ, AND WHAT HIS MEMOIR ‘SPOTLESS’ IS REALLY ABOUT

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