NEW YORK — Richard Maltby Jr. is temporarily flummoxed — an unusual state for a protean workhorse whose simple, elegant wordplay has graced such Broadway musicals as "Baby," "Big" and "Miss Saigon" and whose direction has won Tony Awards for "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "Fosse." But the affable director, lyricist and musical book writer is brought up short when, in the course of discussing marital issues raised by his latest show, "A Time for Love," he is asked what broke up his first marriage.
"Oh, dear me! I'd be really hard-pressed to say, I have no idea. I guess Barbara and I just found ourselves suddenly in different worlds," says Maltby, 69, referring to his breakup in the mid-'80s from Barbara S. Maltby, a movie producer.
Joel Silberman, director of "A Time for Love," which opens Saturday at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, suggests the answer may lie in Maltby's lyrics to "And What If We'd Loved Like That?" The song is among the trove by Maltby and his longtime collaborator, composer David Shire, that make up the revue — some original, some from their musicals and others from the trunk. The show anatomizes the marriage of a couple played by Lois Robbins and Brian Sutherland. "In that song, Richard touches on the feelings that go unexpressed, that missing passion that can lead to people to grow apart," says Silberman. "I'd trade the comfort that we bought / if only once we really fought / Yes, maybe still we'd not survive / but we'd at least have been alive!"
Adds Maltby a bit ruefully, "True, Barbara and I didn't have any fights .... "
That wistfulness is vintage Maltby, apparent not only in "A Time for Love" but also in "Baby," the 1983 Broadway musical, written with Shire, that will be presented in a Reprise! concert on Monday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, with Faith Prince and Alice Ripley. In the Maltby-Shire universe, love is sweet, at times deliriously so, but fraught with ambiguity and disappointment — a restless and analytical state of mind that pitches their songbook somewhere between the simple homilies of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the astringent, hard-earned romanticism of Stephen Sondheim.
"There's no such thing as a clean relationship or an un-complex moment in marriage," says Maltby cheerfully, as he and Silberman sit in a midtown rehearsal hall, prepping "A Time for Love." "There's always a part of you saying, 'I'm so happy, I've never been so happy, you're the best thing that's ever happened to me' and a little voice saying, 'If you were only out of my life, I'd finally be able to breathe again.' "
The boyish Maltby is remarkably relaxed for someone who is concurrently working on no less than a half-dozen musicals. It's a situation as reflective of his past success as of the sheer scarcity of musical book writers.
Having written the screenplay for the recently released Renée Zellweger film, "Miss Potter," he is back to adapting the 1985 film "Mask" into a musical with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; readying "Take Flight," a musical with Shire about aviation heroes that premieres in London this summer; collaborating with his wife, Janet Brenner, and Ken Levine on "The '60s Project," a jukebox musical workshopped last summer at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut; and doctoring "The Pirate Queen," the latest Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg epic about Grace O'Malley, the 16th century Irish chieftain, warrior, lover and mother. That musical, which had a troubled tryout in Chicago, opens next month on Broadway.
What infects, or will infect, all of these shows is what suffuses "A Time for Love": Maltby's faith in romance — or at least the chance of it. That theme has dominated his work since he met Shire when they were at Yale. Some critics have found his efforts to be occasionally cloying, as with his stumble last spring in "Ring of Fire," the surprisingly rosy Johnny Cash musical he conceived and directed. One reviewer characterized it as wresting with "a really bad case of the cutes."
But while the director is philosophical about the quick fold — "When the producers approached me, I told them they had the wrong man, and maybe I was right" — he is unapologetic for his "naively emotional" vision of a Johnny Cash America in which rural families plow forward through tribulation with honor and dignity. "I'm a sucker for that," he says.
Maltby tends to be less of the cockeyed optimist when it comes to personal relationships. When Silberman interjects that the lyricist tends to write about them with an indictment of his own gender and a deep understanding of women, Maltby mordantly replies, "The only person who does not agree with that is my wife: 'He doesn't understand women at all!' " He then refers to two songs, "There" and "Fandango." The first paints the picture of a loving husband who is helpful but just not "there," while the latter describes two passive-aggressives who trying to persuade the other to take care of the baby while they dash off to their respective appointments. "I guess what I do understand is the fact that in any relationship, you never tell the truth!"
Unlike Sondheim, Maltby believes it's the little things you do together that cement a relationship rather than put it on ice.
"In that way I'm more of the Hammerstein mind-set; he believed in the power of emotions that make up daily life," he says. "You're on this Earth for a limited amount of time so why spend it being miserable and making others miserable? Solve the problem and move on. Even in 'Company,' you never doubt that these couples really love each other and belong together."
Since "Mask" and "Taking Flight" have been so long in development, it would seem that there is little room on Broadway these days for the simple and heartfelt reach of some of Maltby's work — even if he may be partly responsible for that. "Ain't Misbehavin' " was an early pioneer of the catalog musical, and the epic "Miss Saigon," like "The Pirate Queen," is from the Bigger Is Better school of thought.
Even so, like many of his peers, Maltby is alarmed that audiences are being trained to expect only the familiar — "if they don't already know the tunes, they don't go" — at the expense of the new and startling. But he's sanguine that a new crop of songwriters is emerging to fill in creative vacuum. And the terrain for many will be what continues, for him, to be the most unexplored and unfathomable: the human heart.
"It is the one totally enduring mystery," he says. "What on Earth makes us do the ridiculous things we do? What are all those books and plays about? They're just telling us that we're not alone, that somebody else has confronted those same emotions and often in much worse dilemmas and situations. And that they got through it. The human heart is unbelievably resilient and completely surprising."
What: 'A Time for Love'
Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura
When: Opens 7 p.m. Saturday. Runs 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Feb. 25
Price: $26 to $49
Contact: (805) 667-2900
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Westwood
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Contact: (310) 825-2101Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times