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Since the early 1960s, John Kander and Fred Ebb have been on the forefront of American musical theater. While many of their contemporary songwriting teams (i.e., Bock and Harnick, Strouse and Adams) long ago abandoned their collaborations, Kander and Ebb have continued to surprise and entertain. Despite odd choices for musical comedy settings (Weimar Germany, a murder trial, marathon dances), their work generally has one driving element: entertainment. Both as a thematic device and a subject, show business and its pleasures are the goals of most of the heroes and heroines of their musicals. It may be an escapist fantasy (as in "Kiss of the Spider Woman") or the professions of the main characters (as in "Woman of the Year"). Whatever the case, Kander composes appropriately bouncy up-tempo numbers and lilting ballads married to Ebb's witty, sometimes caustic, lyrics.Born and raised in the Midwest, Kander headed East to obtain a master's degree at Columbia University. By then, he had already begun his career, composing several shows in his junior and senior years at Oberlin College. His first professional job was as choral director and conductor at the Warwick (RI) Musical Theatre. Kander also served...
Since the early 1960s, John Kander and Fred Ebb have been on the forefront of American musical theater. While many of their contemporary songwriting teams (i.e., Bock and Harnick, Strouse and Adams) long ago abandoned their collaborations, Kander and Ebb have continued to surprise and entertain. Despite odd choices for musical comedy settings (Weimar Germany, a murder trial, marathon dances), their work generally has one driving element: entertainment. Both as a thematic device and a subject, show business and its pleasures are the goals of most of the heroes and heroines of their musicals. It may be an escapist fantasy (as in "Kiss of the Spider Woman") or the professions of the main characters (as in "Woman of the Year"). Whatever the case, Kander composes appropriately bouncy up-tempo numbers and lilting ballads married to Ebb's witty, sometimes caustic, lyrics.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Kander headed East to obtain a master's degree at Columbia University. By then, he had already begun his career, composing several shows in his junior and senior years at Oberlin College. His first professional job was as choral director and conductor at the Warwick (RI) Musical Theatre. Kander also served as pianist for the NYC productions of "The Amazing Adele" and "An Evening with Beatrice Lillie" (both 1956). As the 1950s wound down, he had settled in Manhattan and found work as a dance arranger and conductor for Broadway musicals like "Gypsy" (1959). In 1962, Kander wrote his first Broadway score for the ill-fated "A Family Affair", with book and lyrics by William and James Goldman. Later that year, a rising singer, Barbra Streisand, recorded two song written by Kander and Ebb. "My Coloring Book" proved to be a success and launched the pair on their career.
"Flora, the Red Menace" (1965) was the first Broadway musical with a score by Kander and Ebb. Adapted from the novel "Love Is Just Around the Corner" and set in 30s New York, the show focused on fashion illustrator Flora (Liza Minnelli in a star-making performance) who falls in love with a member of the Communist Party. Although the show received mixed notices, its score was praised and several of the songs (especially the lovely ballad "A Quiet Thing") have become nightclub staples. With their second musical, the songwriters hit pay dirt. "Cabaret" (1966) was a groundbreaking show in several ways. Set in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party, it raised issues of anti-Semitism and free love. Hardly the usual topics for conventional musical comedy. Brilliantly staged by Harold Prince and designed by Boris Aronson (a mirror was mounted over the stage which both drew the audience in and was a tacit commentary on its collusion), "Cabaret" also featured a bold score. The opening number, "Wilkommen", in which Joel Grey's eerie Master of Ceremonies greets the audience was both breathtaking and audacious. The show went on to win numerous awards, including eight Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score.
After such an acclaimed success, the pair had modest success with their follow-ups, although each provided a star turn. "The Happy Time" (1968) offered Robert Goulet a fine role as a French Canadian photographer nostalgically recalling his family. "Zorba" (1968) adapted Michael Cacoyannis' 1964 feature "Zorba the Greek" and gave Herschel Bernardi one of his best stage roles as the title character with a zest for living. The next major success for the pair was "Chicago", (1975), loosely based on Maurine Watkins' play (the basis for the 1942 Ginger Rogers vehicle "Roxie Hart"), about a publicity-seeking murderess. Directed by Bob Fosse, the musical presented the story as a series of vaudeville sketches and Kander and Ebb wrote a score that was both homage to and commentary on the styles prevalent in the 1920s. Bitingly cynical and wickedly funny (with numerous double entrendres), "Chicago" was performed to the hilt by Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. Yet, despite running for well over a year, the show was overshadowed by the instant classic "A Chorus Line". Nominated for 11 Tony Awards, "Chicago" failed to win a single one.
"The Act" (1978) was conceived as a star vehicle for Liza Minnelli, who portrayed Michelle Craig, a singer performing in Las Vegas. There were no "book songs" to propel the plot; the score stood alone as a nightclub act. Reviews were mixed and the show lasted only as long as Minnelli wanted to appear on Broadway. In 1981, Kander and Ebb wrote the songs for the stage adaptation of the 1942 Tracy-Hepburn romp "Woman of the Year". Because the show was structured as a star vehicle for Lauren Bacall, it lacked some of the charm and pleasures of the film. Nevertheless, Kander and Ebb won their second Tony Award. (The score features the plaintive love song "Sometimes a Day Goes By" and the comic duet "The Grass Is Always Greener".) They stumbled somewhat with "The Rink" (1984), a musical drama about an estranged mother and daughter, although Chita Rivera won her first Tony as the former. Eight years later, Rivera was to have one her biggest stage successes with "Kiss of the Spider Woman". Originally workshopped in 1990, the show was completely overhauled and premiered in London in 1992. Based on the Manuel Puig novel (filmed in 1985), it is unlikely material for a musical, yet, bookwriter Terrence McNally and Kander and Ebb transformed the material into a meditation on the power of imagination.
In 1996, "Chicago" was revived to unanimous acclaim. What seemed cynical in 1975 was topical in the 90s, particularly in light of celebrity murder trials and the rise of tabloid journalism. The revival featured James Naughton, Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking and Joel Grey and soon became the hottest ticket in town. Later that season, Kander and Ebb premiered their eleventh show, "Steel Pier", set at a dance marathon in the 1930s, to mixed reviews.
Kander began composing for the big screen with Harold Prince's "Something for Everyone" (1969), but he and Ebb had their greatest success with Bob Fosse's screen version of "Cabaret" (1972). Fosse reconceived the material, dropping many of the book songs, and confining the musical numbers to the titular Kit Kat Club. With strong performances from Liza Minnelli and Michael York and Joel Grey recreating his stage role as the Emcee, the film was both a critical and box-office success. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it won eight, although in an ironic twist, the musical contributions of Kander and Ebb were overlooked. (They had written a couple of new songs for the films.) The Academy remedied that in 1975 when the duo was nominated for Best Original Song for the infectious showstopper "How Lucky Can You Get" performed by Barbra Streisand in "Funny Lady". Surprisingly, their contributions to Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York" (1977) were also overlooked. Yet, that film's theme has probably become the pair's best-known song (thanks in part to Frank Sinatra's recording). Kander has collaborated with director Robert Benton on several films, notably "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979) and "Places in the Heart" (1984)
For the small screen, Kander has provided appropriate scores for TV-movies "An Early Frost" (NBC, 1985), the first network longform to address the issue of AIDS, "Breathing Lesson" (CBS, 1994) and "The Boys Next Door" (CBS, 1996), all directed by John Erman. Kander and Ebb have also provided special material for numerous variety and awards shows, notably several headlined by Liza Minnelli, including "Singer Presents Liza With a 'Z'" (NBC, 1972), "Goldie and Liza Together" (CBS, 1980) and "Liza Minnelli Live! From Radio City Music Hall" (PBS, 1992).
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Inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1991
On working with longtime collaborator, lyricist Fred Ebb, Kander told David Patrick Stearns of USA TODAY (April 23, 1997): "There's a third person that's created--Kander & Ebb. It's a one-word thing."
Kander and Ebb have the dubious distinction of being part of the creative team of the only two musicals to be nominated for 11 Tony Awards without a single win: the original production of "Chicago" in 1975 and "Steel Pier" in 1997.
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