“The first important study of Kander and Ebb. A very useful book, thoughtfully presenting material not otherwise readily available.”—Raymond Knapp, UCLA
Kander and Ebbby James Leve
This book, the first study of Kander and Ebb,
Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb collaborated for more than forty years, longer than any such partnership in Broadway history. Together they wrote over twenty musicals. Their two most successful works, Cabaret and Chicago, had critically acclaimed Broadway revivals and were made into Oscar-winning films.
This book, the first study of Kander and Ebb, examines their artistic accomplishments as individuals and as a team. Drawing on personal papers and on numerous interviews, James Leve analyzes the unique nature of this collaboration. Leve discusses their contribution to the concept musical; he examines some of their most popular works including Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman; and he reassesses their "flops" as well as their incomplete and abandoned projects. Filled with fascinating information, the book is a resource for students of musical theater and lovers of Kander and Ebb's songs and shows.
“James Leve beautifully distills and clarifies the fundamental reasons for Kander and Ebb’s popularity and long term significance. This is a wise and musically informed interpretation of the team’s remarkable creative process, rich in fascinating detail.”—Thomas L. Riis, author of Frank Loesser
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Kander and Ebb
By James Leve
Yale University PressCopyright © 2009 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneForty-Two Years of Musicals
We walk into the studio as John Kander and Fred Ebb, but what comes out is authentic Kander and Ebb. -JOHN KANDER
JOHN KANDER AND FRED EBB WERE AS DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER as two collaborators could possibly be. Kander grew up in Kansas City, raised by nurturing parents and surrounded by the comforts of a middleclass household. Fred Ebb grew up in New York City. He was the only male child in a dysfunctional and undemonstrative family of modest means. Since the late seventies Kander has lived with his partner, Albert Stephenson, in a modest brownstone on the Upper West Side. For years Ebb bounced between his Manhattan apartment in the San Remo, one of the most desirable residential buildings on Central Park West, and his Bel Air home in Los Angeles. Ebb, who had a roommate for decades, was living alone with a small dachshund when he died. He had amassed an impressive art collection dominated by German and Austrian paintings and sketches from the first half of the century, all of which he bequeathed to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. By contrast, Kander spends as much time as possible at his country house in upstate New York. Being more aurally than visually oriented, he never cared much for artcollecting, but he has long been an assiduous collector of sound recordings. At eighty-one years of age, Kander still subscribes to the Metropolitan Opera. Ebb had little affinity for opera, and he preferred Gian Carlo Menotti to the masters of grand opera.
John Kander was born on March 18, 1927. His father, who worked in his father-in-law's egg and poultry business, instilled in John and his brother Edward a love of life and a healthy interest in the arts. Kander's fondest recollection of his childhood was of the time his "Aunt Rheta [put] her hands over my hands on the keys. That made a chord, and as a boy, it was about the most thrilling thing that ever happened to me." To this day, Kander associates music with happy feelings and positive memories. Kander's parents regularly brought their two sons to local theater and orchestra concerts, and every year treated them to a trip to New York City to see theater. As a nine-year-old, Kander attended his first opera performances when the San Carlo Opera came to Kansas City with productions of Aida and Madama Butterfly: "My mother took me and we sat in the first row. There were these giants on the stage, and my feet were dangling over my seat. It was overwhelming for me, even though I could see the strings that held the beards on the Egyptian soldiers.... My interest in telling a story through music in many ways derived from early experiences like those." Opera soon became an important part of Kander's world.
In the mid 1940s, Kander joined the United States Merchant Marine Cadet Corps. He completed basic training in California, after which he sailed between San Francisco, the Philippines, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. He left the Corps on May 3, 1946, but rule changes governing national service forced him to enlist in the Army Reserves in September of the same year, after having already completed one semester at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. He served for a year at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. By organizing a seven-piece dance band, which performed at the Officers' Club, Kander was able to remain musically active as well as in good standing with his superiors. As if trapped in a proverbial Catch-22, during the Korean War Kander was again ordered back into active duty. In preparation, he gave up his apartment in New York, but after a medical physical revealed scars on his lungs he was forced to remain in the city for six months of observation and was officially discharged on July 3, 1957.
Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, Kander returned to Oberlin and earned a degree in music composition in 1951. He then entered the master's program in composition at Columbia University and received his degree in 1954. Columbia, which had one of the most conservative composition programs in the country, suited Kander's artistic temperament. He was not inclined to write in an atonal idiom, the trend at many music programs at the time, but he did feel compelled to compose serious works. Jack Beeson and Otto Luening, his primary composition teachers at Columbia, were open to any music he wanted to write. Beeson improved Kander's understanding of musical form from a composer's perspective, and Luening taught him to stay out of his own way, to avoid self-imposed roadblocks. Luening's enthusiasm for new music bordered on the uncritical, a trait that perhaps rubbed off on Kander. Even at his most critical, Kander uses humor to couch his comments, as in the time he called a writer of a new work produced at the Metropolitan Opera "the composer of no fun." Kander participated in the highly regarded Columbia Opera Workshop during its heyday and was either musical assistant or assistant conductor for the premieres of Arthur Kreutz's Acres of Sky (1951) and Jack Beeson's Hello Out There (1954), as well as for a production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1954). Other workshop participants at the time included Marvin David Levy (Mourning Becomes Electra), Ezra Laderman, Ulysses Kay, and John Crosby (founding director of the Santa Fe Opera). The workshop was extremely important to Kander's development as a theater composer, even though at the time he was undecided between art music or popular music, and opera and musicals held his interest equally. Douglas Moore, the head of the music department, admitted to the still impressionable Kander that, if he himself could start over, he would write musicals. Moore's confession meant a lot to Kander, for it freed him to become a theater composer.
Ebb was secretive about the year of his birth, and sources for that date range from (April 8) 1928 to 1936.7 Ebb likened Kander's childhood to a Norman Rockwell painting and was aware of how much it differed from his own: "Looking back, I can honestly say I don't believe my mother and father ever touched each other in my presence. I never saw them kiss or embrace.... They stayed together with their children as their only common interest, me and my two sisters, Norma and Estelle." Ebb told a humorous story about the Broadway premiere of Cabaret. His mother attended the opening night party at Sardi's East. When the reviews came out, Ebb went over to her and said, "they were all raves, ... it's a huge hit." She responded with a single monosyllabic "Good." He offered to buy her a mink stole. This time her response was more expansive: "It's about time." When Ebb asked her opinion about the show, she said, "The show? Well, it didn't have to be so dirty, big shot." Whether true or revisionary, this story is telling about the way Ebb wanted to depict his family. His parents never took him to the theater or a concert. His first exposure to musical theater came in the form of cast recordings. When he was old enough he started attending theater on his own, and it became his escape. Later Ebb turned to his friends and the theater for the approbation he felt that he never received at home. "And that's been my story with my family. Nobody ever says it's magnificent, you're marvelous, you're very talented, congratulations, none of that. Right up until the Oscar for Chicago. They don't do that ... I can't say it never did [bother me].... Of course I always had resources, which is my friends and my contemporaries. And I got a lot of respect in the business and from people I loved and friends I loved and admired and respected, who were close to me and good to me and warm and affectionate and smart."
People who knew Ebb admired his wit and unassuming erudition. By all accounts he was precocious and perspicacious. He graduated early and as valedictorian from DeWitt Clinton High School, earned a bachelor's degree from New York University in record time, and earned a master's degree in English literature from Columbia University in 1957. In contrast to Kander, who found his life's work early in life, Fred Ebb did not decide to pursue writing until college. He first became interested in writing when he took a seminar on the short story at New York University, but even after Columbia he accepted a variety of unrelated jobs, such as bronze shoes salesman and credit authorizer at Ludwing, Mauman & Spear. Meanwhile, he dabbled in limericks and other light verse, impressing his friends so much that they encouraged him to try writing professionally. Soon Ebb was peddling song lyrics to record companies, which assigned them to various staff composers with whom he had little or no contact. Around this time, Patsy Bamos, who was dating Ebb, introduced him to a composer named Phil Springer, whom she was also dating. Springer taught Ebb the mechanics of songwriting, tutoring him on structure and rhyme scheme. Their first song, "I Never Loved Him Anyhow," was recorded by Carmen McRae, but their promising collaboration ended abruptly when Springer took a permanent job with a music publishing firm.
In 1951, Ebb met a composer named Paul Klein, with whom he later wrote his earliest theater music, including three full-length musicals: It Gives Me Great Pleasure, Simon Says, and Morning Sun. It Gives Me Great Pleasure, an adaptation of Emily Kimbrough's 1948 book of the same name, and Simon Says, an original musical comedy set in a New York advertising firm, were never produced. Morning Sun, based on a 1953 short story by Mary Deasy, was produced Off Broadway in 1963. Ebb and Klein also contributed songs and sketches to the Broadway revue From A to Z. They had a couple of popular hit songs, including "Little Blue Man" and "That Do Make It Nice." Had Klein not quit the business to pursue a more secure livelihood, Ebb and Kander might never have gotten together.
While Ebb was working with Springer and Klein, Kander was earning a living by coaching singers, playing auditions, and conducting summer stock productions. A serendipitous encounter at the Variety Club in Philadelphia led Kander into the epicenter of Broadway musical theater. While waiting in line to order a drink, he met a man named Joe Lewis, who was the piano player for West Side Story. When Lewis went on vacation, he asked Kander to substitute for him. The young composer thereby met Jerome Robbins, who hired him to accompany the auditions for Gypsy and later to write the dance music. The production stage manager for Gypsy was Ruth Mitchell, the long-term associate of Hal Prince. David Merrick, the producer of Gypsy, later hired Kander to write the dance music for Irma la Douce and produced Kander and Ebb's The Happy Time.
In 1962, the music publisher Tommy Valando, who had successfully brought Bock and Harnick together, arranged a meeting between Kander and Ebb. They met at Ebb's apartment and discussed songwriting and musical theater. Based on this first conversation, they agreed to test their compatibility by writing a mock title song for the comedy Take Her, She's Mine, which was running on Broadway in a Hal Prince production. Take Her, She's Mine is about a father's struggle to accept his daughter as a woman. Kander and Ebb's song, a nonfussy affair, imparts the bittersweet resignation that one might expect at the end of a hypothetical musical version of this play. The lyric twice contains the line "take her, she's mine," but for the final line of the song Ebb inserts "from me" to create "take her from me, she's mine." Kander reinforces the father's feeling of loss with a pause on a secondary dominant. The melody on this line recalls the melodic segment first heard in measure 3 on "take her, she's mine" (example 1.1a) but at a higher pitch level (example 1.1b). The melodic apex of the song coincides with the final "her" of the lyric. Not to overstate the case but these simple devices inject just the right degree of musical tension at just the right time. "It was a case of instant communication and instant song," Ebb recalled. "Our neuroses complemented each other, and because we worked in the same room at the same time, I didn't have to finish a lyric, then hand it over to [Kander] to compose it." This first experience paved the way for the atmosphere of fun that both writers have referred to on several occasions: "When we first began to work together we fell into a way of working that allowed us to enjoy what we were doing.... We just fell into a way of writing that was pleasurable." Soon Freddie and Johnny, as they liked to call each other, were writing novelty numbers for club acts and industrials, anything that would keep them working and earning enough money to pay the rent.
The turning point in Kander and Ebb's collaboration occurred when Kander suggested that they try a ballad. The result, "My Coloring Book," became an instant hit. They wrote the song for Kaye Ballard, who planned to sing it on the Perry Como Television Show, but the producer of the show, Nick Vannoff, felt that Ballard was too much of a comedienne for the sentiment of the song and gave it to Sandy Stewart to perform. The song brought attention to Kander and Ebb, and Stewart's recording of "My Coloring Book" was nominated for a 1962 Grammy Award.
In Kander and Ebb's case, the perennial question "What comes first, the lyrics or the music?" is not germane. They usually worked together in the nonthreatening atmosphere of a small studio in Ebb's apartment, which had a window air conditioner and an old spinet piano. They relied on spontaneity rather than on any systematic method of writing. They felt free to try out any idea that popped into their heads, and if one or the other did not like what they came up with, they simply discarded it and moved on to something else. In an interview Kander reluctantly described the moment-to-moment process of a typical writing session:
We used to sit around the kitchen table first and have some coffee or tea or something and talk. We'd gossip. Then lead into whatever it was we were going to attack that day. And sometimes Fred would have a line or an attitude ... or we would have a conversation in which we would be the people, trying to find what they're talking about. And then we'd gradually get into the little room. And we'd go to the piano. [I'd] find a rhythmic feeling, or sometimes just a whole melodic idea, whatever my fingers happened to [be doing] that day.... And maybe it won't feel right. And we'll both know it. And then we'll take another tack.... Or first I have this quatrain. I'll mess around with it for a little bit. I'll say, well what if we give this a different rhythmic life, if we altered the pattern just a little bit-he's always accommodating.... And here he will start to think and to write. And then if I have a musical setting, even if it's not the piece that I'm going to end up with, if I have a kind of structure, then I'll go sit in the other chair and we'll play with it lyrically. And Fred will go to the typewriter.... When I say we write together, we literally do.
Can we claim that there is such a thing as a Kander and Ebb song (or a Kander and Ebb musical, for that matter) when the writers themselves deny having any awareness of what this might be or that it exists at all? Kander and Ebb's portfolio of songs includes recurring harmonic progressions and exhibits preferences for certain stanzaic structures, but what best defines their voice is the contradictory nature of their collaboration: the composer and lyricist have strikingly different artistic temperaments, the former demonstrably sentimental and lyrical, the latter campy and cynical. Their collaboration is a perfect balancing act. Some critics have suggested that Kander was tolerant of Ebb's "soured idealism" and that Ebb reciprocated by tolerating Kander's "unquenchable optimism." Ebb liked to joke about his partner's irrepressible sanguinity: "Johnny doesn't know how not to be sympathetic. Johnny is the Christ child. Reborn. He really is." The palpable tension between the opposing qualities that each embodies produces the dramatic energy underlying their scores. In "Maybe This Time," for instance, the melody striving to go higher and higher and the forward momentum of the harmonic progression force the singer to deny the possibility of failure even though the lyric and physical exertion required to perform this song create a sense of desperation.
Excerpted from Kander and Ebb by James Leve Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
James Leve is associate professor of musicology and coordinator of music history, Northern Arizona University. He has a forthcoming textbook on musical theater. He lives in Flagstaff, AZ.
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