CULTURAL CONVERSATION WITH JOHN KANDER
A Musical Partnership Goes On
Even After Fred Ebb’s Death
By MATTHEW GUREWITSCH
June 17, 2008; Page D9
New York, New York
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere . . .
The lyricist Fred Ebb was a Manhattan native; the composer John Kander heard the siren song from Kansas City, Mo. Their association lasted 40-plus years, yielding more than 2,000 songs and more than a dozen musicals. Mayor Ed Koch declared their paean to the Big Apple the city’s official anthem.
Let troubadours compose to bare their souls; Kander and Ebb never worked that way. “We always wrote to character,” says Mr. Kander, 81. “We always let people speak in their own voice. We had no idea who we were.”
Introduced to each other in the early 1960s by the publisher Tommy Valando, they got off to a flying start with free-standing songs like “My Coloring Book” and “I Don’t Care Much,” both recorded by Barbra Streisand. “We were very fast,” Mr. Kander says. “Very fertile.” “I Don’t Care Much” was dashed off at a dinner party between dessert and coffee: “While the others were clearing the table, we went to the piano. Fred asked, ‘What shall we write about?’ I said, ‘I don’t care much,’ and he said, ‘OK, play a waltz!’ In its own short little way, it’s a very, very good song, precise and concise. And it just happened that way.”
For decades, Kander and Ebb’s rhythm seldom varied. Every morning, Mr. Kander would wake up in the Upper West Side townhouse he bought in the drug-infested ’60s “for a song – well, maybe a couple of songs.” Then he would stroll the few blocks to Mr. Ebb’s place and sit down at the piano. For the next several hours, rhymes and rhythms flew back and forth. Any bright idea that had lost its luster overnight was tossed without compunction. Sad songs, happy songs, pensive songs of innocence, decadent songs of experience, numbers Mr. Kander calls “screamers” (“Life has kicked the s- out of me,” he paraphrases, “but I’m gonna live it!”) – nothing found them at a loss.
“We were not the most public of public figures, Freddy and I,” says Mr. Kander. “What we liked to do was work.” He has been on his own since Sept. 11, 2004, when Mr. Ebb succumbed to a heart attack at 71, or maybe 72, or more likely 76 (but definitely not 68, as he wanted the world to think).
Not a minute passes when someone, somewhere isn’t performing Kander and Ebb. “What a nice thing to contemplate!” Mr. Kander reflects. “The sun never sets! I’m glad if that’s true. I think I’m as lucky a person as I’ve known in my life.”
Alphabetically, Kander and Ebb’s Broadway credits run the gamut from “The Act” to “Zorba” by way of “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Chronologically, the list began in 1965 with “Flora, the Red Menace,” the flop that catapulted Liza Minnelli to stardom at age 19. (“Liza with a Z” once called herself “a figment of Fred Ebb’s imagination.” The sobriquet, too, was his invention.)
Even now, the chronicle continues. “When Fred died,” Mr. Kander says, “there were a bunch of songs that needed to be written, and I just went ahead and did them.” Four shows they had been working on were left incomplete.
One was “The Visit,” a parable of betrayal and vengeance after the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Though mounted at the Goodman Theatre in 2001, that production was more in the nature of a work in progress than definitive. Last month, a substantially revamped edition opened at Signature, the acclaimed musical-theater company in Arlington, Va., for a limited run ending June 22.
Chita Rivera – ex of “Chicago,” “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” not to mention “The Visit” in Chicago – stars as the indestructible Claire Zachanassian, cast out of her native village in the Alps a lifetime ago as a penniless tramp. Capping a career of strategic marriages, Claire returns, now the richest woman in the world, offering the destitute villagers billions for the life of Anton Schell, the man who did her wrong. Comedy gets no blacker than this, yet this time it reads as a love story, too; and the darkness has a heart. The Broadway engagement the creators once dreamed of – Angela Lansbury was to have been the star – remains in the realm of wishes.
Development continues on “The Minstrel Show,” which is based on the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black Depression-era youths falsely accused of raping two white girls. In limbo for now is the Kander and Ebb adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “By the Skin of Our Teeth,” found wanting when it tried out last spring in Westport, Conn.
Around the same time, the backstage murder mystery “Curtains” came in for a smooth Broadway landing. The run ends on June 29, with its sublime original cast virtually intact. David Hyde Pierce, his touch as light as a feather, stars as a detective with a taste for show tunes. Which comes first, he wonders between homicides, the words or the music?
“Same answer as the chicken or the egg,” says Jason Danieley as the composing half of a husband-and-wife songwriting team no longer as close as they used to be.
“Ah,” the detective reasons, “so it’s the lyric.”
“No,” the composer answers, about to dispense what sounds like the recipe for writing like Kander and Ebb. “It can start with a note. Which can become a phrase. And then you trying hanging words off each branch, like trimming a tree.” It seems so simple.
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NOTE: The Visit plays a limited engagement through this Sunday, June 22 at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. Curtains ends its run on Broadway on Sunday, June 29 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 West 45th Street).