March 18, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

Today is the 96th birthday of the legendary composer John Kander, who is still doing what he does best: writing musicals. His New York, New York, an adaptation of the 1977 film of the same name, will begin previews March 24th at the St. James (a theatre he's never been associated with —yes, I think about these things). With long-time lyric-writing partner, Fred Ebb, the team created eleven Broadway shows from Flora the Red Menace (1966) to Steel Pier (1997) before his death in 2004. That count can now be upped to fifteen musicals since four additional productions, Curtains (2007), The Scottsboro Boys (2010), The Visit (2015) and now New York, New York have all came to Broadway. Lyricist Rupert Holmes contributed to the lyrics for Curtains as well as Kander himself, who also took a co-writing credit with Ebb on the lyrics to The Scottsboro Boys. In fact, one of the most beautiful ballads Kander ever wrote is Go Back Home from that musical and it’s his own haunting words that accompany the lush melody.

Back at work (at age ninety-six) on "New York, New York" with Sam Davis (Music Supervisor) and latest lyricist collaborator, Lin Manuel Miranda.

Kander and Ebb were the recipients of three Tonys, two Emmys, two Grammys and the Kennedy Center Honors, among many other prizes. Kander himself is something of a prize: someone whose heart and soul belong to the theatre, a gift to his profession. A true gentleman who exemplifies grace and kindness to everything he contributes. Those who know him and have worked with him point out his loyal and calm presence; one you definitely want at your side when launching into the battle that is the creation of a musical.

John Kander and Fred Ebb, creative partners for life.

The eleven Broadway shows during Fred Ebb’s lifetime are: Flora, The Red Menace (1965), Cabaret (1966), The Happy Time (1968), Zorba (1968), 70, Girls, 70 (1971), Chicago (1975), The Act (1977), Woman of the Year (1981), The Rink (1984), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) and Steel Pier (1997). And with the exception of Flora and 70, Girls, 70 (which, for what it’s worth, is one of my personal favorite scores of theirs), each received Tony nominations for Best Score. Add three more for Curtains, The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit and it totals twelve of fourteen scores nominated — a phenomenal batting average.

Kander and Ebb with two of their muses, Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera in rehearsal for "The Rink" (1984).

There have been three Kander musicals, The Landing (2013), Kid Victory (2017) and The Beast in the Jungle (2018), produced off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, where he has enjoyed a creative home post-Ebb. Having seen the first two (done in collaboration with Greg Pierce handling the lyric and book chores), I can claim unequivocally that the melodies we have come to know and love from Kander are still as fresh and exciting as anything done in his prime. I marvel at not only his level of consistency, but his commitment to continue to tell stories through song.

John Kander was born in Kansas City, Missouri to a Jewish family that had been in that city for generations. As Kander describes it, “There were a couple of rabbis in the family, but we only observed on the High Holy Days, and we also celebrated Christmas.” He even found out years later, somewhat after the fact, that a teacher had once phoned his parents to say “John wrote a Christmas carol. Is that all right? I know that you’re Jewish.”

Through his parents’ encouragement, Kander started learning to play the piano at age six, deepening an already burgeoning appreciation for music, which had played an important part in his life from a very early age, exemplified in a story from the 2003 biographical book Colored Lights (as told to Greg Lawrence):

“From the time I was about six months old until just before my first birthday, I had tuberculosis and had to be isolated. Of course, a child with tuberculosis was quarantined, and I was kept on a sleeping porch. People would come to the door with masks on, and whoever was taking care of me always wore a mask. My earliest memory was hearing the sound of footsteps and voices coming toward me or going away. With that experience, organized sound became more important to me, and I can’t help but believe that it affected the way I organized sound later in my life.”

Fascinating in light of the pandemic, isn’t it?

Kander studied music at Oberlin College and earned his master’s degree in 1953 from Columbia University. One fateful night four years later, he found himself in attendance at the opening night of West Side Story and at its afterparty at the Variety Club. A shy person, the bar was five or six deep and it was only through the intervention of a short, bald man who took pity on the young Kander that he was able to get a drink. His savior turned out to be Joe Lewis, the pit pianist, and from a friendship struck up that evening, Kander got the chance to sub for Lewis when he took a vacation. Timing being everything, he was picked for an extra gig to play in the rehearsal room while replacements were being auditioned for West Side Story. This allowed him to be around Jerome Robbins, the show’s director/choreographer, who recognized Kander’s talents. “Hey, would you like to do the dance arrangements on this new show with me?,” Robbins asked one day. Which is how John Kander got his first Broadway credit on a little musical called Gypsy.

To add to the good luck of that story, Kander has stated (with modesty): “I’m convinced to this day that if I had been able to order my own drink at the Variety Club, I would never have had a career.”

Later in the same year as Gypsy, he got another job as a dance arranger on the musical Irma La Douce. Though imported from London, it was being re-choreographed by the great Onna White who asked in rehearsal one day, “Is there anything we can do with penguins?” As Kander tells it:

“She turned to me and said, ‘John, can you give us a little penguin music?’ That moment led to a penguin ballet. Improvisational experiences like that can be terrifying but they eventually give you a theatrical looseness. You eventually learn how to go with the flow of your collaborators, and you also learn not to be afraid of making a fool of yourself.”

It wasn’t long thereafter that Kander wrote his first musical, A Family Affair, in collaboration with the Goldman brothers: James, who would go on to write Follies with Stephen Sondheim, and William, who would forgo a Broadway career as a novelist, essayist and screenwriter, wining Academy Awards for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. And though A Family Affair wasn’t successful, the good luck of a last-minute replacement of the original director by the still boy wonder producer phenomena Harold Prince (for which this marked his debut as a director), began a working relationship that would provide Kander and his soon-to-be partner Fred Ebb, the opportunities of a lifetime.

March 26, 1967, the night "Cabaret" won Best Musical. Kander, presenter of the award, Barbra Streisand, Fred Ebb and Harold Prince.

It was through famed music publisher Tommy Valando that Kander and Ebb were put together (Prince provided that introduction). That this mere whim of a suggestion turned into the longest running composer-lyricist team in Broadway history was kismet. Upon meeting one another at Ebb’s apartment, they wrote a song that very day. It wasn’t long before they were providing special material for cabaret performers like Kaye Ballard, who was an early supporter, which started to gain the attention of… you guessed it… Harold Prince. Brought in to meet the venerable George Abbott, the esteemed writer/director and mentor to Prince, the four embarked on a musical based on a book titled Love is Just Around the Corner that would come to be called Flora, the Red Menace.

Liza Minnelli in rehearsal with Bob Dishy for “Flora, the Red Menace” (1965).

Though it wasn’t a money-maker, the show won a Tony Award for the nineteen year-old Liza Minnelli, who would later become integral to the fortunes of Kander and Ebb, as well as a lifelong friend. It also served as a good enough working experience for Prince to tap the team to write his next musical he wanted to produce (and this time direct). Adapting Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories into the musical Cabaret helped Kander and Ebb (along with Stephen Sondheim) define the ensuing decade to come. They were indisputably the most successful team to come out of this new era that launched the concept musicals of the late sixties and seventies.

Over time, Kander & Ebb would come to musicalize subjects all over the map. There was the grim darkness of Cabaret, the musical vaudevilles that were 70, Girls, 70 and Chicago, and the taboo subject matters of Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Scottsboro Boys (the former winning the Tony Award for Best Musical after a disastrous pre-Broadway try out and the latter picketed by protestors during it’s short but oh-so-memorable run).

In a short, but memorable, conversation with Kander after a performance of Kid Victory at the Vineyard, I congratulated him, even though it was difficult to put into words how the evening had affected me due to a downbeat ending that packed an emotional finish to an already highly charged piece. When I asked him if it was a show he would ever have considered writing with Fred Ebb, he was quick in his response, laughing, “Oh, Fred would have hated this.” Kander was then ninety years old, and I simply marveled at the artistry in someone still looking for new ways to re-invent themselves. More importantly, succeeding in doing so.

The cast of the Vineyard Theatre production of “Kid Victory” (2017).

In a favorite quote of mine, Kander once said: “I hear music all the time. I mean, all the time. Harmonization of a melody is a process that is happening continuously while I’m working, and if what I play at the piano sounds like bare bones to you, that is not what I’m hearing in my head.”

Here’s to all the songs in his head, more shows to come, and best wishes for a Happy Birthday to John Kander.

And if you’ve never heard Scottsboro Boys’ “Go Back Home,” here’s a snippet of it with members of the original Broadway cast, Joshua Henry and Jeremy Gumbs:

If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org. 

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."