InDepth InterView: John Kander
Today we are talking to the legendary Broadway and Hollywood composer best known for his work with estimable lyricist Fred Ebb on legendary shows such as CABARET, CHICAGO, THE RINK, KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN and THE VISIT - as well as the classic, Oscar-winning film adaptations of those first two shows - who also composed the unofficial New York anthem "New York, New York" and yesterday premiered his newest original musical on Broadway: THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS - none other than thoughtful and gentle genius John Kander. We discuss his fifty-year career writing with Fred Ebb, writing for Liza Minnelli and Kristin Chenoweth, working with directors like Bob Fosse, Hal Prince and Susan Stroman, plus his thoughts on GLEE, the future of his shows written before Ebb's passing - as well as some SCOTTSBORO BOYS talk - in this comprehensive conversation on all things razzle-dazzlingly resplendent as only Kander & Ebb can claim be.
Plus, Kander dissects and discusses the writing process of five of his finest compositions! Start spreadin' the news...
The Heart of It
One of the top-tier talents in Broadway history. Period. One of the most important and influential composers of the twentieth century - and with the premiere of four new musicals so far this century, clearly showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon - and also a celebrated film composer with one of the most iconic movie anthems of all time to his credit (not even counting "Cabaret" and "All That Jazz"). You know CABARET, CHICAGO, "New York, New York" and his work with Liza Minnelli, but now we get to know the man behind the music as we discuss his newest Broadway musical, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, and how he goes about composing shows today in the wake of his writing partner‘s passing. After all, with CURTAINS and THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, Kander is proving to be a formidable lyricist himself in his own rite and with the premieres of all these new shows, clearly at the top of his game. We also discuss working with everyone from Liza Minnelli to Kristin Chenoweth, what he thinks about the current state of Broadway and writing for its audiences - plus, the many exciting projects he is hoping to present in the near future (if they let him). A soft-spoken and passionate man, Kander reveals the true place where his heart will always lie over the course of this comprehensive chat - and it will always remain in writing the music that plays eight times a week (and has for over ten years now thanks to the smash hit revival of CHICAGO) in theaters around the world. That's the heart of Kander, the heart of Broadway and the heart of New York itself. Come be a part of it.
PC: CABARET was so revolutionary. Nothing had ever been done like that before on Broadway, from style to structure to set-up.
JK: A lot of that has to do with Hal. I could tell you a little bit about the experience...
PC: Please do! A lot, even!
JK: (Laughs. Clears Throat.) Actually, two weeks before FLORA THE RED MENACE opened, Hal said something that no producer in his right mind today would do. He said, "Whatever happens with FLORA, the day after it opens we will meet at my house and talk about the next piece." Can you imagine that?
PC: What an open book to give you!
JK: Ah. Yes. And, we did meet, and that piece we talked about was what became CABARET.
PC: Wow. One came from the other, then, Flora to Sally.
JK: That meeting was the beginning of lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of talking, which, kind of, I think, was like our training. (Laughs.) For working.
PC: Baptism by fire!
JK: Out of all that time, the show kind of evolved. I don't think it was about anyone thinking, "Oh, gee, this is a landmark." Or, "Oh, gosh, this is important." It was just talking and trying to make sure we were all writing the same piece. And, it evolved that way.
PC: It was all organic.
JK: Yes. I think Fred and I were forever grateful to Hal - for a lot of reasons, but not the least of which was how to approach a collaboration.
PC: I love the cut songs from that score, too. Do you remember the first song you wrote for CABARET?
JK: I do. The fist song was "Wilkommen".
PC: Of course! The first song always comes first in a Kander & Ebb show!
JK: (Laughs.) Of course!
PC: Did your relationship with Fred Ebb shape the ways the shows eventually turned out - as opposed to writing the lyrics for the shows yourself, as you did now with SCOTTSBORO (and CURTAINS)?
JK: Oh, of course it did. But, I keep going back to that boring word collaboration. Yes, Fred and I were very different people and, yet, somehow - I've said this before - when we got in that Little Room and started to work together we became a third person that I guess you could call Kander & Ebb. (Laughs.) But, it was always a total collaboration.
PC: David Hyde Pierce spoke so favorably of working with you on CURTAINS. He told me the final New York dress rehearsal of THE VISIT was one of his fondest theatrical memories. Do you remember that night?
JK: I do. (Laughs.) Indeed!
PC: Tell me about him and about that night.
JK: Well, first, David is just extraordinary in terms of his skill and generosity - and his ability to "collaborate". He's brilliant.
PC: He's so intuitive about the whole process; the collaboration.
JK: He's so great.
PC: He's no devo!
JK: And isn't that great! (Laughs.)
PC: Speaking of divas, the Kander & Ebb diva supreme - Liza Minnelli - says your songs for her are her true legacy. Do you think those songs will be your pop culture legacy?
JK: I really have no sense of that. I know that sounds weird.
PC: Not at all!
JK: I think, certainly, when Fred was alive this was true, and it's still true today: you work on what you're doing and - at least in my case - you don't think beyond that. What you think about is, "Is what I'm doing now appropriate for the moment in the piece that we‘re writing?"
PC: You live in the moment. You write in it. For it.
JK: I, honestly... in terms of speaking of "legacy" or anything like that - it's something I simply don't think about or deal with. It's hard to explain that. But, it's always about what I'm doing right now.
PC: The work is its own reward.
JK: Yeah. And, I think I'm very lucky that way. I mean, everything that I have worked on - and certainly, especially SCOTTSBORO BOYS - it's all in the moment. Tommy [David Thompson] and Stro and I are just there all the time thinking of what's happening right now [onstage].
PC: In the thick of it. In the moment.
JK: Yes. It always comes as a very nice surprise to me to think that a song has a life beyond the piece that we are writing it for. But, I don't think about that.
PC: You can't see the forest for the trees, anyway, right - at least not at that point in the creative process, correct?
JK: No. I... well, I think some people can, but I am certainly not one of them. Otherwise, I guess the people who really can think that way are the people that can go home and write hits.
PC: You've written your fair share of those, too!
JK: (Laughs.) I guess.
PC: Would you mind telling me the story of how you wrote a few songs and the shows/performers you wrote them for?
JK: Of course not!
PC: OK! "The Money Tree" from THE ACT.
JK: To the extent that I can remember... I do know that we had trouble with the end of the first act. We had another moment there - and it's too long ago for me to remember what that moment was - but, Fred saved me.
PC: How did he do that?
JK: Well, there's a certain kind of song we wrote that we used to call "screamers". It's like somebody just screaming in pain. You know, "Maybe This Time" is one of those. "And The World Goes ‘Round". So, Fred said, "We need a screamer at the end of this first act." And, I knew what he meant.
PC: So, how did you write the song?
JK: That whole idea - the whole idea for the song - was his.
PC: What a brilliant, biting lyric it has. And the build!
JK: It is incredible, and we needed a song about a break-up - and, a very bitter one. Fred and I always worked... I like to say that ninety-five percent of what we ever wrote we wrote in the same room, at the same, improvising together. The idea of that song was his. And, uh, God, did she ever sing it! Whoa!
PC: Whoa, right?! Is that one of your favorite Liza performances?
JK: Uh, well there are an awful lot of them!
JK: That was certainly... total. She really... (Pause.) It's so hard to describe this. (Pause.) You write something, and - particularly if you are writing with a specific performer in mind - suddenly, through sheer force of their personality and talent, they fill it. And what she did with that song was fill it.
PC: Fill it up.
JK: Yeah. You know, there's only so much you can do. You can write words and you can write notes, but the next thing that has to happen is a performer has to complete the song.
PC: Make it whole.
JK: The song doesn't exist unless it's song. Liza... I keep coming back to this same word... she completed that piece.
PC: What's your favorite song from THE ACT?
JK: Hmmm... I'm going to have to think about that. (Pause.)
PC: "Arthur In The Afternoon" maybe?
JK: Oh, "Arthur"! Yeah! That's a fun one.
PC: I love that song.
JK: "Arthur" was actually an adaptation of a song we had written earlier.
PC: For GOLDEN GATE? There was a song in there with that title, I believe.
JK: No... I'm pretty sure it wasn't for GOLDEN GATE, but, I'm not quite sure what. It was a song we just started... I think.
PC: What about those gorgeous ballads?
JK: Oh, yes! There's a song which never became popular and never was sung much. "My Own Space".
PC: Such a sensitive, soulful song.
JK: Yes, that is my favorite song from THE ACT. That song... you know, it's funny, because I guess I just don't think in categories that much. That song was written and not orchestrated.
PC: Really? Why was that?
JK: I used to sneak into the theater sometimes and play it for Liza at the end of the show.
PC: What a fabulous memory! Any other memories of that show? Some of it is so funky in that lovable 70s way.
JK: Oh, yes, "Arthur" is funky, sure! Definitely! But, "My Own Space" is the song that I am most proud of from that show. I loved sneaking in and playing it with her...
PC: If the audience only knew who was accompanying her!
JK: I don't know that they were aware of it. I played it for her on the album, as well, though.
PC: "Hot Enough For You" is your only outright disco-ish song, I believe. It's an anomaly in your canon, at any rate.
JK: I didn't think I did that very well, actually. I don't know how to explain it, but I felt like I was doing an imitation of something. It's hard to imagine me writing it. It has nothing to do with the lyric... I just think I was trying to write in a certain genre for a moment in the piece that was not natural to me. If it came out well... that's lucky.
PC: It's completely unlike anything you had ever written! It's like out of a grindhouse movie from the 70s! I'm glad you did it.
JK: I'm glad you're glad! (Laughs.)
PC: Wasn't there more contemporary material in the show that got cut? Another rock song? I've heard it mentioned.
JK: Probably. It's funny, when you're writing these things and you're in rehearsal and you replace things - in my head, at least - they tend to disappear. So, you tend to have to go back and look at them.
PC: So, you save it?
JK: Oh, yes. It's somewhere. It's just not in the bottom drawer of my head! (Laughs.)
PC: My favorite bottom drawer song of yours is a cut song from CABARET, "Why Should I Wake Up". That's my favorite duet of yours, as well.
JK: Yeah. "Why Should I Wake Up" was, again, written for a very specific moment. I was very fond of it, as well. And, when we did the first revival of it in the eighties... the scene that that was in between Sally and Cliff changed because we - for one thing - addressed more openly that Cliff was gay and that she was going to move out. So, we replaced it with a song that was more a dialogue than a straight song, called "Don't Go".
PC: Which do you prefer?
JK: The first one. But, the reason it is like that - whether you use "Why Should I Wake Up?" or "Don't Go" - depends on the version of the show you are doing.
PC: Is "Why Should I Wake Up" intentionally surreal? Dreamlike?
JK: Yes. (Pause.) Well... I think it's a man saying, "OK, I know I've got blinders on and I know I'm not looking at the world around me, but: if this is a dream, don't wake me up. I just want to live here and pretend life is wonderful."
JK: Oh, yes. I am, indeed. I am also a very big fan of both of them.
PC: Is there any song in CABARET that you think doesn't get enough attention, perhaps a cut song?
JK: You know, we wrote about sixty songs for CABARET, so... (Laughs.)
PC: That CABARET anthology sheet music book with so many of the cut songs and everything is an absolutely fantastic resource. A treasure trove for Kander & Ebb fans.
JK: Oh, I'll definitely have to check that out! I didn't know they put something out with the cut songs!
PC: Where do you like to compose and write most these days?
JK: Right now I am in Kingston, New York. I built this house in 1973. It's in the middle of the woods and it's sort of a terrific refuge. And, I just love it here.
PC: You have to have solitude to write. Fred was the exact opposite of you in that regard, right?
JK: Totally! (Laughs.) As a matter of fact, when I first built this house - I mean, Fred hated the country, he really did - he was needling me a few months after I built it. He said, "You never have me up to the house! You've had other people up!" And, I said, "I thought you hated the country!", "No, I don't!" So, I said, "Great! Come up this week, then! Come up Friday, for the weekend."
PC: A weekend in the country.
JK: So, he came up and he took about one look around... I have a studio about two minutes from the house and we went to the studio and sketched out that little nine minute piece for the movie NEW YORK, NEW YORK - which is a mini-movie itself - and then he got on the bus and went home! He didn't even stay for dinner!
PC: He "won't breath nothing he can't see," after all! ["City Lights" from THE ACT]
JK: That's right! (Laughs.) It was something I ribbed him about a lot. He kept saying, "He was going to make me go on picnics or something!"
PC: Like that was the worst thing in the world!
JK: Right. But, that was the one and only time he came up here. And, all the time - the two or three hours we spent here - was spent working in the studio. As you said - and he said, or wrote - he really didn't want to inhale all this!
PC: What a great story! It's your whole relationship in a nutshell, really.
JK: As I said, we were polar opposites in so many ways and I think that was probably a good thing in this third personality called Kander & Ebb that happened that is a combination of the two of us.
PC: One of your songs is about that in many ways, one of your very best songs - "My Own Best Friend" in CHICAGO.
JK: Yeah! It is.
PC: Tell me about doing the single version for Liza when she played Roxie versus the Roxie/Velma version in CHICAGO.
JK: Well, originally, that is what we wanted - the single version. We wrote that song for Roxie alone. But, Bobby [Fosse] had a different conception of it.
PC: How did Fosse envision the number?
JK: He wanted it to be for these two divas who are out there expressing their selfishness. It was effective, but we didn't feel it was as effective as it was as a solo.
PC: So, how did your get your way with the song ultimately?
JK: When Liza took over, I think she... I don't know how she pulled it off, but we were encouraging her to get Bobby to let her sing it by herself. So, for those six weeks that she was in the show, it was her song. Which was the way we had intended it. But, now, I'm so used to it the way it is played in the show that I don't know which I would prefer - but, at the time, it was really supposed to be tough Roxie up there belting out that song.
PC: That song is the one gaping hole in the film version, for me. Do you miss it there? Do you think it could have worked? It was in the shooting script.
JK: I'll tell you about the movie... with the movie - as opposed to CABARET where we were really not involved at all - Rob Marshall - Robbie, as he is known - we had known for many years. We had worked with him an awful lot.
PC: KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN on Broadway, most famously.
JK: Of course. And, when it came to making any cuts or changes in the score for the CHICAGO movie, he really did keep us clued in. I can't remember the exact conversation that led to its big cut, but I know that it was with our approval. It was something we agreed on with him.
PC: And the new song you and Fred wrote for the CHICAGO film - "I Move On" - is sort of like the sequel to "My Own Best Friend" and explores the continuation of its themes, at least. Was it fun to revisit the score after so many years?
JK: Well, we didn't know what to do at first! God, it's hard to remember some things, sometimes... I remember they just wanted "a new song" from us. At the same time, we didn't want to write something that was anachronistic. So, we compromised by writing that song. But, we both ended up liking it quite a lot.
PC: I read in COLORED LIGHTS that they wanted you to collaborate on writing a song with Janet Jackson at some point.
JK: Right! It was a weird situation... I mean, we hadn't dealt with big-time movie making all that much...
PC: You're too humble! "New York, New York" is one of the great original movie songs! So is "Maybe This Time"!
JK: The pressure was just incredible on CHICAGO. Fortunately, we had a clause in our contract which protected us so that anything that was to be written was to be written by us.
PC: CABARET is one of the great movie musicals, but the score is vastly different than the stage show. NEW YORK, NEW YORK had an entirely original musical in it, as we just discussed. CHICAGO is all adapted except for "I Move On". What's the difference writing for those the three kinds of projects, writing new songs?
JK: Well, I think writing a new song is simply writing a new song, so that is not so complicated. NEW YORK, NEW YORK - even with all the music that is in it - I don't know whether I think of it as a musical or not. In other words, we weren't writing a score that advances the story, particularly. We were writing songs - we were asked to write songs - for specific moments. So, it's songwriting...
PC: Versus score-writing.
JK: Yeah. I don't know how else to explain it besides that.
PC: So FUNNY LADY was a songwriting experience, as well.
JK: Right. Writing songs for specific moments.
PC: Score-writing is defined then, as...?
JK: I guess I think of a musical as something in which the music is sort of like the engine of the piece - whether it is in the theatre or in film.
PC: Totally. The music dictates all.
JK: I think when you are simply writing songs to fill certain dramatic moments that that is some other form. It's not a matter of comparing if one is better than the other - it's just different.
PC: Night and day, really.
JK: Yeah, I mean, when you write a song like "Cabaret" you are writing about a woman who is angry and desperate and who is deciding in the middle of it that she is going to have an abortion. So, in your head, you are writing a dramatic moment.
PC: You can say that again!
JK: For the most part - with NEW YORK, NEW YORK - we were writing songs. Except for that little nine-minute mini-film which Fred and I wrote when he came up here and he had his one and only visit to the country. (Laughs.)
PC: It's so wonderful that that number is on the DVD, though!
JK: It was cut originally!
PC: What a shame! How could Scorsese possibly do that?
JK: Writing that piece was really like writing a whole musical. In that situation, we were - I am gesturing with my right hand right now to make things much clearer -, in that case, we were writing a story told through music. That was kind of the only time in the movie of NEW YORK, NEW YORK that that happened.
PC: It's so great to see Larry Kert with Liza in that.
JK: I think that's the only footage of him that exists.
PC: And you both started your careers together, since you were rehearsal pianist for the original production of WEST SIDE STORY and he was, of course, the original Tony.
JK: That really is weird. Yeah. Larry and I became friends during that and then he did A FAMILY AFFAIR. It's funny, I hadn't thought about it until you just said it, but it really does bring it all full-circle.
PC: Looking back, do you think the film works?
JK: You know something, I haven't looked at it in a really long time. I have a feeling there's probably too much of it. But, that's just a very vague feeling. I've never sat down with it and thought what would make it work or what would make it better.
PC: I love "This Life" from THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, particularly Sherie Rene Scott's version on her album.
JK: Oh, she did that song? I didn't know that! Sherie is fantastic.
PC: Tell me about how she came in and replaced Bebe Neuwirth in the original production of that show. Sherie was incredible.
JK: Sherie, when she went into that show... she learned it in two days!
PC: No way!
JK: She did! I think it's the most amazing thing I've seen... well, there are two experiences like that, for me.
PC: Tell me both!
JK: Sherie learned that whole piece and was able to perform it in two days. Liza learned all of CHICAGO when she went into it in one week.
PC: Oh, my God!
JK: They are both so amazing.
PC: Just the sheer memorization alone!
JK: Yeah, right? Whoa.
PC: What is the status of THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH?
JK: Well, unfortunately, we had a production all set to go in London - with the date set and everything - and Thornton Wilder's nephew withdrew the rights.
PC: Are you serious?
JK: I'm serious.
PC: After all this time? You started that show with Fred almost fifteen years ago! Isn't the original play out of copyright law by now? Hasn't it been fifty years yet?
JK: I'm not sure how the copyright laws work, but, no, he pulled the rights. We were never even able to have a discussion with him about it. The guys who wrote THE FANTASTICKS had the same problem with them [the Wilder Estate] with OUR TOWN. They worked on it for like thirteen years.
PC: GROVER'S CORNERS, right?
PC: What a shame. Brent Barrett's recording of the title song from SKIN OF OUR TEETH is absolutely thrilling.
JK: He is really incredible on that. What a voice.
PC: Can you salvage the score or the show somehow?
JK: I think we have a version that we'd like to consider the final version, though I think there is still work to be done on it. But, I don't know if it will ever be performed.
PC: Tell me about the STEEL PIER experience - even though the critics didn't receive it correctly, in my estimation.
JK: Right. I've been very lucky in that I've had very few bad experiences in the theatre. But, STEEL PIER was very fulfilling, mostly because of the fact that it was all of our friends - Stro and Scott and Deb Monk and Daniel McDonald and Karen Ziemba. They're our little family. So, I used to walk into that rehearsal room everyday and think how lucky I was. There wasn't a single person in that room that I wasn't really, really glad to see.
PC: I love "Wet" from that show, such a fun and sexy duet.
JK: (Laughs.) Thanks. That was a lot of fun. And, they were a lot of fun doing it!
PC: I recently talked to Kristin Chenoweth about working on STEEL PIER and singing your music on GLEE. What was it like discovering her for the first time?
JK: Kristin was, basically, just in the ensemble when the show started rehearsals. She was just so extraordinary that this little part she had just kept getting bigger and bigger. (Laughs.)
PC: She personifies big voice in a little body, right?
JK: Given that voice, yeah, we were able to write things that we couldn't have written for anybody else. It was interesting that, sheerly because of her talent, her role got as big as it was.
PC: Have you seen her duet with Lea Michele on "Maybe This Time" on GLEE?
JK: Yeah! Sure!
PC: What did you think of that? Particularly, what did you think of the new ending and the fact that it was a duet?
JK: I thought it was swell. Listen, my feeling is this - and I think Fred's was, too: when you are writing a piece for the theatre and see it performed the way that you wanted it performed then so it fulfills that moment... then, after that, all kinds of things are possible.
PC: Exactly. The original will always exist, though.
JK: Right. The fact that a song has another life or other interpretations is swell just so long as you get that first performance exactly the way that you intended it. I don't know if I have properly explained it...
PC: I think you have, but feel free to extrapolate further!
JK: It's like a balloon. You hold a balloon in your hand and it's exactly the balloon that you wanted but, finally, you let it go.
PC: Like letting a child out into the world once they have grown up.
PC: Speaking of future generations: do you like GLEE? Would you let them cover more of your songs in the future?
JK: Oh, sure!
PC: Do you think it's good for the theatre community to have a musical theatre-centric TV show with fifteen million viewers?
JK: Well, I think you may have just answered your own question! (Laughs.)
PC: Some people say, "That's not Broadway. That's not what musical theatre is about." It's not live.
JK: No, it's not. It's television. And, it's camp. It's all kinds of things. But, what it's also doing is making a whole new generation interested in something that - for the last twenty years, at least - I don't think they had any interest in.
PC: I was born in 1984 and I don't remember a "cool" show on Broadway before the CHICAGO revival, to be honest.
JK: I think, because of GLEE, a lot of kids are interested in musical theatre who would not have been otherwise. And, I think that's just swell.
PC: And they are bringing the great songwriters - like yourself and Loesser and Sondheim and Mercer - to a whole new generation.
JK: It's wonderful to hear lyrics again, isn't it? (Laughs.)
PC: I would think Fred would probably approve of GLEE, as well, wouldn't he?
JK: Oh, I think so, too. He would have made fun of it, but, he would have been, basically, really loving it.
PC: You're known for your shows having such iconic images in them, often coming at the end, and STEEL PIER did not disappoint - Karen Ziemba on the plane!
JK: Right! That was all Stro!
PC: I won't give away the ending of SCOTTSBORO, but she does it again there.
JK: Right! Don't give it away, yet!
PC: Also: the wall of light in CABARET. The very end of CHICAGO with the roses/speech. Do you have a favorite? Perhaps the ending of THE RINK? That is pretty hard to top!
JK: Yeah! As a matter of fact, I have a lot. I wouldn't say anything is my favorite or anything like that, but I've had a number of real thrills in productions. At the end, in the original production of THE RINK, when they are finally going out into the world to sort of chance it... in the original production, the entire set lifted up!
PC: What an effect! Breathtaking!
JK: It was unbelievable.
PC: Any others?
JK: Also, I think Sam Mendes's ending to the last version of CABARET when you are suddenly in the furnace is really shocking. Extraordinary.
PC: It defines coup de theatre!
JK: Yeah, it really does.
PC: This defines a great conversation, Mr. Kander. I can't thank you enough. SCOTTSBORO is sublime and I can't wait for - I hope - your four or five new musicals this coming decade!
JK: (Laughs.) Thanks, Pat. This was really great. Great questions. I'll talk to you later.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride; Linda Lenzi