March 18, 1927– John Kander
The celebrated songwriting team of Kander and Ebb were working on the very special musical, The Scottsboro Boys, when Ebb took his final curtain call in 2004, gone of a heart attack. The Scottsboro Boys tells the true story of nine young black men falsely accused of rape in 1931. It opened on Broadway in 2010 to strong reviews and weak box-office. Today is the birthday of the musical half of the famous songwriting team, John Kander.
From The Act to Zorba, for 5+ decades, Kander and Ebb have been Broadway’s top songwriting team, the longest running music/lyrics partnership in Broadway musical history. They’ve given the world some of the great creations of the American Musical Theatre. Their scores have a breathtaking ability to capture the flavor of a specific time and place, with songs brimming with audacity and Ebb’s brilliant, droll, penetrating lyrics. The team has taken on serious, challenging subjects like Nazism, abortion, murder, capital punishment, prison torture, greed and corruption, and gay love with originality and stunning talent. Their work celebrates the love of show biz and making it big, and the passion for performing and entertaining. Their musical numbers mock Fascism and flirt with death. The duo always complemented each other with Kander’s lyricism sweetening Ebb’s wit and Ebb’s cynicism roughing up Kander’s romanticism. Kander and Ebb’s work combine razzle-dazzle with a political conscience, and that’s not that easy to do.
On Kander’s award shelf: Tonys, Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and Songwriters Hall Of Fame Awards. They’ve written songs especially for the great performers of our day: Lauren Bacall, Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, Stephen Rutledge, Gwen Verdon, Frank Sinatra, Robert Goulet, and Chita Rivera.
In 1962, a young singer named Barbra Streisand, had her first hits with two of Kander & Ebb very first songs, My Coloring Book and I Don’t Care Much, and all of their careers were launched. In 1965, their first produced show, Flora The Red Menace, introduced Liza to Broadway, 50 years and 25 shows later, Kander and Ebb are still at it, even with half the team deceased.
Without his writing partner, Kander’s career has not been limited to theater. He has written scores for several films. These include: Something For Everyone (1969), Kramer VS. Kramer (1979), Still Of The Night (1982), Places In The Heart (1984), I Want To Go Home (1989), and Billy Bathgate (1991). He also collaborated with Ebb for one of their most famous accomplishments, New York, New York (1977). As a duo they also wrote songs for Funny Lady (1975) and Lucky Lady (1975), and although I like the tunes, for me one wasn’t funny and the other wasn’t so lucky.
Their famous anthem to the greatest city on the planet, New York, New York, was composed “in under an hour” when Martin Scorsese, director of the film of the same name, told the songwriters that its star, Robert De Niro, found their original version “too light”. Kander:
“We were pretty pissed off and thought, ‘How dare he? But, De Niro was absolutely right. Now I can’t remember what that original version sounded like.”
The Kander and Ebb musical, The Visit, was worked and reworked many times since its inception at the beginning of this century. It was revived in a new one-act version last season on Broadway, directed by John Doyle, and starring Chita Rivera, a Kander and Ebb muse. The musical received five 2015 Tony Award nominations: Best Musical, Best Book Of A Musical, Best Original Score, Best Performance by an Actress In A Leading Role In A Musical (Rivera), and Best Lighting Design. However, sadly, it failed to win a single one. All the attention was on some rap musical about a founding father.
Kander’s newest musical, Kid Victory had its world premiere last year at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. It was written with his newest collaborator, Greg Pierce, the young nephew of actor/director David Hyde Pierce who won a 2007 Tony Award for Kander and Ebb’s witty detective musical Curtains.
In 2006, at 79 years old, Kander bravely came out of the closet. He said he had waited so long for professional reasons. I agree, because who would go to a Broadway musical written by a homosexual?!? In 2010, Kander was able to marry his longtime partner Albert Stephenson, who is a Broadway dancer and choreographer.
I have sung some Kander & Ebb songs professionally. I appeared in a Seattle production of Cabaret in 1990 as Herr Schultz, singing a love song about pineapples and a big number about being an ugly Jew. I was simply terrific. I had Mr. Cellophane from Chicago as an audition song in the 1980s; it’s rather perfect for me. My personal favorite of all their tunes is Coffee In A Cardboard Cup from their underrated, unappreciated show 70, Girls, 70.
I am a really big fan. In my Top Ten Musicals Of All Time are two of their creations. When I was 12 years old, Cabaret was the first original Broadway Cast Album I purchased with my own money. Before that, I had only had my parental units’ collection of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Lerner & Loewe albums to guide me towards my Musical Theatre geekness. In the mid-1970s, I loved the original production of Chicago so much, I saw it six times, including once with Liza going on for an incapacitated Gwen Verdon.
Kander celebrates his 89th birthday today. Here is a list his contributions to Musical Theatre. I like lists:
- A Family Affair (1962) – lyrics by William Goldman
- Flora The Red Menace (1965)
- Cabaret (1966)
- Go Fly A Kite (1966)
- The Happy Time (1968)
- Zorba (1968)
- 70, Girls, 70 (1971)
- Chicago (1976)
- The Act (1978)
- Woman Of The Year (1981)
- The Rink (1984)
- Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1992)
- Steel Pier (1997)
- Fosse (1999)
- Over And Over (1999)
- The Visit (2001)
- Curtains (2006)
- The Scottsboro Boys (2010)