Closer Than Ever: The Intimacy of Maltby & Shire
"Small" has always suited Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire exceedingly well. Certainly they have also worked "Big" throughout their years together, including creating a Broadway musical by that name. Intimacy, nonetheless, permeates all the music they have made as lyricist and composer; emotional intimacy in the "closer than ever" sense.
The revue that they assembled under that title, Closer Than Ever, remains one of the most fondly recollected Off-Broadway musicals ever produced. Its songful reflections on the vast spectrum of our interpersonal relations (and failed relations) illuminated rejection, loneliness, illicit sexual bliss, need, solitude, ageing, marriage, second marriage, and, of course, love. It did so both fearlessly and effusively, with dry-eyed musical pathos, droll lyric wit, and always underlying sweetness—a perfect encapsulation of the sound and sensibility of Maltby and Shire in sum.
They met at Yale in the 1950s, writing musicals for the Yale Dramatic Association. As the son of bandleader Richard Maltby Sr. (best known for his 1954 hit recording of "[Themes From] The Man With the Golden Arm"), the Wisconsin-born, New York–bred Maltby and the Buffalo-born Shire (also the son of a local bandleader) came to the city from Yale to make music for the stage. In 1961 their maiden produced effort, The Sap of Life, played at One Sheridan Square Theater in Greenwich Village. Their first Broadway credit in 1968 was the interpolation of one song, "The Girl of the Minute," into the revue New Faces of 1968.
Shire was simultaneously working his way up from dance-class pianist to Broadway rehearsal pianist to Broadway pit pianist, ultimately playing for the original productions of both The Fantasticks and Funny Girl. He became Barbra Streisand's accompanist, as well as conducting and arranging for her (especially Streisand's early television specials Color Me Barbra and The Belle of 14th Street). Streisand recorded five Maltby-Shire songs during this period, including "Autumn," which they'd written together at Yale, and "Starting Here, Starting Now," later deployed as the title song for their breakout theatrical success.
Originally called simply Theater Songs by Maltby and Shire, that show was first produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1976, directed by Maltby. A musical sampler of Maltby and Shire's indelibly wrought "story songs" (mostly about romance in the big city), the revue transferred from MTC to the Barbarann Theater Restaurant in March 1977 under a new title, Starting Here, Starting Now, and ran for 120 performances. Many of its songs originally had been written for shows that were either never produced or had closed out of town. Woven together, they yielded an evening of musical theater mini-dramas that were deeply engrossing and delectably entertaining.
The following year, at MTC's instigation, Maltby conceived, directed, and contributed additional lyrics for a revue celebrating the music and the life of the jazz legend Thomas "Fats" Waller. Ain't Misbehavin' proved a landmark achievement, a radical racial rediscovery of a neglected master and a smash hit, transferring from MTC's Upper East Side cabaret space to Broadway, where it ran for 1,604 performances and won a Tony Award for Maltby as director.
Like Maltby, Shire pursued (and continues to pursue) a hugely successful parallel career—in his case as a distinguished composer of television and film scores. He won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for the 1979 film Norma Rae. Shire's soundtrack work also included The Conversation, All the President's Men, and parts of Saturday Night Fever. Then, in 1983, he returned to Broadway to collaborate with Maltby on the delightfully unlikely musical about pregnancy and childbirth, Baby.
It was a subject that only Maltby and Shire could have tackled. Focusing on the emotional impact of becoming pregnant (also the trauma of not being able to), the team composed a host of thrillingly theatrical songs for an exceptional cast that featured (in a Tony-nominated performance) the incomparable Liz Callaway, who stopped the show nightly with Baby's majestic anthem "The Story Goes On." Against all odds, Baby ran for 241 performances and garnered seven Tony nominations, including Best Director for Maltby and Best Original Score for Maltby and Shire.
Closer Than Ever followed in 1989, cementing Maltby and Shire's shared reputation as a very special songwriting team. Maltby continued to direct other people's shows, like Fosse in 1999, for which he received another Tony nomination, while contributing lyrics to some pretty big shows, including Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Miss Saigon in 1991. Shire continues to compose film scores and conduct symphony orchestras. In 1996, the two tackled Big itself, based on the Tom Hanks movie, receiving Tony nominations for their efforts. To this day, they remain exceedingly active; their latest musical, Take Flight, premiered in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2007, and in the U.S. at the McCarter Theatre in 2010.
Last year, Liz Callaway premiered her own, very personal Maltby and Shire tribute for Lincoln Center's American Songbook in a sold-out performance at the intimate Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. This year, she reprises that evening in the much larger precincts of The Appel Room, filling it with Maltby and Shire songs big and small, all of them exquisitely scaled to life. The story goes on.
Barry Singer blogs about the arts, literature, and Winston Churchill for the Huffington Post.