Theatre yesterday and today



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John Kander, born on this date March 18, 1927.

Today is the 94th birthday of the legendary composer John Kander, who is still doing what he does best: writing musicals. With his long-time lyric-writing partner, Fred Ebb, they created eleven Broadway shows from Flora the Red Menace (1966) to Steel Pier (1997). That count was upped to fourteen musicals when, after Ebb’s death in 2004, three additional productions, Curtains (2007), The Scottsboro Boys (2010) and The Visit (2015) came to Broadway. Lyricist Rupert Holmes contributed to the lyrics for Curtains as well as Kander himself, who also took a co-writing credit with Ebb on the lyrics to The Scottsboro Boys. In fact, one of the most beautiful ballads Kander ever wrote is Go Back Home from that musical and it’s his haunting words that accompany the lush melody.

Kander and Ebb were the recipients of three Tonys, two Emmys, two Grammys and the Kennedy Center Honors, among many other prizes. Kander himself is something of a prize: someone whose heart and soul belong to the theatre, a gift to his profession. A true gentleman who exemplifies grace and kindness to everything he contributes. Those who know him and have worked with him point out his loyal and calm presence; one you definitely want at your side when launching into the battle that is the creation of a musical.

John Kander and Fred Ebb, creative partners for life.

The eleven shows that made it to Broadway during Fred Ebb’s lifetime are: Flora, The Red Menace (1965), Cabaret(1966), The Happy Time (1968), Zorba (1968), 70, Girls, 70 (1971), Chicago (1975), The Act (1977), Woman of the Year(1981), The Rink (1984), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) and Steel Pier (1997). And with the exception of Flora and 70, Girls, 70 (which, for what it’s worth, is one of my personal favorites of theirs ) every one received Tony nominations for Best Score. Add three more for Curtains, The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit and it totals twelve of fourteen scores nominated — a phenomenal batting average.

Over the last few years post-Ebb, Kander has had three musicals produced off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre where he has enjoyed a creative home: The Landing (2013), Kid Victory (2017) and The Beast in the Jungle (2018). Having seen the first two (done in collaboration with Greg Pierce handling the lyric and book chores), I can claim unequivocally that the melodies we have come to know and love from Kander are still as fresh and exciting as anything done in his prime. I marvel at not only his level of consistency, but his commitment to continue to tell stories through song.

John Kander was born in Kansas City, Missouri to a Jewish family that had been in that city for generations. As Kander describes it, “There were a couple of rabbis in the family, but we only observed on the High Holy Days, and we also celebrated Christmas.” He even found out years later, somewhat after the fact, that a teacher had once phoned his parents to say “John wrote a Christmas carol. Is that all right? I know that you’re Jewish.”

Through his parents’ encouragement, Kander started learning to play the piano at age six, deepening an already burgeoning appreciation for music, which had played an important part in his life from a very early age, exemplified in a story from the 2003 biographical book Colored Lights (as told to Greg Lawrence):

“From the time I was about six months old until just before my first birthday, I had tuberculosis and had to be isolated. Of course, a child with tuberculosis was quarantined, and I was kept on a sleeping porch. People would come to the door with masks on, and whoever was taking care of me always wore a mask. My earliest memory was hearing the sound of footsteps and voices coming toward me or going away. With that experience, organized sound became more important to me, and I can’t help but believe that it affected the way I organized sound later in my life.”

Fascinating in light of everything that’s gone on this past year, isn’t it?

Kander studied music at Oberlin College and earned his master’s degree in 1953 from Columbia University. One fateful night four years later, he found himself in attendance at the opening night of West Side Story and at its afterparty at the Variety Club. A shy person, the bar was five or six deep and it was only through the intervention of a short, bald man who took pity on the young Kander that he was able to get a drink. His savior turned out to be Joe Lewis, the pit pianist, and from a friendship struck up that evening, Kander got the chance to sub for Lewis when he took a vacation. Timing being everything, he was picked for an extra gig to play in the rehearsal room while replacements were being auditioned for West Side Story. This allowed him to be around Jerome Robbins, the show’s director/choreographer, who recognized Kander’s talents. “Hey, would you like to do the dance arrangements on this new show with me?,” Robbins asked one day. Which is how John Kander got his first Broadway credit on a little musical called Gypsy.

To add to the good luck of that story, Kander has stated (with modesty): “I’m convinced to this day that if I had been able to order my own drink at the Variety Club, I would never have had a career.”