John Kander carries on after losing his old chum Fred Ebb


First you dream: John Kander says, “A rehearsal hall is . . . what I like most. It’s always a little sad when it’s up there on the stage and it’s all over.” (Melanie Burford/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

John Kander has lived in the same four story brownstone since 1968, a place just off Central Park West he bought not two years after he made his name as a composer with lyricist Fred Ebb with the Broadway smash “Cabaret.” Bashfully posing for a photographer on his sequestered brick patio, Kander remarks that he’s also had the same country house upstate since 1973.

“I don’t do change well,” the 85-year-old grins.

Yet the night before, Kander sauntered to the front of the small Vineyard Theatre stage in downtown Manhattan and introduced the audience to his newest musical, “The Landing.” At his side, representing colossal change, was 34-year-old Greg Pierce — the first writing partner Kander has worked with after more than four decades with Ebb.

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Broadway hits and misses


The songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb, whose career has been turned into the production “First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb.” (Courtesy of The Kennedy Center)

Even folks without the gene that hitches humans to musical theater have a clue about how spectacularly the Kander and Ebb partnership worked out. Chances are you can hum along, old chum, with such national anthems as “Cabaret” and “New York, New York.” You’ve probably seen the ageless “Chicago” onstage somewhere in the world — the revival of that 1975 musical has been grinding on Broadway since 1996 — or in its 2002 Oscar-winning movie form.

You can probably hear Liza Minnelli belting the kind of triumphant Kander and Ebb showstoppers that Kander labeled “screamers” (“Maybe This Time,” “And the World Goes ’Round”). Maybe you can even picture Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera or Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking slithering and snapping like Jazz Age vamps to Bob Fosse choreography.

Until Ebb’s sudden death in 2004, Kander and Ebb meant a whole lot of showbiz heaven.

Their fabled career will be celebrated at the Kennedy Center starting Friday in “First You Dream,” a revue featuring six singers and a 23-piece orchestra (up slightly from its brief 2009 premiere at Eric Schaeffer’s Signature Theatre across the river in Shirlington). “A gold mine” is how director and co-conceiver Schaeffer describes the Kander and Ebb catalogue; Schaeffer says the revue includes songs from each Kander and Ebb musical (“Zorba,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” etc.), plus movie numbers they wrote for “New York, New York” and “Funny Lady.”

Finishing what he started

If it’s only now that Kander is moving into the post-Ebb phase of his career, it’s because he had to finish the shows they had in the pipeline. Four projects — “The Visit,” “All About Us,” “Curtains” and “The Scottsboro Boys” — were far enough along for Kander to see them through.

David Loud, the longtime musical director for Kander and Ebb shows and the co-conceiver with Schaeffer of “First You Dream,” says: “Fred was the one who wanted the New York success and worked his contacts and made sure the shows were produced. All of a sudden, it was John who was doing that.”

“All About Us” was the rewrite of “Over and Over,” the adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “Skin of Our Teeth” that premiered at Signature in 1999. (The show received several regional productions, but recently the rights reverted back to the Wilder estate.) “Curtains,” a comic mystery about a detective who happens to love musicals, became a Broadway hit in 2007-08. That show earned David Hyde Pierce, Greg Pierce’s uncle, a Tony Award, and also featured Kander’s lament for Ebb, “I Miss the Music.”

“The Visit” seemed poised for Broadway when Chita Rivera, who has won two Tonys in Kander and Ebb shows, headlined the cast with George Hearn at Signature in 2008. But despite the layers of polish that had been applied since “The Visit” first surfaced at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2001, the dark tale — based on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play about a millionaire who returns to the destitute village where she was raised — didn’t make the hoped-for leap to New York. Kander and his colleagues openly wished for a full production after a one-night-only Broadway concert staging last November. No luck.

“What’s most frustrating about it to me is that Chita’s performance is not enshrined in some way, because this is a theater artist at the absolute peak of her power. That’s what gets lost. Performances get lost,” Kander says.

Now “The Scottsboro Boys” is making its way across the country after a New York run that included 12 Tony nominations last year. The controversial show, which pointedly turns the old minstrel format inside out as it exhumes the notorious history of the nine black teenagers wrongfully accused of rape in 1930s Alabama, ended up winning no Tonys and lasting only three months on Broadway.

But its partisans are fervent. Audra McDonald included a song from the show during her concert tour last fall, drawing cheers as she announced it, and director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s staging has just moved from Philadelphia to San Diego’s Old Globe, with San Francisco as the next stop. In Philadelphia, Stroman experimented by taking out the blackface that the black performers used; Kander says the blackface is back, and that the show is better for it.

“It should really slap you in the face,” he says — a characteristic effect for a composer whose tunes have infused corruption with arresting merriness and set decadence to jaunty steps.

Stroman and Kander are hopeful that the production can find a home in Washington. Kander terms “The Scottsboro Boys” “the most intense experience that Stro or Tommy [book writer David Thompson] or I ever had.”

‘Making art with friends’

It’s odd, the showbiz roller coaster that drops nonstop gold on “Cabaret” and “Chicago” but makes it an uphill climb for shows Kander prizes as highly. He’s not altogether stoic about the climate nowadays. Kander describes himself as “completely mystified” by the way producing has evolved since the time Hal Prince took Kander and Ebb aside, weeks before “Cabaret” opened, promising that they’d plan the next project after the opening, no matter what.

“I don’t know starting out today how you do it,” Kander says of young musical theater writers. “Theater is unbelievably expensive to produce, and I don’t know where the money goes. I’ve talked to producer friends who try to explain it to me, and I still don’t get it.”

Even so, for Kander, putting a show together seems to be a beautiful game that he’s not inclined to give up.

“A rehearsal hall is the safest place in the world, and it’s what I like most,” Kander says. “It’s always a little sad when it’s up there on the stage and it’s all over. Nobody can predict what will or will not be successful to other people or to critics. You’re really doing it because you want to make some art with friends. That’s a simple way of putting it: making art with friends.”

So he’s sparkly about “The Landing,” the three short pieces in 90 minutes he’s fashioned with Pierce. (The Vineyard show, which features David Hyde Pierce, is a workshop production closed to critics.) The two have been friends for nearly a decade, beginning with Kander mentoring a group that included Pierce at his alma mater, Oberlin College. As he wrapped up “Scottsboro Boys,” Kander realized he wanted to create something small-scale. He admired Pierce’s short stories. He suggested getting together.

“It’s different,” Kander says of the writing process with Pierce. “Partly because Greg likes the country and Fred didn’t.”

Kander and Ebb were famous for creating at the piano, and sometimes on the spot. The swaggering “New York, New York” was written in a huff after Robert De Niro suggested that his character in the 1977 Martin Scorsese film needed something more momentous than the tune they’d submitted. The tart, gloating “I Don’t Care Much,” included in the revivals of “Cabaret,” emerged for fun during a dinner party at Ebb’s. (Backstage tales abound in their 2003 memoir “Colored Lights.”)

“Just as I can recognize Fred and me together, what that third voice was,” Kander says, “I’m beginning to recognize Greg’s and mine.”

Kander’s open attitude toward musical forms and story gives Pierce a useful shot of confidence. “It’s helpful for me,” says Pierce, “to feel like John is exploring, too.”

Pierce, whose new play “Slowgirl” christened the Lincoln Center’s intimate LCT3 space when it opened Monday, is more private and circumspect. He’ll play “what if?” with Kander, but then often retreats to hammer out lyrics on his own.

“Just as I can recognize Fred and me together, what that third voice was,” Kander says, “I’m beginning to recognize Greg’s and mine.”

Kander’s open attitude toward musical forms and story gives Pierce a useful shot of confidence. “It’s helpful for me,” he says, “to feel like John is exploring, too.”

Loud, the musical director for “The Landing,” reports that Kander is “always the youngest person in the room,” and says, “I don’t know if it’s because John is a young soul and Greg is an old soul, but it’s a happy collaboration.”

Loud is lucid describing Kander the composer: the signature tunes of pain and triumph, the melodic simplicity and harmonic sophistication, the uncanny balance between Kander’s music and Ebb’s lyrics. Stroman, of course, appreciates the way Kander’s music opens up for dance, which is not a given with Broadway composers. Stroman and Loud both note how consistently music flows through Kander, who reports that he hears music all the time.

“Even during this conversation,” he says.

Stroman says she thinks of him as Pigpen from “Peanuts,” but with a difference: “I picture Kander walking down the street with all this music swirling around him,” she laughs.

Indeed, Kander has a full-length piece in the works with Pierce, and he has been meeting with Thompson and Stroman at Stroman’s kitchen table in the way those collaborators used to brainstorm at Ebb’s. There’s a devil in Kander’s smile as he says he expects major progress on both projects very soon.

Says Stroman, “We’re all chasing him.”

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Broadway hits and misses

First You Dream

music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Friday through July 11 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600, 800-444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

John Kander — a life’s work:

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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