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Start Spreading the News
Composer John Kander and his lyricist partner Fred Ebb have made their names writing show tunes that nearly everyone can recognize.

Story and interview by Samantha Gross '00

Picture of Kdd and Kander
Ebb (left) and Kander, the longest-running music-and-lyrics team in Broadway history.
John Kander '51 has had enough success to merit at least a little self-congratulation. But ask the famed composer about the rampant popularity of the film version of Chicago last year, and he'd much rather talk about how others were responsible for its success. "I'd lay most of the responsibility at the feet of (director) Rob Marshall," he says.

Kander and his lyricist partner Fred Ebb have made their names writing show tunes that nearly everyone can recognize: New York, New York; All That Jazz; and others that brim from their classic musicals Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and, of course, Chicago--the sexy tale of two femme fatales in 1920s Chicago. Kander and Ebb comprise the longest-running music-and-lyrics team in Broadway history, and their gutsy scores, upbeat songwriting, and sometimes caustic storylines have ensured their place as icons of American musical theater. In its most recent incarnation, Chicago snagged more Academy Awards--including Best Picture--than any other movie in 2002, and its success has critics heralding the return of the "movie musical."

Kander is bemused. When Chicago premiered on Broadway in 1975, it earned mediocre reviews, but today, its songs are getting the full pop culture treatment--the Chicago soundtrack even included a hip-hop version of Cell Block Tango sung by Queen Latifah, Lil' Kim, and Macy Gray. On Broadway, the news is just as good: Chicago: The Musical had its revival in 1996 and today is nearing its 3,000th Broadway performance.

Yet throughout the frenzy, Kander has remained outside the media spotlight, choosing not to attend the Academy Awards last March, though his and Ebb's I Move On was nominated for best new song. That's how he prefers it. "He's a very private person," says Jeffrey Saver, a longtime friend and associate conductor for Chicago on Broadway. "John is a most human person, very warm and loving. He won't talk about his work much, because he's generally shy. He takes his work seriously, but he doesn't take himself seriously."

At age 76, Kander could easily pass for someone 15 years his junior, and he remains steadily at work. "It's too late for early retirement," he says. "There's a lot going on." He and Ebb had planned to workshop their musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in October. They've also written songs for a new dark comedy musical film, Bye-Bye Blues, directed by Stanley Donen of Singin' in the Rain and Funny Face fame.

Q & A

I've heard there were some mishaps during the first performance of Chicago in 1975.
Oh my goodness; that's a funny place to begin an interview. Yes, when actress Chita Rivera rose from the floor to make her entrance on stage, she did so riding up an elevator. She stepped out and started singing All That Jazz, when suddenly there was a crash, and the elevator fell all the way to the basement. It was terribly loud, and anyone underneath it would have been killed. No one could fix the elevator, so the actors sort of worked around it--we had a lot of stage entrances and exits planned for it. That night, we only got through the first act. That was the end of the first preview of Chicago in New York.

When you saw Chicago on screen last year, what were your thoughts?

I was thrilled, for many reasons. I thought it was the best translation of theater to film that I'd ever seen, because it didn't betray its sources. It's very much a "movie-movie" in the techniques used by the director, Rob Marshall, but with the same kind of impact as the stage production. The directors added and subtracted some things, but essentially they kept the spirit of the stage piece right there. I was also thrilled because Rob is an old, old friend of ours, with whom we've worked since his first job in New York.

In the film, the performances were very different from Broadway-style performances.
Not so different. Almost everyone from the film could walk right into the current Broadway production and play their role. Reneé [Zellweger] has less theater experience, but the others are all theater people. Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John Reilly, and Catherine Zeta-Jones all come from musical theater.

Did you see the characters differently on screen than you do on stage?
Rob, in a very cinematic way, created the same characters that we created on the stage. Film is a far more realistic medium than the stage. What we did on the stage is very stylized and asks the audience to imagine a lot. What Robbie did was shift back and forth between the realism of film and the fantasy of performance. He found another way of doing the same thing we were doing in the theater.

I'm kind of a snob about movie stars, I guess, because so much of a performance can be manufactured in the editing room and by camera angles. Often you can't tell if a movie star has real talent. Now, having said that, which is a curmudgeonly thing to say, when I traveled to Toronto one day to work with the film's actors, I was amazed to find all of them truly talented. They could really sing and really dance--they had all of that energy that you look for in a stage performer. So I had to eat my words.

Hollywood circles must be very different from Broadway circles.
They are. I have no experience in Hollywood circles. I don't understand the movie world. I've been around it a little bit, but it's a totally different atmosphere.

For good or ill, the New York theater community is fairly small. I find--in spite of what you hear otherwise--that people in the theater mutually support one another. I've never sensed that in the movie world, which is, in great part, a manufactured world. Maybe I'm too much of a New Yorker, but I've always had the feeling that if you lived in Los Angeles, you could be dead for three days before anybody would know. If I had to make my living working there, I probably would have starved to death.

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