My friends know that I have a passion for the lyrics that go with the music. Fred Ebb (1928 – 2004) was a real master of lyrics for musical theatre and the popular songs. His work has had an influence on my life. I had the privilege of performing his songs when I played Herr Shultz in a Seattle production of Cabaret in 1990. His lyrics have touched me, entertained and amazed me for over five decades.
He is gone now, but his last two shows on Broadway opened after he left this world, Curtains! (2006) and The Scottsboro Boys (2010)… now that’s prolific! As a writer, lyricist, composer and director, Ebb made incalculable contributions to the theatre and to popular song.
Ebb is a Tony Award, Grammy Award, Emmy Award, Olivier Award and Kennedy Center Honors winner.
His first professional songwriting assignment came in 1953 when he was hired by Columbia Records to write a new song for Gay Icon Judy Garland called Heartbroken. Ebb was introduced to composer John Kander in 1964 by legendary music publisher Tommy Valando. The team of Kander and Ebb became one of the most legendary songwriting teams in American Theatre history.
Their first successful collaboration was the quirky song My Coloring Book recorded by a new 20-year old-singer named Barbra Streisand in 1963.
The team’s second theatrical collaboration, Flora The Red Menace, made a star of 19-year-old Liza Minnelli in her Tony Award winning Broadway debut. In 1966, Cabaret opened and received seven Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score. A 1972 movie version of Cabaret was released starring Minnelli and is one of the best film musicals of all time. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won eight, plus it was nominated for nine Golden Globe Awards and won three, including Best Picture Musical or Comedy. That same year, the team wrote a number of songs for Minnelli’s television special Liza With A Z which received an Emmy Award. In 1975, the pair wrote the Broadway musical Chicago, directed by Fosse and starring Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach.
That musical was successfully revived 20 years later at City Center ENCORES! and then transferred to Broadway where it is currently the longest running revival in Broadway history. In 1977, the team collaborated with Martin Scorsese on the underrated film New York, New York; the title song was introduced by Minnelli, but later recorded by Frank Sinatra made it a hit and the unofficial theme song of NYC.
The Minnelli Broadway vehicle The Act also opened that year. After a four year absence, Ebb and Kander returned to Broadway with Woman Of The Year (1981), The Rink (1984), Kiss Of The Spiderwoman (1985) and Steel Pier (1997). The 2002 feature film version of Chicago was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won six, including Best Picture, and it was also nominated for eight Golden Globe Awards, winning three, including Best Picture.
Two of Ebb’s “flops” Zorba (1968) & 70, Girls, 70 (1971) are among my favorite musical theatre scores.
For most of his professional life, Ebb lived and worked in the same apartment overlooking Manhattan’s Central Park. I was there once. It had a terrific view. Ebb’s apartment was decorated with theatre memorabilia and European Expressionist paintings and posters. He had one of the largest record album collections I have ever encountered.
Despite the polymorphous perverse themes of their musicals, both Kander and Ebb were reticent about discussing their gayness in the press, preferring to let their songs speak for themselves. In 2003, Kander addressed rumors about their non-professional relationship by announcing:
“Our 40 year partnership in creativity but never in domesticity, much less romance.“
Ebb took his final bow on September 11, 2004. At Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn there is a gravestone for Ebb that has two other names. The three names and the phrase “Together Forever” are inscribed on it. Intrigued, my research showed that Ebb had worked with the other two names: Edwin Aldridge and Martin Cohen, on several Broadway productions. Aldridge’s New York Times‘ two line obituary simply reads: “He is survived by his closest friend, Fred Ebb“. So, I have absolutely no idea what this is all about.
One thing I know
And I’ve always known
I am my own best friend
But baby’s alone
And baby’s her own best friend
Many’s the kind
Who told me he cares
But they were scratchin’ my back
‘Cause I was scratchin’ theirs…
And trusting too
That’s only for fools
I play the game
When I make the rules
And rule number one
From here to the end
Is I am my own best friend
Baby’s her own best friend
Who never said die
Are standing here this minute
Me, myself, and I…
Life is a schoolFred Ebb, 1976
I’ll pass every test
If life is a game
I’ll play it the best
‘Cause I won’t give in
And I’ll never bend
And I am my own best friend