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Fred Ebb

Fred Ebb

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Also Known As: Died: September 11, 2004
Born: April 8, 1932 Cause of Death: Heart attack
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA Profession: Music ... lyricist screenwriter producer librettist director
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BIOGRAPHY

In the annals of theatrical collaborations, there have been many songwriting partnerships, including Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bock and Harnick, Strouse and Adams and Kander and Ebb. For the last four decades, Kander and Ebb have been creating successful stage musicals with the dominant theme of entertainment, whether in the nightclubs of Weimar Germany ("Cabaret"), a court of law ("Chicago"), the imagination of a prisoner ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") or the dance marathons of the Depression ("Steel Pier"). The welding of Ebb's wry, witty and sometimes biting lyrics to Kander's mournful ballads and brassy showstoppers has resulted in several contemporary classics, notably the title song from "Cabaret".

A native New Yorker, Ebb received his education at NYU and Columbia. In the early 1960s, he began to write lyrics, collaborating with Jerry Herman on numbers for the revue "A to Z" and writing song with Kander. Kander and Ebb had a hit with "My Coloring Book", first recorded by Barbra Streisand in 1962. Another rising star, Liza Minnelli, starred in their first stage musical, the uneven "Flora, the Red Menace" (1965). An unlikely musical about Communists, the show offered a star-making role for Minnelli (who won a Tony) and included an eclectic score that contains the spunky "All I Need (Is One Good Break)" and the lilting "A Quiet Thing". Two years later, Kander and Ebb had their first bona fide hit, "Cabaret", a musicalization of John Van Druten's play "I Am a Camera" set in 1930s Berlin. Hal Prince's groundbreaking staging, strong performance from a cast that included Lotte Lenya and Joel Grey and a score that was both entertaining and dramatic helped make "Cabaret" one of the most acclaimed musicals of the mid-60s. The production earned eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score.

Their follow-up projects were hardly of the same magnitude, but offered pleasures. Robert Goulet had one of his best roles as a Canadian photographer recalling his family in "The Happy Time" (1968), staged by Gower Champion. "Zorba" (1968), based on Michael Cacoyannis' 1964 "Zorba the Greek", reunited Kander and Ebb with director Harold Prince and offered Herschel Bernardi a tour-de-force.

In 1975, Ebb and Bob Fosse fashioned the book for the musical "Chicago" loosely based on Maurine Watkins' play about a woman who becomes a celebrity after murdering her lover. Overshadowed by "A Chorus Line" which opened in the same season, "Chicago" was a series of sketches with a pastiche score that paid homage to great vaudeville performers, performed with gusto by leads Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. When it first opened, many reviewers commented on its dark, cynical approach to the material. Twenty years later, times had changed. In light of the O J Simpson trials and the nation's seemingly endless quest for gossip and entertainment news, "Chicago" was more timely. The 1996 revival featured Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth and James Naughton and earned unanimous raves. Interest in a feature version was rekindled, with Goldie Hawn signed to star as Roxie Hart.

Kander and Ebb shows have generally featured a strong central figure with interests in, if not an all-out pursuit of, entertainment. "The Act" (1978) was structured as nightclub performance and was tailored for the unique abilities of Liza Minnelli while "Woman of the Year" (1981), based on the 1942 Tracy-Hepburn classic became a star vehicle for Lauren Bacall. Chita Rivera won her two Tony Awards headlining Kander and Ebb musicals, the short-lived "The Rink" (1984) and the more successful "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1992-93). More recently, the pair wrote the score for the 30s-era "Steel Pier" (1997), set against the backdrop of marathon dancing.

Bob Fosse's 1972 feature version of "Cabaret" has been acclaimed as one of the most successful stage-to-screen transfer. Jettisoning the book numbers from the stage show, he refashioned the material so that all the musical numbers (save for the hair-raising Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me") are restricted to the cabaret itself. The film earned eight Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (for Joel Grey reprising his eerie Master of Ceremonies) and Best Actress (Liza Minnelli in her best screen role). Ironically, Kander and Ebb were overlooked in the nominations, despite writing several new songs for the film. Nevertheless, the success of "Cabaret" opened more opportunities for them. The pair received their only Oscar nod (to date) for the jaunty, high-spirited "How Lucky Can You Get?", one of a handful of new songs written for Barbra Streisand to sing in "Funny Lady" (1975). For Minnelli, they wrote the title song for "Lucky Lady" (also 1975) and several numbers, including the now over-sung title tune, "New York, New York" (1977).

For the small screen, Ebb has written special material for awards shows and variety specials, as well as one-act plays for the anthology specials "Three for the Girls" (CBS, 1972) and "Liza Minnelli in Sam Found Out: A Triple Play" (ABC, 1988). He picked up Emmy Awards for co-producing two of the more acclaimed variety specials of the 70s: "Singer Presents Liza With a 'Z'" (NBC, 1972) and "Gypsy in My Soul" (CBS, 1976), starring Shirley MacLaine.

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