Today is the 90th birthday of the legendary composer John Kander. And on Wednesday evening just three days prior, I attended his latest musical Kid Victory, in collaboration with Greg Pierce as his co-author and lyricist. Considering I saw the original Cabaret late in its run back in 1969, it’s hard to believe that I’m seeing new work from this composer, whose Broadway credits (beginning as a dance arranger) date back to the original production of Gypsy in 1959. If anyone has had a longer run in the American musical theatre with as much success as John Kander, I am hard pressed to name them.
With his writing partner of forty years, Fred Ebb, Kander has been the recipient of three Tonys, two Emmys, two Grammys and the Kennedy Center Honors, among many other prizes. But the real prize is Kander himself: someone with his heart in the theatre who shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
After the performance of Kid Victory on Wednesday night, I was waiting for my friend David Garrison, who had taken over in the role of the father for the show’s final week from an actor who had a previous commitment. To my delight and surprise, John Kander was in attendance as well to see Garrison perform. They have had a long friendship, having worked together numerous times, as recently as 2015’s The Visit, in which Garrison appeared alongside Chita Rivera.
I congratulated Kander on the show, finding it difficult to put into words how it affected me due to its ending, which packed an emotional finish to an already highly charged piece that defies general branding. What he and Pierce have created is something dark and disturbing, but ultimately uplifting. When I asked him if this was a show that he would ever have considering writing with Fred Ebb, his response was “Oh, Fred would have hated this.” At ninety years old, I marvel at the artistry in someone still looking for new ways to re-invent themselves. More importantly, succeeding in doing so.
Kid Victory’s plot is not anything you might think would make for a musical. The story concerns a teenager who has been abducted by a child molester for an untold period of time and his transition back into society (and a family) that can’t cope with the unimaginable conditions upon which he was forced to fight for survival. In a brilliant stroke, the main character never sings a note: he’s lost his voice. Even in flashbacks, Kander and Pierce resisted the temptation to have him sing. In the final song, when he and his father finally have a breakthrough, it would have made perfect sense for him to sing. And it was only at that moment that I realized he hadn’t sung for the previous hour and forty-five minutes. When I asked Kander if this was a deliberate choice from the time he and Pierce began writing it, he said no. “We tried having him sing, but it didn’t feel honest.”
Brandon Flynn in the title role of Kid Victory.
I wrote a column exactly a month ago today about a talk at the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan that I attended where Kander and Pierce discussed Kid Victory. I hadn’t seen the show yet, but this quote from Kander became clearer to me when I reread it just now: “As writers, we’re just trying to figure out what’s true… If that B flat isn’t there, then you’ve musically lied.”
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.
Kid Victory is closing its limited engagement at the Vineyard Theatre this evening. I passionately hope that it will have another production soon (hopefully with this same excellent cast) so that more people will have a chance to discover what happens when the truth in a theatrical endeavor takes precedent over all else. It’s both admirable and sensational, in the best sense of the term.
The cast of the Vineyard Theatre production of Kid Victory (2017)
And check out this “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” that aired yesterday on NPR, which consists of two interviews Gross conducted with John Kander: one in 1991 and the other in 2015. They are well worth listening to.
Oh, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Kander.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: