In a Manhattan rehearsal studio, actors are learning songs for a new musical called “Kid Victory.” Sarah Litzsinger delivers a brief solo as a sarcastic Kansas teen, and legendary Broadway composer John Kander — looking far from intimidating in his rumpled jeans, white sneakers and an untucked blue shirt — asks if she can do a little more with her character’s self-deprecating joke.
Litzsinger sings it again, and her body comes alive during the verse. Kander, who turns 88 next month, beams.
A little later Kander’s new writing partner, 36-year-old book writer and lyricist Greg Pierce, slips into the room. The cast drills a complicated number; the show, which begins performances at Signature Theatre on Tuesday, is about a teenage boy who returns home after a year-long kidnapping ordeal. The rhythms and harmonies twist and soar. Pierce’s head nods in time. Kander’s doesn’t.
Yet Pierce, who until lately worked mainly as a short story writer and playwright, isn’t shy about asking whether a song might work better with a single voice or a chorus.
“There’s really no time to think, I don’t have a whole lot of experience in this realm. You just kind of have to do it,” says Pierce later in a room down the hall.
“At the same time,” says Kander, sitting next to Pierce, “I really want to know what he’s feeling about what music is doing in this scene, and the reverse – I’m able to talk about a moment that I don’t believe or something like that. It’s a very tight collaboration.”
This is John Kander after Fred Ebb. It’s been a decade in the making, this new John Kander determined to keep composing music and creating original shows. Kander and Ebb had established one of the most beloved, daring and durable partnerships in the history of American musicals, and the team that gave the world “Cabaret” and “Chicago” and Liza Minnelli belting the ultimate swaggering anthem “New York, New York” was still at work when Ebb died in 2004.
Phase 1 for Kander was tending the flame, making it his business to see that projects such as “Curtains” and “The Scottsboro Boys” not only got finished but also got produced. (It was “Curtains,” the backstage murder mystery starring David Hyde Pierce, that featured the song “I Miss the Music,” with lyrics by Kander that made his feelings plain in the moving line “I miss my friend.”) “The Visit,” which premiered in 2001 in Chicago and was staged at Signature in 2008, will finally make it to Broadway next month, with Chita Rivera, now 82, in the starring role she has played at every stop.
But a few years ago Kander settled on his next partner, and his second phase seems to be a working reality. He and Pierce collaborated on a small-scale musical for four musicians and four actors called “The Landing,” which opened at Manhattan’s Vineyard Theatre in 2013 with Pierce’s uncle, David Hyde Pierce, in the cast. (The Vineyard is also coproducing “Kid Victory,” though there are no dates yet for the New York run.)
They are already at work on a third musical. The partnership seems to be going well.
“We’re having our usual good time,” Kander says.
For Pierce, it helps that he and Kander had known each other for 10 years before they thought of writing together. It was Kander who made the call.
“When we started brainstorming for ‘The Landing,’ ” Pierce says, “we didn’t have to tiptoe around each other or make sure we were staying friends. It was wonderful, and we could be really honest.”
“Kid Victory” has been pieced together playing Kander’s creative game of “what if” in his Upstate studio. Though the story seems torn from the headlines, the duo wrote their own Kansas-set story after looking into all kinds of kidnapping cases.
“There are lots of them,” Kander says. “I think the thing that appealed was that there’s nothing about adjusting back into life, or very little in terms of our research. When you think about it, that’s the main thing. Terrible things happen to people, but what happens then? How do you manage? Who do you become?”
And who does Kander become, writing with someone more than a half century his junior?
“The word that keeps coming into my head about when we started writing together is ‘freedom,’ ” Kander says. “And I can’t really tell you what I mean by that. I was never not free. So it doesn’t make much sense. But maybe it’s a just whole new experience, a whole new path.”
“The Landing” and “Kid Victory” certainly seem to reveal an open-minded approach to writing. “We don’t start with a story and say, ‘Where are the songs?’ ” Pierce says.
“We have developed a kind of habit of going in and out of music, so that maybe the orchestra is going along and then somebody sings a line or speaks a line,” Kander says.
The Kander-Pierce connection started at Oberlin College when Pierce was studying English and Kander was mentoring students at his alma mater. They stayed in touch as Pierce graduated, moved to New York, kept writing stories and performed with a sketch comedy troupe. He hated acting, though, and he dreaded the idea of actually getting a role after auditions.
“I realized I’m really supposed to love acting, and I don’t,” says Pierce, looking boyish and bookish in round tortoiseshell glasses. “My uncle is a born actor, and he loves it. And my grandfather [amateur actor George Hyde Pierce]. I loved watching them, and it was just a thing I thought I was supposed to like more. And I was a little bit of a closet writer at that point.”
“But you were never not writing short stories,” Kander says.
“That’s true,” Pierce agrees. “But I wasn’t trying to get published in that period. I think I was pretty quiet about it.”
“I’m not talking about career stuff,” Kander persists. “You cannot not write any more than I can stop the music that’s going on in my head.”
Pierce’s playwriting career got a jump-start three years ago when his “Slowgirl” was chosen to open Lincoln Center Theatre’s new Clair Tow space, just as “The Landing” was getting a workshop production at the Vineyard. He currently has another play in development with LCT, and is writing the libretto for an opera that should eventually debut in Cincinnatti. Plus now he and Kander are clearly committed to another show, a period French comedy that they can’t divulge until the rights are secured, but that would move them toward operetta.
You’d think that a comparatively unproven writer working with a master might feel some pressure to come up with, you know, something like a Kander and Ebb musical. But Pierce says that never happened.
“Maybe it was the storytelling style,” Pierce says. “In ‘The Landing,’ we were using narrators and kind of telling short stories onstage. And I never felt that from John: it was always a feeling of total equality and his generosity, and also just, ‘We’re going figure out our own way of working together.’ There was never a feeling of This Is How I Work. It was so easy.”
“And as far as a Kander and Ebb show,” Kander adds, “I wouldn’t know one if it bit me on the nose. I really have no idea, and Freddy felt this, too. Once in a while writers would tell us, ‘We just wrote a real Kander and Ebb song!’ And then they’d play it for us, and we’d think, Okaaaay. To this day I don’t know what that is.”
It’s true: the Kander-Ebb variety far exceeds the glorious flash and sarcastic glamour of the ever-present “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” which even now are running on Broadway. (The touring “Chicago” wraps up a one-week stand at the National Theatre on Sunday.) Subjects range from dance marathons in “Steel Pier” to the sex-and-politics fantasia of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and an ill-fated adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” that premiered as “Over and Over” at Signature in 1999.
The rehearsal room is obviously still a tonic: “Everything else in the world could be s---,” he says, “but the life in that room is wonderful to me. And the older I get, which is pretty old, the more in love with it I am.”
It’s also nice not to have to prove himself — not to fret about whether big-time producers will go for it, or whether these projects with Pierce nurtured in the not-for-profit realm will get any kind of toehold on Broadway.
“I think our work together is almost totally devoid of worrying about whether it’s going to have any commercial life,” Kander says with a contented smile. “It’s very selfish what we do. And we are really, really pleasing ourselves. If that’s allowed.”
Kid Victory, story by John Kander and Greg Pierce, music by John Kander, book and lyrics by Greg Pierce. Tuesday-March 22 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington. Tickets $29-$105, subject to change. Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.