In conversation with
Frank J. Oteri
at Kander’s home in
New York, New York
April 7, 2010—10:30 a.m.
Transcribed and edited by
Frank J. Oteri and John Lydon
Video edited by Molly Sheridan
John Kander knew that he wanted to write music for the theatre from his earliest childhood. He wrote his very first song instead of paying attention during his second grade math class and had already completed a musical for his high school. A protégé of Douglas Moore and Jack Beeson, with whom he studied composition at Columbia, Kander eventually found himself accompanying singers, conducting summer stock productions, and playing in the pit orchestra for West Side Story. One thing led to another and he wrote the music for the short-lived 1962 Broadway musical, A Family Affair which Harold Prince directed. As Kander explains:
The theater community is very small. Once you pass through a curtain which lets people look at you as a professional, you can really get to or make contact with just about anybody from one or two degrees of separation.
Later that year, Kander met lyricist Fred Ebb which proved to be the most important encounter of his entire career. Kander and Ebb sustained one of the longest lasting as well as one of the most successful of songwriting collaborations in the history of the American musical theater. Only months after they began writing songs together, Barbara Streisand recorded two of them. And a few years later they landed on Broadway with their score for Flora the Red Menace, about a Depression-era ingénue (Liza Minnelli in her debut) who unwittingly joins the Communist Party. But it was their second Broadway musical together, Cabaret, which solidified their reputation. Against all odds, they transformed Christopher Isherwood’s unlikely narrative about sexual awakening amidst the rise of the Nazis in the final years of the Weimar Republic into one of the most popular song and dance extravaganzas of all time. Says Kander:
I can remember when we were writing Cabaret and were talking about the subject, people said “That’s really not a good idea.” I don’t remember reviews very often, but there’s one line in the Variety review for Cabaret which I will always remember: “It is unlikely there will be much of an audience for this sort of thing.” It all has to do with people’s imaginations, what you find theatrical and what you don’t.
Kander and Ebb’s landmark partnership also yielded such classics of the Broadway canon as Zorba, Chicago (currently on stage at the Ambassador Theatre and the longest-running revival in Broadway history), Woman of the Year, and Kiss of the Spider Woman—all challenging shows which respectively deal with such difficult atypical Broadway topics as revenge killings, corrupt trials, the private life of a celebrity reporter, and prison torture. In between, they found time to write songs for cabaret acts and motion pictures, the most popular of which remains “New York, New York,” which has been performed by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Three Tenors. But perhaps unsurprisingly, given the vagaries of the Great White Way, not every one of their efforts has been a blockbuster. However, some of the lesser known items in their oeuvre—such as The Rink (a poignant mother-daughter face-off), Steel Pier (about rigged dance marathons in the heyday of Atlantic City), and 70, Girls, 70 (exploring the shenanigans of the residents of a retirement home)—are extremely worth revisiting. Luckily there have been recordings of all of their Broadway output as well as of Go Fly a Kite, an industrial musical they wrote on hire for General Electric.
Kander and Ebb wrote almost all of their music and lyrics together in the same room and their collaborative process was so fruitful that they did not work on projects with anyone else for the duration of their creative partnership, which only ended when Ebb died in 2004. Actually not quite, since Kander has spent the last six years finishing work on four musicals that were left in various stages of development at the time of Ebb’s death:
I just channeled Fred as much as I can. I had done a lot of lyric writing before I met Fred and in our collaboration we bounced off into each other’s territories freely a lot. When there were new songs to be written for these projects, at first I was nervous about it. Then I got a little more confident. Every once in a while I look up and say, “Where are you, you son of a bitch!” But I’ve enjoyed doing that; I got to flex my lyricist muscles a lot.
The first of these shows, Curtains, ran over a year on Broadway, while two others—All About Us (based on Thornton Wilder’s zanily experimental play, The Skin of Our Teeth) and The Visit (inspired by a macabre Dürrenmatt play)—have been mounted outside of New York City. Their final show, The Scottsboro Boys (about the wrongful, racially-motivated incarceration of nine African American young men in Alabama in the 1930s), just completed a successful off-Broadway run and will be mounted on Broadway next season.
Kander, now in his 80s, once said that he would not work on anything or with anyone else until these four projects were brought to fruition. But now that all four of these shows have been produced, it seemed like a good time to talk with him about his career thus far and what his plans for the future might be. Talking to him was a time portal to a by-gone era when the Broadway musical was central to American popular culture—after all, he is one of the last surviving composers who was around during Broadway’s Golden Age. But there was very little time or inclination for nostalgia. Indeed, Kander’s determination, creative process, and overall positive outlook make him an excellent role model for composers of all stripes nowadays.
-Frank J. Oteri