Fifty-four years ago, David Shire ’59 arrived on campus with a single goal: to write at least one of the Yale Dramatic Association’s annual musicals. He wrote two. He also informally pioneered the undergraduate music major, earned Phi Beta Kappa distinction and met his lifelong collaborator, Richard Maltby ’59. Two Grammys, one Academy Award and a “Saturday Night Fever” later, Shire returned to the University on the year of his 50th reunion to perform, with Broadway actress Lynne Wintersteller, at the Davenport Pops Orchestra’s annual Maestro of the Moment concert. Kanya Balakrishna sat down with Shire for a cup of coffee as he recovered from one-and-a-half hours of conducting and piano-playing.
Even though the music scene on campus was still emerging 50 years ago, New Haven had already grown into an epicenter for up-and-coming musical theater. The Shubert Theater, Shire remembered, was the “Gateway to Broadway.” And “prophetically,” he reflected exactly five decades later, his freshman year suite, “the corner room in Bingham Hall,” was the closest one on campus to the Theater.
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QFive decades ago, Yale must have been another world. What is it like to be back?
AIt’s a time warp. Nothing is different, if you don’t see the way people are dressed. But to walk into a residential college dining hall and just to see that half of the people there are women and that the whole atmosphere of it is so different. Everybody’s casually dressed — no charcoal pants anymore. And it’s so heterogeneous. It’s easy to pick the typical Yalie in my day — it was George Bush. The school was much more business and law and politics oriented and the majors leading up to those things — history. But now, it seems much more bohemian, artistic, greater cross-section culturally, racially. So that is still a wonderful surprise.
QWhat about the music scene now? What was it like playing with these guys?
AIt was great. [At the beginning of the concert], I talked about the fact that none of this existed. There were no undergraduate orchestras. There was the New Haven Symphony and some of the music school students played in it, but they were all graduate students. The courses I took for my major — there was no undergraduate music department — I took in the graduate school as a music major. So really as an undergraduate, in order to do the things I was most interested in, I was really half in the graduate school.
QHow did Yale prepare you for the rest of your career?
AWell it prepared me very well, because I met my lifelong collaborator [Richard Maltby] and I got to write two musicals and see them produced. That’s the most valuable thing in the world. It’s really on-the-job training. My theory courses were fine. I was a double major —I was an English major — because I wanted the broad literary background. And frankly, I was scared about committing to music. I was going to be an English teacher if the music didn’t work out, but once we wrote those shows, I was inoculated and had to give that a try.
QAre those first two shows at Yale —“Cyrano” and “Grand Tour” — the ones that you’re most proud of today?
AThey were student work, although there was a song in the first one — almost the first song we ever wrote — called “Autumn,” which 10 years later was recorded by Barbara Streisand. So there was some good professional work that holds up in there and there was some student work. When you’re starting out, you steal and you emulate and you pay homage to the people that inspire you.
QYou performed “It Goes Like it Goes,” the song that won the Academy Award today. Is that your favorite song that you’ve composed?
AThat’s like saying to someone who has a lot of children, “who’s your favorite child?” There are favorites for some reasons, but you care about them all and certainly, I’m enormously proud of that song.
QWhat are you working on right now? I heard something about a children’s animated show that you’re working on with your wife.
AMy wife is Didi Conn — Frenchy of “Grease” fame and [the children’s television show] “Shining Time Station.” We started developing an animated children’s show [“Didi Lightful”] and just finished the pilot, and we’re in the process of selling it to a network. Each episode will be a mini-musical with three original songs in it, in time-honored Broadway style.
And, Maltby and I have been working on a show [“Take Flight”] for a number of years, over a decade. It’s been done in Australia; it’s been done, two summers ago, in London and Japan and Russia. And it’s finally going to be done next year in Princeton. It will be, hopefully, pre-Broadway, if it gets to Broadway. It’s kind of a weaving together of the stories of the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and his first flight and Amelia Earhart and her lover and impresario husband George Putnam, founder of Putnam Books.
QDid you attend a lot of shows at the Shubert?
AI did. Ironically, the Sunday that “My Fair Lady” opened, Richard [Maltby] knocked on my door and said, “I got seats for a matinee. It’s the first performance of something called ‘My Fair Lady.’” And I said, ‘That sounds so boring.’ And I had a paper to do. So I said, ‘You go and tell me about it.’ So Richard went and it was the legendary first performance of “My Fair Lady” where the director came out and made a curtain speech before saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, our turntable broke. We’re really not ready to open. But it’s Sunday, the banks are closed and we can’t get enough cash to refund your tickets. So we’re going to do the show the best we can and as Blanche Dubois said in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ ‘We all depend on the kindness of strangers.’” It was famous. And Richard said that the curtain went up and that it was almost the way the show opened on Broadway. It was just one of those magical moments when it all came together.
QSo who inspires you? Who is your favorite composer?
ATheater composer: Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim. The younger crop of Adam Guettel, who wrote “The Light in the Piazza,” Floyd Collins, Jason Robert Brown — the potential inheritors of the mantle of Steve Sondheim. Sondheim stands like a colossus; like Gershwin did over that generation, Sondheim does now, because he’s so influential. He’s almost single-handedly saved musical theater as a real art form.
QWhat advice would you give to undergraduates that wanted to pursue a career in theater or musical theater?
AIn addition to trying to get your chops up in terms of theory, or the instrument you play or writing, get over to the Dramat and try to write a show, or get involved with people who are getting things done. You learn so much by writing your work and then seeing it performed. It’s so crucial, because the theater is a living thing. You can’t just sit at a desk and hear it in your head. It’s a collaborative medium, and at Yale, there’s such tremendous opportunities to do stuff with people in the field that you chose. And you never know: the avocation becomes the vocation.