Fred, Onna and Cy: Oh, My - A Few Memories by Glen Roven
These three legends were part of the last generation of professionals who came of age when it was possible-- so it seems to me--actually to maintain a career on Broadway, to do a show every year or every few years, and not only make a living from the theater, but create a body of work that was respected, admired and cherished. I was fortunate enough to work with all three, and I'm grateful for the knowledge they so willingly shared.
I first met Fred Ebb in 1978 when I somehow persuaded CBS to do a half hour television version of Flora, The Red Menace, Kander and Ebb's first show. I was only an aspiring musical director/composer, but I guess my naïve enthusiasm and insatiable appetite for Broadway music somehow connected with the producer of CBS's CAMERA THREE. Now even back then, having a musical produced on TV was a very rare occurrence so Kander and Ebb were around the set. The 1965 Broadway failure of the original Flora had been followed, of course, by enormous success (and I had all the cast albums) so I was a kid in a candy shop. (And what candy! I remember a magical day crawling around John Kander's dank, depressing basement searching for the orchestrations that were collecting dust in a remote corner.)
We had to shoot the show quickly, and something wasn't working in Flora's song, "Sing Happy." It didn't have the impact it needed, or as they say in the theater, it wasn't landing. Fred, the first one to sense the problem, quietly started talking to Lenora Nemitz, our Flora, who was outstanding in the rest of the show. He whispered to her for a few minutes and then started gesticulating wildly. Suddenly, something wonderful happened: Fred started to perform the number full out. And he wasn't doing it as Fred Ebb, he was doing it as Lenora, or more accurately as Flora -- or as Lenora doing Flora -- complete with the choreography, the character and in Lenora's key! It was a remarkable moment. And lo and behold, Lenora scored on the very next take, imitating Fred imitating her.
Over the next few years, I worked with Fred on a multitude of projects with all his favorite performers, Liza, Chita, Joel. In every case, the exact same transformation took place. He came to rehearsal and when we needed dialogue to lead into a song, he would morph into that performer and the words would pour from his mouth like a theatrical font. When Fred did Joel, he was Joel. When he did Chita, he was Chita. As for Liza, you haven't lived until you've heard Fred Ebb sing Liza With A Z!
I was hired to be the musical director of an ill-fated Broadway production of The Three Musketeers in the early eighties. I was subsequently fired before the show came to Broadway but the sting was lessened by the fact that Onna White, the consummate Broadway choreographer was also let go. Misery loves company, and Onna was great company.