News Column

Focusing the spotlight on Kander and Ebb musicals

November 9, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 09--I'll not deny that "Chicago" and "Cabaret," the two biggest hits by the celebrated team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, are two of Broadway's best musicals ever.

Yet as we welcome the fifth visit of the touring "Chicago" (Tuesday through Nov. 17 at Hobby Center) -- and since that megahit needs no introduction -- let's spread a little appreciation to the other terrific shows created by musical theater's longest-running words-and-music team.

Kander and Ebb wrote together from 1962 until Ebb's death in 2004, and 11 of their shows were produced on Broadway during that time. Even after his collaborator's death, Kander worked tirelessly to complete two unfinished shows, "Curtains" and "The Scottsboro Boys," both eventually produced to acclaim on Broadway.

Kander and Ebb's output includes other award-winning shows, such as "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Woman of the Year," modest successes such as "Zorba" and "The Happy Time," and a few that just didn't get their due -- particularly the superlative "Steel Pier" and "The Rink," the two works Kander has said he'd most like to see get a second chance.

Kander and Ebb never wrote a score that wasn't hugely entertaining -- and in most cases, provocative and moving as well. Listen to any of the cast albums and hear for yourself. The fact that "The Scottsboro Boys" made its London premiere last week to rave reviews demonstrates the continuing impact of their work.

With so many Kander and Ebb shows singing out "My turn!," why should "Cabaret" and "Chicago" hog all the spotlight?

"Flora, the Red Menace": Both the team and 19-year-old Liza Minnelli made their Broadway debuts with this 1965 work, Minnelli winning a Tony in the title role. Surging with youthful optimism and drive, it centers on an artist just out of school, struggling to launch her career as a fashion illustrator in New York at the height of the Depression -- and falling in love with a young idealist who persuades her to join the Communist Party. Such memorable songs as "All I Need Is One Good Break," "A Quiet Thing" and the explosive showstopper "Sing Happy" made it clear a fantastic new writing team had arrived. The original had book problems, but David Thompson's smart new script for the 1987 off-Broadway revival solved them -- as evidenced by Main Street Theater's 1993 staging of that edition.

"The Happy Time": The nostalgic musical centers on globe-trotting photographer Jacques, the charming ne'er-do-well who recalls his visits to his large, loving French-Canadian family and his influence on impressionable adolescent nephew Bibi. This is Kander and Ebb's warmest and most romantic score, with lovely ballads such as "I Don't Remember You," the lilting titular waltz, and irrepressible rousers including "Without Me" and "The Life of the Party." Robert Goulet won a Tony as Jacques, and Gower Champion won for his direction and choreography. Yet though much praised, Champion's flashy production incorporating film sequences and blown-up photographs was at odds with the intimate story. The show worked better in the revised edition first seen in 1980 at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House and acclaimed in its 2008 staging at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.

"Zorba": With a strong book by "Fiddler on the Roof" librettist Joseph Stein, Kander and Ebb created a properly vital and atmospheric score for the musical of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel about the earthy peasant who teaches a bookish young man to live life to the fullest. The hard-hitting show drew mostly raves upon its 1968 premiere, so the relatively modest run of 305 performances was something of a surprise. Perhaps it was the darkness of the material, with tragic fates for the love interests of both men, not to mention the show-framing theme: "Life Is (what you do while you're waiting to die)." With its primal pull, and such powerful songs as Zorba's "I Am Free" and Hortense's coup de theatre deathbed scene, this artfully wrought show is just waiting for the right production to be properly recognized as one of the team's most important works.

"70, Girls, 70": This 1971 romp about feisty seniors turning to crime (stealing furs) to upgrade their living conditions represents Kander and Ebb in pure fun mode. Their spirited, vaudeville-flavored score is a delight, with such standouts as "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup;" "Broadway, My Street;" "Home" and the inspiring seize-the-day finale "Yes." The spotty book, with its half-baked concept that the performers are both the characters and the actors playing them confused audiences and helped account for the original production's brief run; the show fared better with revised script in its 1991 London debut.

"Woman of the Year": Kander and Ebb and librettist Peter Stone had a sizable hit and all won Tonys for this 1981 musical based on the 1942 movie comedy that starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. In the musical, frankly crafted as a vehicle for indomitable Lauren Bacall (who also won a Tony), it's big shot TV journalist Tess Harding and macho cartoonist Sam Craig (Harry Guardino) who start out feuding, fall in love and marry, but keep feuding over the usual gender-role, career-versus-love issues. A brassy, star-lady show in the "Mame" and "Dolly" mode, "Woman of the Year" boasts such showstoppers as "One of the Boys" and the hilarious duet "The Grass Is Always Greener," with glamorous Tess and drab housewife Jan (Marilyn Cooper) each yearning to be in the other's place.

"The Rink": Kander and Ebb dug a little deeper for this 1984 show about an estranged mother and daughter reuniting to fight over the fate of the family roller rink -but really over the bumpy family past they relive in flashback. With Chita Rivera as mother Anna and Minnelli as daughter Angel, you can imagine the fireworks, especially with Kander and Ebb supplying such powerhouse numbers as "Colored Lights" "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer" and "Don't Ah Ma Me." Despite memorable performances (both stars nominated, Rivera won the Tony), the first-rate score and Terrence McNally's unusually meaty and candid book, the show drew mixed reviews and had a disappointing seven-month run.

"Kiss of the Spider Woman": Reuniting with McNally, the team was back on top with this 1993 hit based on Manuel Puig's novel about two men forced to share a prison cell during a Latin American dictatorship. Political prisoner Valentin and Molina, the gay window dresser booked on a morals charge, start out as hostile strangers but come to respect each other, especially as Molina helps them survive by spinning fantastic tales involving his idol, movie goddess Aurora. Daring, moving and highly theatrical, the show combined the grim reality of the prison with extravagant fantasy sequences featuring Chita Rivera as Aurora. The score's highlights range from Aurora's escapist manifesto "Where You Are," to the tender quartet "Dear One," to the searing title number. A major hit, it won Tonys for best musical, score, book, as well as acting awards to Rivera, Brent Carver (Molina) and Anthony Crivello (Valentin.)

"Steel Pier": This lavish, expertly realized musical set at a 1933 dance marathon on Atlantic City's fabled pleasure pier had everything going for it but just missed being the success it deserved to be. The plot centers on hard-luck contestant Rita Racine, torn between the emcee, (secretly her husband) who's trying to fix things so Rita wins, and the mysterious aviator who turns up as her new dance partner. David Thompson's book strikes the right Depression-era blend of toughness and poignancy. The score perfectly conveys the period and situations, spanning spectacular production numbers ("Everybody Dance"), soaring ballads ("First You Dream") and the knockout comic turn "Everybody's Girl." The original production's other strengths included a perfect cast and breathtaking choreography by Susan Stroman.

"Curtains": Kander and Ebb had started working on their backstage murder-mystery musical with librettist Stone in the 1980s. It finally made it to Broadway in 2007, after the deaths of Stone and Ebb, with Rupert Holmes writing a new book and finishing the lyrics. With its rollicking yet treacherous saga of a troubled show trying out in 1959 Boston, the untalented leading lady slain on opening night, and the stagestruck detective who arrives determined to solve the crime and fix the show, "Curtains" proved worth the wait. The libretto cleverly serves as both mystery and musical. The score is pure Broadway, exhilarating in "Show People," mordant in "It's a Business," rambunctious in "Thataway," lilting in "A Tough Act to Follow" and poignant in key ballads "I Miss the Music" and "Thinking of Him." Heading the brilliant original cast, David Hyde Pierce won a Tony as resourceful Lt. Frank Cioffi. Theatre Under The Stars gave this winner a strong Houston premiere in 2011.

"The Scottsboro Boys": The final Kander and Ebb show is arguably the most audacious of all. Like "Chicago" and "Cabaret" it uses a performance milieu as metaphor for a disturbing story. The infamous case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American boys who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama, is presented in the historical but culturally suspect format of a minstrel show -- yet (with one exception) with black actors playing all the roles, black or white. The concept is controversial, yet the effect on stage is stunning and subversive. After selling out its off-Broadway premiere, the show moved to Broadway in 2010 to mostly favorable reviews. David Thompson's book conveys the facts of the case with tragic dignity. But it's left to the gutsy, wrenching songs, coupled with Susan Stroman's electrifying staging and choreography, to convey the show's unique blend of vibrant humanity and horror. As Candace Allen wrote in the Guardian, responding to the show's London premiere: "Its use of 'minstrel' techniques brilliantly -- and brutally -- confronts racism."

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