John Kander and Fred Ebb are two of the musical theatre's unsung giants. Composer Kander and lyricist/book writer Ebb have had several successful collaborations, and are as successful now, mostly in revival, as they were in the 1960s and 1970s when their work first hit the New York stage.
Although they had worked separately on various shows and revues, success only came for either of them when they were introduced to one another and wrote the score for the 1965 musical Flora, the Red Menace. Not one of the enduring classics of the musical stage, this was an odd little story of an innocent young girl who finds herself involved, quite by accident, with the Communist party. This young girl was played by Liza Minnelli (her first leading role), who got to sing the show's one hit: 'A Quiet Thing', often sung as a smooth love song, but actually a song about the odd feeling of getting a new job.
Life is a Cabaret
Just one year later, and the pair had a real success: Cabaret. This is a show that is both funny and disturbing, moving the audience both to tears and laughter. Set in Berlin during the rise to power of the Nazi party, it is based on the play I am a Camera, which in turn was inspired by Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. Kander and Ebb's score was in two layers for this show. First of all the 'book numbers', which flow from the emotions of the characters, who sing of growing old, marriage, love and regret. And secondly the numbers sung in the Kit Kat Klub, the cabaret of the show's title. These tend to be comments on the action which has gone before, but are not announced as such - the audience is to draw their own conclusions. Most of these songs feature the Emcee, a disturbing androgynous character whose exact function (commentator, manipulator, voyeur) varies from production to production.
The score of Cabaret evokes the Berlin of Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that Kander was accused of plagiarising Weill. But Weill's widow was in the cast, and stated quite emphatically that what she was singing on stage was not her husband, but 'Berlin'. In one case, Kander and Ebb did their job a little too well - the number 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me', which occurs twice during the first act, and acts as an anthem for the Nazi characters is chilling in its theatrical context. However, quite contrary to what the composer and lyricist would have intended, the song was later adopted by a neo-Nazi group, principally due to the final verse:
Oh, Fatherland, Fatherland, show us the time your children have waited to see
The morning will come when the world is mine
Tomorrow belongs to me.
What is particularly chilling about this number is that the tune is beautiful, almost a lullaby. Lady Macbeth would have loved it: the musical equivalent of 'look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't'.
A string of shows followed this. None were initially as successful as Cabaret had been, but Kander and Ebb's works were almost invariably critical successes. Their less famous shows include:
70, Girls, 70 about a gang of pensioners who turn to crime. This features a mostly comic score, with the song 'Coffee in a Cardboard Cup', which reeks strongly of insanity, being a particular highlight.
The Act - a star vehicle for Liza Minnelli, the score for this show consists largely of nightclub numbers for the diva.
The Rink, where the manic title song was performed on roller skates (an odd coincidence as Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express opened the same year. This showcases Kander and Ebb's increasing tendency to weave their score more closely into the fabric of the show, with some sections, such as 'Blue Crystal' becoming moments rather than numbers.
Steel Pier - one of those shows which the critics raved about, and yet which nobody came to see, this one returns to the 1930s, but is set in New York rather than Berlin.
And All That Jazz
The year 1975 saw the debut of the show which assures Kander and Ebb's place in the modern Broadway pantheon, Chicago, which returned to both Broadway and the West End in the late 1990s to an enthusiastic reception and far greater success than the first time around. This is the story of 'merry murderesses' Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, and in addition to being an entertaining couple of hours, is a satire on the American legal system and obsession with celebrity. Fred Ebb collaborated on the book (otherwise known as the script) with director Bob Fosse, but for almost all audiences, it is the score which stands out. There is (unusually) not a single love song, but lots of razzamatazz ('Razzle Dazzle' as lawyer Billy Flynn puts it in his big number).
The opening number is 'All That Jazz', which wears the upbeat, morally lax tone of the show on its sleeve, growing organically from the overture which is preceded by the words 'Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery. All the things we hold near and dear to our hearts.' The score then proceeds with numbers which showcase those very things - six convicted murderesses sing of why they did what they did, one of them sings of how she will dupe the jury into letting her off, the prison warden sings of how she'll do anything for you (at a price) and so on. Just as the score for Cabaret evoked Kurt Weill, so the Chicago music evokes the jazz scene of the 1920s.
His Name was Molina
Since Chicago, Kander and Ebb's only out-and-out success has been the Tony award-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman, based on the book, play and film of the same name by Manuel Puig. This is another dark show, perhaps their darkest, set as it is in a South American prison. Here, the disappeared, victims of a totalitarian government, long for a better life 'Over the Wall', while Molina, convicted of 'corrupting a minor... male' lives a fantasy life in the movies. The Spider Woman symbolises death, seductive, frightening and above all inescapable. Kander and Ebb's Latin-flavoured score touches on comedy, particularly Molina's reminiscence of his former life, 'Dressing Them Up', but works best when it ventures into more serious territory. 'Dear One' is a quartet for two prisoners and their loved ones, where each pretends they are holding up just fine and hope that 'maybe, someday, you'll believe the lie' they are spinning; and 'The Day After That' is a mixture of angered outpouring of a hellish youth and a call for revolution.
Start Spreading the News
On a few occasions, Kander and Ebb have ventured outside the world of the musical stage, and it was in the title song for a 1977 film that they assured their immortality. Originally written for their frequent collaborator Liza Minnelli1, and later adopted by Frank Sinatra, the film's title-song, 'New York, New York', became one of the best-known songs of the 20th Century.
Although they are at their best in comic songs, or the outpourings of angry or saddened hearts, it is for upbeat songs like 'New York, New York', 'All That Jazz' and 'Cabaret' (although in context, this is far from the celebration of life it seems to be) that Kander and Ebb will be remembered.