Death Takes a Holiday (musical)
Death Takes a Holiday is a musical with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and a book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan. The story is adapted from the 1924 Italian play La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella, which was adapted in English for Broadway in 1929 by Walter Ferris. That play was made into a 1934 film of the same name starring Fredric March, which was remade in 1998 as Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. The story of the musical is about lonely Death, who takes the form of a handsome young prince to understand human emotion. He falls in love with an engaged young woman and learns about love and sacrifice.
The show played Off-Broadway for a limited run in the summer of 2011 in a production by Roundabout Theatre Company. The production garnered mixed reviews. It received eleven nominations for 2011–12 Drama Desk Awards, but did not win any.
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Maury Yeston and Peter Stone began work on the musical in 1997, immediately after their success with Titanic. Titanic was a large-scale show, and Yeston and Stone decided to turn to a smaller-scale work for their next piece. They felt that the Cassella play, a story celebrating the joy and humor of love, was both universal and moving, and that with its recent adaptation as Meet Joe Black, it was a good time to musicalize the story. Yeston said, "it seemed to me that the piece screamed to be sung." Since the story is set in Northern Italy during the Roaring Twenties, Yeston incorporated jazz, the Shimmy, and other period styles into his contemporary score "to achieve a modern sensibility within the Period flavor of the score." Yeston had lived in Northern Italy for a time, which informed his writing.
Death Takes a Holiday premiered Off-Broadway at the Laura Pels Theatre on June 10, 2011 (in previews) and officially on July 14, for a limited run through September 4, 2011 in a production by Roundabout Theatre Company. The musical was directed by Doug Hughes, with choreography by Peter Pucci, set design by Derek McLane, and costumes by Catherine Zuber. The cast starred Linda Balgord (Contessa Danielli), Matt Cavenaugh (Major Fenton), Mara Davi (Alice), Kevin Earley (Death/Sirki), Simon Jones, Rebecca Luker (Duchess Stephanie), Jill Paice (Grazia), Michael Siberry (Duke Vittorio Lamberti), Alexandra Socha, Don Stephenson, Joy Hermalyn and Max von Essen (Corrado Montelli). Jim Walton was an understudy.
The show received mixed reviews. The New York Times called it a "gorgeously sung but fusty musical". Similarly, Steven Suskin, in reviewing the original cast album, wrote that "Maury Yeston has given us a liltingly romantic and lovely operetta-like score. ... Book and score do not complement each other, at least not as presented at the Pels. ... The entire show – not only on the CD but in the theatre – was lifted by the presence of a fine group of singing actors." Time magazine, on the other hand, ranked the show among the best of the year and commented on the brief run: "Death deserved to live on." The show received eleven nominations for 2011–12 Drama Desk Awards, although it did not win any.
The production garnered unexpected publicity when its original leading man, British actor Julian Ovenden, left the show due to vocal trouble and was replaced by his understudy, Kevin Earley. Ovenden's performance had been well-reviewed, but Earley also garnered acclaim in the role. The original cast recording was released in October 2011, by PS Classics, with Earley in the role of Death.
- Act I
Duke Vittorio Lamberti and his family are driving home to their hilltop villa outside of Venice in 1921 after the engagement party of their daughter, Grazia, to Corrado Montelli. A mysterious shadowy figure blocks the road and the car screeches to a halt. Grazia is thrown from the car but, miraculously, is unhurt. Even her clothes are unruffled. Somehow, she knows that the world has changed for her. Later that night, Death, inspired by Grazia's beauty, visits Grazia in her garden. He then goes to her father and explains that he has taken the body of a Russian prince, Nikolai Sirki, who has just committed suicide, in order to take human form for the weekend so that he may learn about human emotions and why death is so feared. He threatens dire consequences if the duke reveals his identity. Death, in the guise of Prince Nikolai, appears at the door of the villa, and Vittorio introduces him to his wife, Stephanie, her mother the Contessa Evangelina, and Evangelina's old flame, Dr. Albione. Unknown to the duke or Death, one of the servants, Fidele has overheard their discussion, and he is terrified that Death is staying in the house.
The next day, the prince is excited at the prospect of life, and the prospect of understanding what it means to be human. He strolls down to the lake, where he meets Grazia. They stare at each other intently and are about to kiss when Duke Vittorio appears. He is afraid for his daughter, knowing the prince is really Death, and uses her engagement to chide her for being alone with another man. Grazia breaks her engagement to Corrado. Later, the prince discovers Alice, the widow of Grazia's brother Roberto (killed in action during the war) in the music room. She is taken with him, and invites him to sing and dance with her. They are about to kiss when she looks into his eyes and is so frightened that she runs from the scene. That evening Roberto's best friend, Major Eric Fenton, arrives with his sister Daisy. The prince is introduced as an old friend of Roberto's, and Eric is immediately suspicious. When he looks into the prince's eyes he sees something hauntingly familiar. At dinner, Grazia tells the story of two long-ago lovers in a local grotto who leapt from a cliff hand in hand so that they could be together for all eternity. Afterwards, she takes the prince to that grotto, where they kiss passionately.
- Act II
It is a Sunday afternoon, with an approaching storm. The duke's family has grown ill at ease with Prince Nikolai, who wanders around, looking for Grazia's room. Instead he enters Roberto's room, where his mother, Stephanie, holds mourning. It is a sacred place, she informs him. Later, in the garden, Daisy commiserates with Corrado, with whom she has secretly been in love. In the grape arbor, Vittorio pleads with Death not to take his remaining child, but his pleas fall on seemingly deaf ears. Later, Death meets with Grazia in the grotto again. She asks what they will do, now that they have spent an entire night together. He tells her that they must part and never see each other again, even though he finds the prospect unendurable.
Major Fenton has taken his private plane to Monte Carlo and returns with the news that the real Prince Nikolai is dead, and this one is an impostor. Alice and Daisy tell Grazia of this news, but she refuses to believe them. Meanwhile, the duke has learned that Death now plans to take Grazia with him when he leaves at midnight. He bursts into the prince's room and challenges him. Death replies that he loves Grazia and cannot imagine going on without her. The duke tells him that true love requires that he put Grazia's life and needs before his own. If he loves her, he will let her experience the joys and sorrows of life. Reluctantly, Death agrees, but just before the stroke of midnight Grazia appears before him, dressed in a white gown. After midnight, he takes her hand and she instantly dies. Together, hand in hand, they walk into the distant light.
Roles and original cast
- Contessa Evangelina Di San Danielli – Linda Balgord
- Major Eric Fenton – Matt Cavenaugh
- Alice Lamberti – Mara Davi
- Corrado Montelli – Max von Essen
- Cora – Joy Hermalyn
- Lorenzo – Jay Jaski
- Dr. Dario Albione – Simon Jones
- Duchess Stephanie Lamberti – Rebecca Luker
- Sophia – Patricia Noonan
- Death and Prince Nikolai Sirki – Julian Ovenden, replaced by Kevin Earley
- Grazia Lamberti – Jill Paice
- Duke Vittorio Lamberti – Michael Siberry
- Daisy Fenton – Alexandra Socha
- Fidele – Don Stephenson
Awards and nominations
Original Off-Broadway production
|2012||Drama Desk Award||Outstanding Musical||Nominated|
|Outstanding Book of a Musical||Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan||Nominated|
|Outstanding Actor in a Musical||Kevin Earley||Nominated|
|Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical||Matt Cavenaugh||Nominated|
|Outstanding Director of a Musical||Doug Hughes||Nominated|
|Outstanding Music||Maury Yeston||Nominated|
|Outstanding Orchestrations||Larry Hochman||Nominated|
|Outstanding Costume Design||Catherine Zuber||Nominated|
|Outstanding Lighting Design||Kenneth Posner||Nominated|
|Outstanding Sound Design||Jon Weston||Nominated|
- Isherwood, Charles. "Set Aside That Scythe, and Let’s Put on a Show", The New York Times, July 21, 2011
- Suskin, Steven. "On the Record. Maury Yeston's 'Death Takes a Holiday' and the London Album of Styne, Comden and Green's 'Do Re Mi'", Playbill.com, October 20, 2011
- Sod, Ted. "Interview with the Composer & Lyricist Maury Yeston", Roundabout Theatre, accessed April 29, 2012
- Healy, Patrick. "Star Departs Roundabout’s Death Takes a Holiday", The New York Times, August 3, 2011
- Isherwood, Charles. "Set Aside That Scythe, and Let’s Put on a Show", The New York Times, July 21, 2011, accessed April 29, 2012
- Zoglin, Richard. "The Best of 2011: Theater", Time magazine, December 19, 2011 issue, p. 77
- "2012 Drama Desk Nominees and Winners", DramaDeskAwards.com, accessed June 4, 2012
- Bacalzo, Dan. Kevin Earley to Sing Lead Role on Death Takes a Holiday Cast Album" Theatermania.com, August 5, 2011