And Then We Wrote
Broadway's longest-running music-and-lyrics team, John Kander and Fred Ebb marked the fortieth anniversary of their collaboration with a series of conversations aimed at chronicling their careers. These discussions took place over the kitchen table in Ebb's home, an elegant retreat on Manhattan's Central Park West where the songwriters have worked during most of their years together. A few blocks away in Kander's brownstone, one of the living room walls displays a piece of memorabilia that aptly defines their enduring relationship. Mounted inside a glass frame is a huge enlargement of a crossword puzzle with one highlighted clue: "Partner of Ebb." The answer circled below the puzzle reads "John Kander."
Fred Ebb, the son of Harry and Anna Evelyn (Gritz) Ebb, was born April 8, 1936, in Manhattan. He graduated from New York University in 1955 and received a master's degree in English literature from Columbia University in 1957. John Kander, the son of Harold and Bernice (Aaron) Kander, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 18, 1927. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1951, and later earned an M.A. at Columbia, where he studied composition with Jack Beeson, Otto Luening, and Douglas Moore.
Kander began his career in 1956 as the pianist for The Amazing Adele and An Evening with Beatrice Lillie. He later prepareddance arrangements for Gypsy and Irma la Douce. In 1962 Kander co-wrote A Family Affair with James and William Goldman and made his Broadway debut as a composer. That same year Kander met Ebb, who was writing special material for nightclub acts and contributing to revues, including Vintage 1960, Put It in Writing, and From A to Z. Ebb also wrote for the satirical television show That Was the Week That Was.
Referring to their songs, Kander says, "I think when we're at our best we sound like one person." But when they reminisce with each other, as they do here, two distinct voices can be heard: Kander, the unflappable Midwesterner, mild-mannered and buoyantly optimistic, and Ebb, the acerbic New Yorker who wears his wit and insecurities on his sleeve. The longevity of their collaboration rests in part on the fact that while the two may often disagree, they have never had a serious fight or falling out since they started working together. Their dialogue is at times like one of their musicals, as either may be prompted to break into song and Kander may dash to the piano at any moment to provide accompaniment. In this first conversation, the songwriters recall the years leading up to their partnership.
JOHN KANDER: I remember very distinctly the first piece of music I wrote. I was in the second grade, and my teacher, Miss Mathews, asked me a question in arithmetic class that I wasn't able to answer. I was in the back of the room, naturally, and she said, "What are you doing?" I told her, "I'm writing a Christmas carol." She obviously assumed that was a dodge and came over to my desk. There was my Christmas carol, written in large scrawled notes with lyrics about Jesus and the manger. She had me stay after class and she played it on the piano. The school choir later sang it at a Christmas assembly. But I didn't find out until yearslater that my teacher had called my parents to say, "I just want to tell you that John wrote a Christmas carol. Is that all right? I know that you're Jewish."
I grew up in a Jewish family that had been in Kansas City, Missouri, for a number of generations, so being a Jewish family meant practically nothing except that we knew we were Jewish. We were much less tied to the traditional Jewish neuroses, those famous neuroses that supposedly exist. There were a couple of rabbis in the family, but we only observed on the High Holy Days, and we also celebrated Christmas.
FRED EBB : The impression I have of your family is that they encouraged your interest in music and theater, whereas mine did not.
KANDER: My family was supportive by nature, and I was fortunate in that way. I was born in 1927, and music was an interest that I had from the time I was four. But my whole family loved music. My father loved to sing. He had a big, booming baritone voice, and after dinner we would often gather in the living room. I would play the piano and my father would sing. My brother, Edward, liked to sing, and my aunt played the piano. My mother was tone-deaf, but she had rhythm. After we finished making music, Dad would sometimes say, "Play a march for your mother." Then I would play a march and my mother would get up and march around her chair. Another of my early memories is of my aunt Rheta putting 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.
Music in our home was just fun. There were no professionals. In those days we made music to entertain ourselves. The kind of encouragement that I received over the years was essentially just to keep making music as long as it was fun. We were never very achievement-oriented, and I was never pushed into having a career. I didn't have any great drive to become a professional musician.Thinking as a Midwesterner, I would say that for my parents' generation, music as family entertainment in the home was a perfectly normal activity, and in our home it flourished. Many homes had pianos. Radio existed when I was boy but certainly not television, and recordings were expensive.
I grew up at a time when even among people who were not artistically inclined there was a healthy respect for the arts and a belief shared by everyone in my family that if you were going to be a whole personality, music and theater were activities that you enjoyed. There were music-appreciation classes and concerts, but there was also a thoughtfulness about what art meant and how it enriched people's lives. The Philharmonic gave a series of children's concerts that we went to, and this was Kansas City in the thirties, not New York. My father and my grandparents had a certain knowledge that came to them through their schooling of what theater was, what opera was, not that they were heavy thinkers about any of this. Music and theater were simply a part of their world. I think those cultural differences in our backgrounds affect the two of us more than anything else.
EBB: Growing up Jewish and lower middle class in New York City, I never had a hint of that kind of culture. As a boy, I had very little exposure to the arts. I would not have known what Philharmonic meant. I had no idea what an opera or a concert hall looked like until much later in life.
KANDER : My mother's father had a poultry- and eggprocessing business, and my father worked for him. They had plants in several places in Missouri and Kansas, and my brother and I often drove with my father to visit them. My father's entire emphasis, the joy of his life, was his family. He adored my mother and loved his kids and also loved to have a good time. My parents had a passionate relationship up until the day my father died in 1949, and they were both people who believed that you ought to try to be happy and make the best of any situationyou encountered. They passed that down to their two sons. My brother and I are extremely close. Edward is three and a half years older and loves theater and music but has no particular talents in that direction. I've felt a little guilty at times having established my life in the theater, but he's been very gracious about my career. When we would go to the theater together as boys, my parents would be sitting between us and the lights would go down and instinctively we would lean forward and look at each other.
EBB: That's right out of Norman Rockwell.
KANDER : It may be a cliché, but it was true.
EBB: Oh, I'm envious of all of that. I have nothing like that in my life. 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. He worked in a store on East Broadway selling clothes on the installment plan. When he came home, he would sit down with a newspaper and pay no attention to my mother until he was called for dinner. They stayed together with their children as their only common interest, me and my two sisters, Norma and Estelle, who were both more than ten years older than I was. I never saw my father pick up a book. He had no interest whatsoever in anything that would have interested me. I don't mean to judge. He did the best he could, as hardworking as he was.
I remember that he entered me in some talent contests in Atlantic City. I know I was little and I guess I was sort of cute. I would stand on a table and sing "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." I always won the twenty-five dollars and my father would take the money from me. That was the end of that. I remember one night the door opened and two cops were standing there with my father. He had been in an automobile accident on the Queensborough Bridge. All the women in the family were screaming and yelling, "Poor Pop!" He walked in, and I think it all confounded him. I was just a little bitty thing, but I remember the blood on his faceand the two cops bringing him in. I guess if I were in analysis I would tell that story pretty quick. He was only fifty-two when he died, or was it fifty-four? I think more than anything else his business finally killed him.
Neither my father nor anyone else in my family had any inclination toward music or theater. My interest came about from listening to recordings that I would play and play until they turned white. I was always bewildered by the prospect of what would become of me, and because my family was Jewish, that was always a prominent question. What would become of a boy later in life when he has to make a living and support a family? As an adolescent, I felt enormous pressure because of that family concern about my future, and I remember that I was unhappy from that time on. I didn't want to be anything my parents had in mind for me, like being a lawyer or doctor. The theater eventually became my escape. I always lived in a fantasy world as a boy, and my fantasy life started to center itself in the theater when I was old enough to appreciate it in my early teens. I felt such joy sitting there in the darkness of the theater, watching the magic onstage. It was such a liberating release for me.
I saved money for Broadway shows and bought standing room, which was fifty-five cents in those days. Sometimes I would go to the theater and ask the concessionaire if he needed help checking coats or selling orange drink during intermission. That's how I managed to see The Glass Menagerie, which was one of the first shows I saw back in the forties. Eddie Dowling directed it and played the son. Julie Hayden, Anthony Ross, and Laurette Taylor were also in it. I thought it was spectacular. Laurette Taylor played the mother, and she killed me. I went back many times and I loved every performance. She had a piece of business where she turned around and walked upstage, and as she walked, she reached behind her and pulled her girdle down. I thought, Oh my God, how amazing that is! It may have been somethingthat she improvised, but she did it every night, and I wanted to see her play that part every night of my life. I wanted to live in the theater and see every show there was.
KANDER: My interest in music happened earlier, before I could have had much sense about my life other than where the lights came through the window. But I could hear music in a way. There may be some physiological aspect of this, but I think in terms of becoming a musician, much of the process depends on how you hear and organize sound in your head. 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 very important to me, and I can't help but believe that it affected the way I organized sound later on in life.
EBB: Jesus, a sleeping porch. I wouldn't even have known what that was. I never even knew anyone who lived in a house.
KANDER: I remember the first professional musical I ever saw was Pins and Needles, a show about the International Garment Workers Union. I loved it, but before that I had been exposed to music and theater in other ways. The Met radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons were a great influence on me. I tried to imagine what the stage looked like and how they presented the stories. One of the earliest experiences I had with opera was a tattered old company called the San Carlo Opera. They came through Kansas City when I was nine, and they did Aida. 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.
The next day they were doing Madama Butterfly, and I made a pest of myself because I wanted to see that as well. My poor mother, who really couldn't hear music, tried to get out of taking me. She said, "No, you wouldn't like that one. It's not very good." But my aunt offered to take me. So we went to see Madama Butterfly, and I came home and never believed a word my mother said about music after that. I don't know how to say this without sounding slightly pretentious, but it was big theater. It wasn't just about music, it was about theater. Years later when I saw the company again and realized what I had seen as a boy, I was much less impressed. But my interest in telling a story through music in many ways derived from early experiences like those.
EBB: On my fifteenth birthday, I told my family, "I would like to see a musical." They hated the idea, and I remember the looks on their faces: "Oh God, that's what he wants!" But they took me. I saw Nancy Walker in a show called Barefoot Boy with Cheek. That might have been the first musical I ever saw. My sisters and I sat in the second balcony. I thought the show was just marvelous, and they hated it. I remember Nancy Walker, though little else about that show. Years later I had dinner with Nancy Walker and her husband, David Craig. It was one of those moments in life like that film technique where you zoom in on someone and then zoom out again. I remember looking at Nancy Walker that night and thinking, My God, when I was fifteen, you were the star on the stage, and now here we are having spaghetti together.
KANDER: When I was twelve, my father's business had prospered enough that during spring vacations my folks started taking us to New York. We talked about making that trip all year long. I had also started a record collection. Records were all I ever wanted for birthday and Christmas gifts. The great record store in New York City, the Gramophone Shop, had a supplementalcatalog that they sent out, and I would make a list of records that I wanted from it. I would save all year and when we visited New York, I would browse that shop. We always went to the theater. Coming to New York was something I was already romantic about. When my brother and I came here the first time, he had his head out one side of the taxi and I had mine out the other. Of course, the two of us were thrilled by everything we saw. I remember once we had tickets to Carousel and flew on ahead of my parents to make sure that we arrived on time for the show. We had heard the record and we knew the score.
EBB: When I went to the theater at that age, there was nothing that I didn't like. I had no critical faculty whatsoever. But now that we are older we see shows in an entirely different way, don't we? We break them down into whether we liked the lyrics and whether any other elements impressed us. And we're actually able to say, "I didn't like that."
KANDER: I don't go to the theater to find out what I think about it. I'm a true member of my family--I go to have a good time. If I don't have a good time, maybe later I will talk about it. Seeing a show now may not be exactly the way it was for me when I was a kid, but I still go to the theater expecting to have a good time.
EBB: I used to go to find out how they did it. One musical that made an enormous impression on me was Guys and Dolls, because I could not figure out how they did it. How did all those elements come together? How do you write a song that pays off later? How can you stop and do a whole song that has no real import in the piece? It was like going to a classroom when I went to the theater. I loved The King and I more than any of their other musicals because of all those subtle moments in it. In "Shall We Dance," when the King gets up and finally puts his hand on her, I thought that was the most amazing moment in every way. Who thought of that? The actor? The director? Was it written down?To this day, that moment is a wonder to me. I gasped when he put his hand on her.
KANDER: I have a hand memory like that with Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was the end of South Pacific when I first saw it. Emile de Becque comes back, and Nellie Forbush is sitting at the table. She thinks he's dead and is taking care of the children. She is at the table when he comes in, and they look at each other and they don't say a word. He sits at the other end of the table.
EBB: And they touch hands.
KANDER: They touch hands right underneath the table! Even talking about it will make me cry.
EBB: What interests me always is who thought of that.
KANDER: If you want to think of it professionally, obviously, what could happen when he comes back is that he would stand and they would have a big love duet. That would end the show. But to realize that that single gesture was more powerful than anything you could write for them!
EBB: Yes, but still, who thought of it?
KANDER: Somebody smart.
EBB: And how!
KANDER: Just to get off writing for one second, in Pelléas et Mélisande, in the final scene of the fourth act with the two of them, their passion builds up for each other and they've never spoken, and the orchestra is building and building, and he says, "Je t'aime." And she says, "Je t'aime aussi." Any other composer would have made a big orchestra deal out of it, but what Debussy did was cut out the orchestra altogether. He has just those words and nothing else. Those two lines are more powerful than anything else he could have written, just like the hands.
EBB: That's how we learn, I suppose.
KANDER: I only learn in retrospect. I don't think about those things at the time.
EBB: When did you first take piano lessons?
KANDER: My first piano teacher was an eccentric woman named Lucy Parrot. I started with her when I was six after I had already been playing on my own for two years. I loved her name, and she actually looked like a parrot. She lived with her senile mother in a rather dark house about four blocks away. Miss Parrot was a kind of Wicked Witch of the West. I was a bit intimidated by her and in awe of her at the same time. She was actually quite a good teacher and introduced me to a lot of music that I would not otherwise have heard. She was stern, but on a good day if I did especially well, she would give me cookies and goat's milk--
EBB: My God, a sleeping porch and goat's milk. What a privileged childhood.
KANDER: And Miss Parrot's mother and I would listen to sections of Tristan and Isolde. I was enthralled listening to that music and that experience began my lifelong love affair with Wagner. About once a month Miss Parrot would have her students give little recitals at her house. While I was in high school, I studied at the conservatory in Kansas City and played at recitals, but I hated that because performing was so terrifying to me. I remember one time I had to make up the last couple of pages of Rachmaninoff's E-flat Major Prelude because I'd forgotten, and I decided that I would rather be dead than be in that position again. But I continued studying music and performing in college. What was your first piece of writing, one of those funny limericks?
KANDER: Go on. Recite one. I know you're dying to. What was that one about the telephone booth?
EBB: I don't remember.
A wildly obstreperous youth Got locked in a telephone boothWhen hit by the fever He screwed the receiver And knocked up a girl in Duluth.
I had an English teacher at New York University named Miss Fergus, who heard that and encouraged me, saying, "You know, Fred, you put yourself down all the time but you have a talent. You ought to consider being a writer." Good old Miss Fergus. I liked to rhyme and later I wrote short stories. I once went to a short-story seminar at NYU and that's when I fell in love with the idea of writing. Although I had no formal training in drama, by the time I finished college I wanted so much to be in the theater, and I figured the only real chance for me to enter that world was to write lyrics.
I remember writing my first lyric about five years before we met. I wrote it on the bus on the way to endear myself to a composer who I hoped would write with me because I wanted to be a lyric writer. A girl named Patsy Vamos who I had dated in college told me about this fellow she knew who was a professional named Phil Springer. Patsy arranged for me to meet Phil so he could ascertain whether or not I had any gift. He was way over on the East Side, and I was on the West. I got on a bus and I thought, How am I going to show this guy something? So I scribbled this lyric out on a couple of matchbooks. It was called "Four-Eyes."
KANDER: Go ahead and recite it. I know you're dying to.
More and more as each day passes My romance in horn-rimmed glasses Seems to mean much more and more to me. Less and less am I concerned by All the woman he's been spurned by, Just because he finds it hard to see.He hasn't got a lot I know And yet he'll always be my darling, myopic Romeo. So let him fall and let him blunder, He remains my cockeyed wonder, Still the one most wonderful to see, And how I pray for the day That my four eyes Has eyes for me.
Ask me how come I remember the whole thing. No, don't. I'm already deeply ashamed of myself. But that was my bus composition. When I met Phil, I gave him the matchbooks, and he couldn't make heads or tails out of it. He didn't seem particularly impressed, but at least it was a way for me to start a conversation to see if I had any talent or not. Later, Phil sat down at the piano and played a tune he had written. I sat behind him with a pad and pencil and scribbled out a lyric. When I finished the song, I put it in front of him and he played it. That one was called "I Never Loved Him Anyhow." Phil said he thought that I had talent and wanted us to work together every day from nine to five, like regular business hours. He promised to teach me everything he knew. At the time I was working as a credit authorizer on the graveyard shift at Ludwig, Bauman & Spears, but I soon quit my job and started to work with Phil every day. He took "I Never Loved Him Anyhow" to a music publisher who accepted the song, and before the end of the year, Carmen McRae had recorded it. Of course, I was thrilled, though I think we only made about eighty dollars.
KANDER: Why don't you recite it. You know you're dying to.
KANDER: When I was in graduate school, the head of Columbia University's music department was Douglas Moore, and he became a father figure to me. Back then I was still undecided as far as my direction and goals were concerned. I didn't yet havea specific vision of where I was going. I had written music for shows in college, and I was also writing some fairly dreadful chamber music. Douglas made it acceptable for me to go into musical theater by telling me that was what he would have done if he could have started his career over. His saying that was a blessing, and at some point in the early fifties I made the decision to devote myself to musical theater. I made a living coaching singers, playing auditions, and conducting in summer stock.
I happened to go to the opening night of West Side Story in Philadelphia in 1957 and afterwards there was a party at what was then called the Variety Club. There was a large bar in the center of the club and it was crowded, about five or six deep. I'm a very nonaggressive person, and I could not get a drink. But a short bald man standing in front of me saw my distress and said, "Why don't you tell me what you want to order, and when I get mine, I'll get yours." He did, and then we struck up a conversation. His name was Joe Lewis, and he was a pianist with the company, playing in the pit. Later, we kept up a correspondence, and when the time came for him to take his vacation, he asked me if I would like to sub for him. I said, "Sure!" I learned to say yes whenever I could back then.
Joe sent me the music, and for several weeks I played in the pit for West Side Story. During that time, they were putting in some replacements and doing auditions, and I had to play for those and for rehearsals. Ruth Mitchell was the stage manager, and when the time came for the director, Jerry Robbins, to start casting Gypsy, Ruth asked me to come along, which I did. I played auditions for weeks and weeks, and Jerry became accustomed to having me around. At the end of the auditions, he asked me, "Hey, would you like to do the dance arrangements on this new show with me?" I said, "You want me to?" He said, "Yeah!" and I said, "Yeah!" That was the entire conversation--it's emblazoned in my memory. From then on, it was a fascinatinglearning experience, but 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.
It is a terrific education to work with a great director or choreographer. In Gypsy, while we were working on "All I Need Is the Girl," when Tulsa says, "Now we waltz, now the strings come in," as I recall all of that was invented by Jerry Robbins while he was onstage attempting to improvise that scene. The lines of that piece were an edited version of what Jerry ad-libbed. Later, when I was working on Irma La Douce, the choreographer, Onna White, said in rehearsal at one point, "Is there anything that we can do with penguins?" Then she turned to me and said, "John, can you give us a little penguin music." That moment led to a penguin ballet. Improvisational experiences like that can be terrifying but they eventually give you a theatrical looseness. You eventually learn how to go with the flow of your collaborators, and you also learn not to be afraid of making a fool of yourself.
EBB: Phil Springer taught me much of what I know about lyrical form, prosody--that is, putting the words to the music naturally so the accent doesn't fall on the wrong syllable--AABA, as opposed to verse chorus. I never knew any of that. I had an instinct but no knowledge or technique. I worked with Phil about a year, and then he was offered a job as an arranger for a music publisher for fifty dollars a week. He needed the money and took the job. That more or less ended our collaboration. Phil went on to write some popular songs like "Moonlight Gambler" and "Santa Baby."
I later wrote some songs for a revue with Norman Martin called "Put It in Writing." The show played in Chicago before coming to New York, and we had three numbers in it. I kept getting calls from the producers about one of the numbers called "What Kind of Life Is That?" because it was stopping the show regularly. The song was based on a remark my mother made tome. I was having dinner with her, and she was reading the New York Post. There was a story about Elizabeth Taylor filming Cleopatra in Egypt. My mother was clucking away and she put the paper down, saying, "Oh, my God, Elizabeth Taylor--what kind of life is that? The poor girl." My mother overlooked Elizabeth Taylor's wealth and fame and felt sorry for her because she was getting a divorce and having an adulterous relationship. I thought that was a hoot, and Norman and I wrote a comic number set in an Irish bar with three old biddies in their cups, wailing about what kind of life Elizabeth Taylor had. I went to Chicago to see the number, and it was one of the rare times in my life when I felt talented, because that number just blew the roof off the theater. I sat in the theater and burst into tears because the audience was literally cheering. That was a defining moment in my career. I still can feel the pleasure I had watching and the joy of hearing the ovation for that number.
KANDER: Who directed that show?
EBB: Chris Hewitt.
KANDER: I remember there was a great punch line.
"They packed up the crew of the Fox studio. They all went to Egypt, but Nasser said, 'Go.' They wouldn't let her in, She's Jewish, you know. What kind of life is that?"
The word "Jewish" got the reaction.
KANDER: Because Liz Taylor had converted to Judaism.
EBB: Yes, she converted. That song really kept me in show business because I had been thinking maybe this was not the sort of thing I should be doing, which happened every third week. Norman and I wrote another number for that show called "The Revolution Is Late This Year." I had worked at Camp Tamimentand we were kind of political then. I also wrote sketches and oneliners for the TV show That Was the Week That Was, which was political satire dealing with current events.
I had also started writing with Paul Klein in the late 1950s. Paul was a sensitive, gifted composer, though he later opted for marriage and children and the waterproofing business. The financial insecurity was too scary for him, whereas I was ready to starve if necessary. But Paul and I did contribute sketches to the Broadway revue From A to Z, and we had a few hits. "Little Blue Man" was one, and Eddie Arnold recorded a country song we wrote called "That Do Make It Nice." Jim Lowe recorded a novelty song of ours called "Close the Door."
Paul and I also wrote a book show, Morning Sun. I wrote the libretto and lyrics, based on a 1960 story by Mary Deasy. That show led an enchanted life at first. Everyone we spoke to said yes. Bob Fosse said yes as director. Our producer, Martin Tahse, said yes. The star we were after, Patricia Neway (just after her success in Menotti's The Consul), said yes, and the Phoenix Theater agreed to give us that prestigious space. But then Tahse had a falling-out with Fosse. I never knew the details but we lost Fosse. I think that Bobby might have given the show the kind of flash it needed. Bobby wanted to do it like a ghost story, and he was probably right in wanting to approach it that way It eventually opened Off-Broadway in a very tragic, operettalike style. I think the reason the piece didn't work primarily had to do with my libretto, which was too maudlin and heavy-handed. Paul had written some lovely melodies. He is a wonderfully gifted composer, but my libretto screwed it all up. At about the same time, you had done A Family Affair, which also didn't work, so early on we were coming to each other fresh from our failures.
KANDER: Hal Prince came in as director on A Family Affair, which I had written with the Goldman brothers, William and James. Hal was the person who brought me to Tommy Valando. Tommy was an enterprising music publisher who had a keen interestin the theater. He also represented Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. We may have first met in passing through our agent and friend Dick Seff. But my memory is that you and I were both signed to Tommy, and he said, "I think you two guys should meet each other. I think you would like each other." We finally did meet, and that was in the fifth century. Do you remember it that way?
EBB: I remember you coming to my apartment on Seventysecond Street at Tommy's suggestion. He called me and said, "John Kander is coming over to meet you." I was nervous the way I always am, and you came to the door with a copy of the Herald Tribune under your arm. It wasn't like you had brought me roses, but I thought that was rather nice. Then we sat and talked for a while about writing music. I liked you immediately and I had a hunch that you would be good for me. That was in 1962, and there was a musical called Take Her, She's Mine. We decided just as an exercise to see whether we liked each other and whether our tastes matched to write the title song, "Take Her, She's Mine."
KANDER: Tommy pushed us to do that. It was almost like an assignment. But we didn't get the show.
EBB: Nobody put the song in the show or played it. I don't think anybody ever heard it. But we still know it. I could sing it for you this very minute:
I've known her all her life,
Take her, she's mine.
A child, a girl, a wife,
Take her, she's mine.
The day comes when
The lamb leaves the fold.
It's part of an old design,
And so I smile and bow,
That's how it must be,
Take her from me, she's mine.
Not a terribly impressive piece, but that was how we started on that first day together. It was a case of instant communication and instant songs. 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 you to compose it. A short time later we wrote a comic song called "Sara Lee" for my friend Kaye Ballard, about one of our favorite culinary delights. I remember one day when we were first writing, I told you that I had a terrific idea for a piece of special material with a comic premise about a coloring book. We had been writing songs mostly in a humorous vein, and after hearing me out, you said, "I have to tell you something. I think we're writing too much comic material and it's gotten to the point where all you can do is try to think funny. Why don't we treat this new idea of yours seriously and write a ballad instead." Sometimes it seems to me that all the good ballad ideas have been taken. How many ways can you say, "I love you?" But our first romantic ballad was "My Coloring Book":
In case you fancy coloring books, (And lots of people do), I've a new one for you. A most unusual coloring book, The kind you never see, Crayons ready? Very well, begin to color me.
These are the eyes that watched him as he walked away. Color them grey. This is the heart that thought he would always be true.
Color it blue. These are the arms that held him and touched him, Then lost him somehow. Color them empty now. These are the beads I wore until she came between. Color them green.
This is the room I sleep in and walk in and weep in And hide in that nobody sees, Color it lonely, please. This is the man, The one I depended upon. Color him gone.
KANDER: We wrote that song for Kaye Ballard also. She was on Perry Como's television show at the time, and on the way down to the show in the cab, Kaye said, "They will never let me sing this song. But maybe they will let Sandy Stewart do it." Words to that effect. We took the song in, and it happened exactly as she predicted. Sandy Stewart did sing "My Coloring Book" on the show, and to our total incredulity, they received something like twenty thousand calls and messages the next day. I could never get over that.
EBB: I remember that we played the song for Nick Vanoff, who was the producer of the show, and Kaye was there. Her image was basically that of a comedienne, so he wouldn't let her sing a serious number like that. If Kaye had objected and said, "No, I want to sing that song," we would have missed out. I still speak to Kaye about once a week. She was one of the first people who had the credentials to validate me, and she did. She is warm and wise and funny, and I'm crazy for her. In my dictionary, under loyal friend, the definition should be Kaye Ballard. We later wrote another serious song for Kaye with the title "Maybe ThisTime." The idea was that maybe this time she would be able to perform a serious piece like that on TV. Later, Liza Minnelli sang it in her nightclub act. That song later became successful because it was in the movie of Cabaret.
KANDER: There were a lot of cover records of "My Coloring Book."
EBB: We heard the morning after Sandy Stewart performed it on the show that Barbra Streisand wanted to record it. Barbra wasn't all that hot then, but she was still a name.
KANDER: Who else recorded it?
EBB: Kitty Kallen and a lot of others.
KANDER: The song was a hit, and I don't think either of us was ever prepared for that.
EBB: It made a lot of noise for us. Our having a hit song weighed heavily with Hal, too, that we were able to say we wrote "My Coloring Book."
KANDER: I think I told you the story how some years later I was in an empty elevator at the top of a building, and Muzak was playing in the elevator. I was alone, and as I came down, I heard this big stringy version of the song, and I thought, I am going to die. This means the elevator's going to crash! [laughing] Oh, I really believed that.
EBB: Others who recorded it sold more than Barbra. Kitty Kallen's was the biggest seller.
KANDER: Barbra didn't do singles, did she?
EBB: I don't know. It was on her second album.
KANDER: She also recorded "I Don't Care Much" early in our collaboration.
EBB: That song meant nothing at the time, though we kept it in a trunk and ten years later it went into the stage production of Cabaret . We wrote it at a dinner party--
KANDER: At your house. We were showing off about how fast we could write, and we said we can write a song betweendessert and coffee. The others cleared the table, and we went to a piano and sat on the piano bench. You said, "Well, what shall we write about?" And I said, "I don't know. I don't care much." Then you said, "Play a waltz," and in fifteen minutes we had written it. I love that song. It was one of those songs that just came out simple and full from the start:
I don't care much. Go or stay.
I don't care very much either way.
Hearts grow hard on a windy street.
Lips grow cold with the rent to meet.
So if you kiss me, if we touch,
Warning's fair, I don't care very much.
Words sound false when your coat's too thin.
Feet don't waltz when the roof caves in.
So if you kiss me, if we touch,
Warning's fair, I don't care very much.
EBB: Before meeting you, I wrote for people like Tommy Sands, Abby Lane, and Xavier Cugat. One of my early songs was recorded by Judy Garland. It was called "Heartbroken" and was on the Columbia label. I was delighted she recorded the number but at that point Judy wasn't selling many records and it never became a hit. That was an early assignment I did with Phil Springer. The song suited Judy because it had some real belt notes. In light of our later relationship with Liza Minnelli, it seems strange to me now that one of my first professional jobs was writing a song for her mother. I also wrote for Carol Channing, who thought I was hilarious. I once sang her a number that I had written for her called "I Love Roz," and she peed. Carol sat there listening to me and she literally peed in her pants! That song was an impression of Ethel Merman trying not to be jealous of Rosalind Russell for doing the movie of Gypsy after Mermanhad starred in the show. Writing special material like that was something I could do, although I had reservations about that world. When somebody has a club act, they want you to write a special song that only they can sing. They get exclusive performing rights to the piece for the rest of their lives, and they give you two dollars and that's the end of the transaction. But that kind of writing is one way for songwriters to start out and gain some experience.
KANDER: Once we started working together, we both knew that our goal was musical theater, even when we were writing special material or trying to write a pop song. I hadn't thought of it until now, but we were both lucky that we had ways of making income within the framework of what we did. You had that world as a lyricist, and I was a rehearsal pianist. We were never taking waiter jobs.
EBB: I never thought of us as being anything but extraordinarily lucky
KANDER: The really lucky thing--and I cannot tell you how this happened--is that when we first began to work together we fell into a way of working that allowed us to enjoy what we were doing. We never made an intellectual decision about that. We just fell into a way of writing that was pleasurable. But it was just luck that we established that kind of rapport because if it weren't fun for the two of us we wouldn't be working together. Writing is never really difficult for us even if it takes a long time. We never don't have a good time when we're writing. We may write junk, tear it up, and then write it again, but the process of writing is never agonizing or depressing. Even writing badly is fun while we're doing it. Everything afterward is hard as hell. But even when there's trouble out of town and concepts change or songs change, the act of writing is never unpleasant for either of us.
EBB: You never challenged me in any threatening way. There was a safety in being with you that I hadn't often felt with otherpeople, and a lack of desire to ingratiate. I always felt confident in your affection for me, and that was sustaining. I don't remember my ever questioning that or going to sleep worried about whether or not you would like me in the morning. There is a freedom, a total lack of anxiety when we work.
KANDER: Which is surprising because both of us are filled with anxiety about many things in life. We carry on even when we don't get it quite right on a particular piece or we get it entirely wrong. Musically, my crutch is my hands. If we've talked through an idea or if you have a lyrical phrase, I have this idiotic belief or faith that if I put my hands down they will come up with something, whether good or bad. Both of us give ourselves permission to be rotten. We may try something and out comes a quatrain or in comes something from the keyboard, and so what if it's no good? I think that is what we give each other that has prevented us from ever becoming paralyzed. When we go into that room, something gets written. It could be pure shit, but that's acceptable.
EBB: We may get stuck occasionally but neither of us ever suffers from writer's block.
KANDER: I don't know about you but certainly for me, particularly after all these years we have been together, contemplating working with somebody else would be like moving to another country where I didn't speak the language. You've often been sought after--
EBB: I would be terrified. I had an offer some years ago, I think I told you, from Richard Rodgers. It was a show called Rex, I think. But I just couldn't do it for those personal reasons.
KANDER: I would think without having been inside your head that your first reaction would have been how flattering, how great this offer is. Then all of the sudden the reality of it would set in.
EBB: That was a nail-biter. I could never have been in thesame room with Richard Rodgers, much less have what I have with you where I have the freedom to say, "What do you think of this?" or "Look at what I've just written." I've always been very secure in our collaboration. That has never been threatened, and when something came along like that offer that might have afforded me another way of expressing myself with somebody else, I was not interested.
KANDER: Other people have approached you over the years to work like that.
EBB: I wrote a couple of pieces with Charles Aznavour, but they were already set. The music was already written and I just lyricized it. Otherwise that would seem like cheating to me. I found in you the ideal companion for what I do lyrically, and I don't know if that exists anywhere else. I can't even imagine what I might be doing if we had not become partners. I might have found a soul mate in Cy Coleman, but I don't think that would have been very likely.
KANDER: The truth is that neither of us ever contemplates doing a real project, a whole piece, with somebody else. Of course, we've each done other kinds of projects on the side in television and movies. But it's like a marriage in which the wife says, "You can go have dinner with this girl but you better not sleep with her."
EBB: The friendship triumphs. I wonder why that seems so incredible to some people. Why would we not want to hang on to that relationship?
KANDER: It seems to me that you're dealing with what is most comfortable in your life. It depends on what your ambitions are.
EBB: I don't understand what could be so troubling that anyone could not go on with a successful collaboration. I'm thinking of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. They were so great together as a partnership.
KANDER: Jerry and Sheldon were always my idols, and now that they have been separated for so long, perhaps some people tend to forget who they were. I thought their work was breathtaking. She Loves Me. Fiddler on the Roof They inspired me.
EBB: But why would they stop? How terrible could it have been? I don't think anyone really knows. When you hear their work today, it's even more remarkable and you have to ask why either would let the other leave. How could you let a talent like Sheldon leave you? And Jerry is fantastic, so why wouldn't Sheldon have said, "Nobody can write music better than this guy!"
KANDER: What went down between the two of them we may never know, and I wonder if they will ever really know either.
KANDER: I think one of the blessings of our collaboration and one of the reasons we have survived is that our way of working has always precluded conflict. If we're working and you make a suggestion, I really know what you mean, and it's not so difficult to try to put my head there. We're pretty good at switching into each other's territory. If I have an enthusiasm for something or if you have a particular enthusiasm, even if we don't share that inclination, both of us will usually jump in and say, "All right. Let's try this!"
EBB: Or I'll be stuck for a word and you will come up with it. I might write something and you may say, "My God, that's really crappy." If somebody else said that to me, I would feel hurt. But with you I understand what you mean and it's acceptable because I know you have respect for my work and I don't take your criticism as a personal attack. Nobody can talk me out of anything quicker than you. If you say that line or that lyric doesn't seem right to you, I'm off it in a minute and I'll change my direction.
KANDER: There is very little self-examination that goes onin our work. We're always focused on what we're doing. I don't think there has ever been much conversation between us until now about why we do anything.
EBB: We have known each other so long and never had this conversation. I remember once I saw an interview with Nancy Walker on a television show called The Hot Seat. It had a terrific impact on me. The interviewer read her Walter Kerr's analysis of how she performed, and Kerr had called her a "Cassandra." Nancy Walker sat there so bewildered by how the critic characterized her performance style and how he put it into words. She was confounded because she never started out intending to be a Cassandra or thinking of herself that way. I thought of Nancy sitting there and thinking, Who the hell is Cassandra? I don't think we started out intending to be anything or with the intention of pursuing a particular style in our work.
KANDER: I have a similar story that I may have told you. It's my favorite story about people who analyze the works of others. Years ago Stanley Kauffman was doing an interview with the director Michelangelo Antonioni for a program of film criticism. Kauffman obviously worshiped Antonioni and said words to that effect: "Tell me, Mr. Antonioni, can you sum up what the body of your work is pointing to? What has your message been in your movies?" Antonioni looked up sort of strangely and said, "Well, what do you think?" At which point a very pleased Stanley Kauffman pulled out a sheaf of papers and proceeded to read his analysis of the work of Antonioni. At the end, quite pleased with himself again, Kauffman turned to Antonioni and asked, "Now do you agree with any of that?" Antonioni looked horrified and said, "No!"
EBB: I think the songs that have become what people think of as Kander and Ebb songs are purely accidental.
KANDER: I wouldn't recognize a Kander and Ebb song if it walked in the room and slapped me in the face. Even after writingas many as we have, I really wouldn't know what a Kander and Ebb song is.
EBB: I don't think I would know either. People sometimes call me and say, "Wow, I heard a wonderful song of yours," and it turns out to be someone else's.
KANDER: Sometimes a writer or composer who I know will call when he's working on a show and say, "I just wrote a real Kander and Ebb song, and I can't wait for you to hear it." Then the person plays it for me and I think, What? Is that what we sound like?
EBB: We ask ourselves, "Why is that a Kander and Ebb song?" and we're at a loss. I don't think we consciously do almost anything that people have written about us when they try to characterize our music. They often point out things to us that we never had in mind. There's an element of pretension there that drives me nuts even though they may be very complimentary.
KANDER: I usually have no idea what they're talking about. You can write an article about any playwright or composer and imply that the writer keeps looking for material that exemplifies a certain message, but that may not be the case at all. Steve Sondheim's work has certain attitudes in it that you could identify, but if you asked him about it, I bet he wouldn't know what they were. Steve works the same way everybody else does--he writes about what interests him. In a sense, I'm much more selfish than others may think. Deep down inside, I write to have a good time and to write things that will entertain me.
EBB: I'm more of an exhibitionist than that. I love performing and entertaining people with what we write. But I only sing when you accompany me--except that one time when somebody was running for office and we were asked to perform at a benefit.
KANDER: I can't remember who the candidates were, but I remember the story very well and I still can't believe that you did it.
EBB: It was at the Palace Theater. Samuels. He was my candidate--
KANDER: Howard Samuels. God damn! Let me tell this story because you remember it somewhat differently than I do. You were terribly excited because we had been asked to perform at this rally at the Palace for this gubernatorial candidate, Howard Samuels. But I said, "I'm not for him." And you said, "What difference does it make? It's the Palace!" Fred, if Hitler asked you to perform at the Palace, you would do it. You said yes to playing at the Palace, and I refused to do it.
EBB: I said, "Look at who's performing, Alan J. Lerner and Yip Harburg. And Chita is going to introduce us!" It was kind of swanky Paul Trueblood accompanied me. I sang "Ring Them Bells" and I killed them. I just didn't see how you could resist walking out onstage at the Palace.
KANDER: I was appalled.
EBB: I told the audience, "Imagine standing here where Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson once stood!" I had never sung before without you.
KANDER: I always hated performing, but you were terrific and people always wanted us to perform because of you.
EBB: I enjoyed those occasional benefits, the one-shot deals. I loved performing. I was very sick for a while, and my voice went. Then I realized I wasn't good anymore. I became nasal and insecure. What you need is confidence, and I lost that. But even recently we received a couple offers to perform professionally.
KANDER: Four little words: "Not on your life." You would have liked to, but I just couldn't do it. I was terrified every time we performed together, mostly that I would forget how to play the piano. It's absolutely true. I've had terrible stage fright ever since college. I was playing a show that I had written at Oberlin. I was all there was in the pit, just me and the piano. Between the matinee and evening performance, I had a drink. It was just oneglass of wine, but it did something to my concentration. When I came back and started the show, I began to think, Why am I pushing down this white thing? What's the next thing my hands are supposed to do? It was as if I were a dancer and suddenly had to remember what muscles to use to lift my leg. I became totally involved in the mechanics of how the machine worked, and I froze. It was only a second or two, but I never got over it. It wasn't a fear of forgetting how a song goes, it was a fear of forgetting how to make the machine work.
I never lost that stage fright, and that was the reason I stopped performing years ago. Even to this day, I actually think that I'm going to forget how to play the instrument. You and our friend Liza Minnelli used to tease me about that. I remember the three of us once got up and performed a tribute for George Abbott, and the two of you were going like gangbusters. At some point you looked over and saw my eyeballs rolling to the back of my head. During moments like that, I felt that if I took my hands off the keyboard I would never put them back down. You and Liza never teased me about it again after that because you knew it was real.
EBB: I've seen your hands shake.
KANDER: It's never there when we're working or when I'm playing something for myself. I think if you start to think about how you do something, you freeze. If we're working on a scene in a rehearsal and suddenly the director says, "We need some music to get from this point to that point," if I think about it, I can't do it. If I just go to the piano and put my hands down, immediately my fingers will invent. It has nothing to do with my brain. It just happens, but I have to let myself do it. When I watch you working, I don't think of it as an intellectual exercise. I think of it as an oral or verbal process. You get the rhyme scheme worked out, and there is suddenly a quatrain that didn't exist before. It's not because you sit down and think and take notes and examineit. Sometimes that may be true, but most of the time it comes out in this effortless way like what I feel when I put my fingers on the piano.
EBB: I think the reason for that effortlessness is confidence. I feel confident when I've written something that you will properly set it musically and that I will like the song when you're finished. We know how to please each other musically and the collaboration works on the basis of that kind of mutual support, which we agree neither of us would necessarily have if we were to sit in a room and try to write with someone else.
KANDER: I think when we're at our best, we sound like one person. But there's no pride in it. We would be paralyzed if we had someone looking over our shoulder and telling us that what we were writing had to be good. We have finished whole songs and come back the next day and torn them up. Neither of us says, "Oh my God, what am I going to do with my life now that I've written something so terrible?"
EBB: It's back to square one.
KANDER: That was our philosophy from the very beginning.
EBB: When it doesn't work, go back to square one and try again and hope we get lucky this time. Maybe this time, get it?
Copyright © 2003 by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Greg Lawrence