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Interview with Composer, John Kander

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod met with composer John Kander to discuss his work on Cabaret.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When did you realize you wanted to write music for theatre and film?

John Kander: I was born in Kansas City in 1927. I found the piano when I was about four, and I had a good ear. I started playing at a very early age. I lived in a household where there were no professional musicians but music was an encouraged experience. My father had a big, beautiful baritone voice, and my grandmother and aunt played the piano, and my brother sang. My mother was tone deaf, but she had rhythm. I remember once my aunt put her hands over my hands and we made a chord together, the C Major Triad. I was overwhelmed that I could make that sound happen. I started piano lessons when I was six, and I listened a lot. There would be times when I would play and my father would sing, or my aunt would play and my brother would sing and my mother would march. I started listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts when I was seven. I grew up loving the idea that you can tell stories through music and singing. I just always assumed-and I think my folks did too-that music and theatre were going to be a part of my life.

TS: You studied music at Oberlin and Columbia-correct?

JK: Yes. I went to Oberlin and graduated with a major in music. I didn't go into the conservatory because I wanted to get a regular liberal arts education. I went to Columbia to get my master's. While I was at Oberlin, we had a theatre group that I wrote musicals for. I had an internship at Columbia in the opera workshop, which meant I played for and coached a lot of singers. At the same time I was making a bit of a living coaching and accompanying singers at auditions. I ended up conducting in summer stock for three years, arranging music and conducting a couple of off-Broadway shows. Douglas Moore was the head of the music department at Columbia, and he was a very close friend. I was writing lots of theatre songs, but I was also writing so-called serious music at the same time. One night, Douglas told me that if he had it to do over again, he would write for Broadway, and that was the kick in the ass that I needed. From then on I focused on the idea of writing musicals. I was working with James and William Goldman who were my closest friends. The three of us wrote a musical called The Family Affair, and Richard Seff, who was an agent then, heard our work and made it his business to get the piece produced.

In those days, once you established yourself as a professional and people realized that you could actually be counted on, from then on you could pretty much get your work heard. I was part of that last generation -Jerry Herman, Fred Ebb, Steve Sondheim, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and a bunch of others-we really were allowed to fail and still work. There was a time when musicals didn't cost millions of dollars to put on. I met Fred Ebb, and we started writing together.Hal Prince got us involved doing the music for Flora the Red Menace. Flora was not a success, but several weeks before it opened Hal Prince said to us, "Whatever happens to Flora, we will meet at my apartment the Sunday after and we will get to work on the next piece." And the next piece turned out to be Cabaret.

TS: What can you tell us about the famous Cabaret "What if" sessions?

JK: "What If" is a way of working that I continue to use today with my current collaborator, Greg Pierce. I gave it that name because most of it is talking. You sit around and you make a story with your collaborators. Sometimes you have a story that is already written, sometimes you have characters with no story or it is something you are starting from the very beginning, but it always begins with "What if?" What if Sally has an abortion? What if someone throws a brick through the fruit shop window? "What if" is a great game, at least in my experience; it is how you make a musical theatre piece, which is so collaborative.

Interview with Composer, John Kander

Sheet music book from the 2014 rehearsal room. Photo by Kevin Tachman

TS: Did you know at the time you were working on Cabaret that you were breaking rules and creating something that would ultimately be called one of the first "concept" musicals?

JK: Of course not. We were just playing "What if." I think we thought it was a curious subject-we certainly had never dealt with that material before, and neither had anyone else-but we were just trying to make a story. We found the form, again after playing "What if," that allowed us to go in and out of the Kit Kat Klub with the Emcee. We wrote what we called Berlin songs-we originally wrote these songs so they could be sung at various points between scenes-and that's how the whole concept of the Emcee evolved. Some of those Berlin songs, as we called them, ended up being used in the show.

TS: Did you have to do a lot of research or were you familiar with the sound of those Berlin songs?

JK: I had known a lot of that style, but yes, I did a lot of research; I got all the recordings I could of Berlin jazz and Berlin vaudeville songs. Even though there always seems to be some connection in people's minds to Kurt Weill, I was very careful to not listen to his work for obvious reasons. I wanted to have as much of Berlin's popular music running through my head and then put that away and start writing. I hoped that somehow it would seep into the music. Lotte Lenya, Weill's widow, said something to me shortly before we opened that made me very happy. I was well aware of the Weill comparison and I said to her, "I'm sure that some critics will say this is watered down Kurt Weill." She took my face in her hands and said, "No, it's not Kurt, it's Berlin, and when I am on that stage I am singing Berlin." After that I thought, if that is the way she feels, I really don't give a crap about anybody else.

TS: How did you and Fred work on the songs for this-was it different for each moment?

JK: We were working straight from The Berlin Stories and our own imagination. When we started working on this, we talked and talked endlessly about musical moments. And as we began to shape it and scenes began to happen, the musical moments made themselves clear. It was all going on at the same time. I must say that is the way our whole career went. I don't remember anybody handing us a book, saying "Here, write songs for it." First off, I wouldn't know how to do that, but Fred and I would find moments and we would start to improvise them and we would write together. We would improvise 90% of everything we wrote.

TS: Did you and Fred work every day?

JK: When we were working on the show? Yes. Fred lived four blocks from me, and I like to go out for work and he liked to stay home, so generally I would go over there between 10:00 and 10:30, and we would sit around the kitchen table and have coffee and talk about a lot of things and eventually begin to talk about the characters and how they would speak and what they might want to express. Then we would continue those conversations in his little studio-where the piano was in the apartment-and he would sometimes have a line or I would have a rhythm or I would improvise something, but it all happened at the same time. Fred was able to improvise in rhyme and meter in the same way I was able to improvise at the keyboard.

Interview with Composer, John Kander

Alan Cumming in the 1998 revival of 'Cabaret.' Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: How important was Hal Prince's input as part of the collaborative process on Cabaret?

JK: Enormous. Cabaret is his piece. We would have these meetings where everybody would contribute, but Hal was the captain of that collaboration. When we were writing, we could say anything that we wanted to, but ultimately it was Hal's decision what idea prevailed. I would say Hal was in many ways the most important element in Cabaret.

TS: When you are approaching a revival, and this is the revival of a revival, what do you look for from the director? Do they ever reach out to you, or do you just let them do their thing?

JK: Sometimes the director will call or will want to get together. Mostly there will be communication. This revival of Cabaret began at the Donmar Warehouse in the early '90s, and we had a conversation about it. I was at Donmar for the last week of rehearsal, contributing whatever I could that was useful. I was amazed at what Sam Mendes was able to do in that tiny little space and his approach to the material. Sam's version of Cabaret works as well as it does because it is several decades away from the original and people have changed, our experiences have changed, how we view the world has changed-the same thing happened with Chicago-a moderate success when it first happened, but when the revival came along, audiences had changed to the point that suddenly the piece was accepted. People felt close to the material. I can't explain it really.

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Roundabout Theatre Company Roundabout Theatre Company is a not-for-profit theatre dedicated to providing a nurturing artistic home for theatre artists at all stages of their careers where the widest possible audience can experience their work at affordable prices. Roundabout fulfills its mission each season through the revival of classic plays and musicals; development and production of new works by established playwrights and emerging writers; educational initiatives that enrich the lives of children and adults; and a subscription model and audience outreach programs that cultivate loyal audiences.