When the esteemed lyricist Fred Ebb died in 2004, his composing partner, John Kander, was set adrift. At the age of seventy-seven, losing the man he worked with side by side for forty-two years, writing such musicals together as Cabaret, The Kiss of the Spider Woman and Chicago, had to have been devastating for Kander. Theirs was a partnership for the ages and no one would have begrudged he man if thirteen years ago, while mourning the loss of his friend and partner, Kander decided that from then on he would play the piano for himself, rather than share his tunes with the rest of the world anymore.
But John Kander did no such thing. With a driving curiosity and the need to keep telling stories, he still has a great deal to say. I was fortunate to hear a talk he gave yesterday at the Drama Book Shop alongside his current writing partner, the playwright and lyricist, Greg Pierce, on a myriad of subjects, including the second show they have written together, Kid Victory, currently in previews Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre and opening next week.
John Kander & Greg Pierce in conversation at Drama Book Shop 2.17.17
Over the last decade, prior to his working with Pierce, Kander doggedly pursued three projects left unproduced before Ebb’s death. The team had always worked on more than one show at a time, and in the ensuing years all three of these shows made it to Broadway. The first was Curtains, with a book by Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), who also took on the rewriting of unfinished lyrics to a few songs. Curtains ran more than a year and won a Tony for its leading actor David Hyde Pierce. Kander, a damn good lyricist himself, also aided Holmes in the lyric rewrites, as well as doing similar duties on The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit. All of these Kander & Ebb collaborations had tremendous virtues, even if The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit had disappointing New York runs. But Broadway isn’t everything, and both are being discovered the world over in subsequent productions. Personally, I think The Scottsboro Boys is right up there with Cabaret and Chicago as peak Kander & Ebb. Do yourself a favor, and check out The Scottsboro Boys CD for a glorious listening experience.
The Original Cast Recording of “The Scottsboro Boys.”
What people seem to be most interested in about Kander and Pierce’s working relationship has to do with the disparity in their ages. They first met while Pierce was still a student at Oberlin College, Kander’s alma mater, and where he often goes to see shows and give talks. Kander was first taken with Pierce’s short stories, then later his plays (Pierce is the author of Slowgirl, which received rave reviews in its New York premiere at Lincoln Center in 2012). All through the discussion at Drama Books yesterday, it became clearer by the minute that their age difference is the least interesting aspect of their partnership. It spans fifty-one years, but so what? It was clear to me that in some ways Pierce is older than Kander, and the same appeared true in reverse. They finish one another’s sentences, share a loving mutual respect and are clearly temperamentally compatible. I saw their first show, The Landing, at the Vineyard in 2013 and found it a fascinating piece; experimental, complex and bursting with originality.
Julia Murney and David Hyde Pierce in “The Landing” at the Vineyard Theatre (2013)
One of the things I was most taken with during yesterday’s talk, was Kander’s answer to a question of what’s most important to him in his work when he said, “As writers, we’re just trying to figure out what’s true.” It kept coming up over and over again. He said about finding just the right note that “If that B flat isn’t there, then you’ve musically lied.”
I found all of this fascinating. Art isn’t easy, and shining a light on the truth is even harder. Skirting it and being somewhat fanciful, especially in musical theatre, is always an option. But Kander (with both Ebb and Pierce) is of the mindset that the truth will set you free. And if there was a takeaway from yesterday’s talk, his articulation of it throughout the talk was what made my attending so worthwhile.