John Kander: The Oberlin Years
Oh, God, so much. I've often said that if I had to do it all over again, I would. It was a major experience for me. I was part of the generation that came to Oberlin right after the war, so we were all a bit older and we were all there on the G.I. Bill.
One thing I remember is that Oberlin, from 1947 to 1951, was the most racially integrated place that I'd ever seen. It made me sad, during my last few visits there [in 1996 and 1998], to see how the student body at Oberlin had divided itself. I believe in ethnic groups, religious groups, sexual groups, and racial groups all celebrating themselves and becoming aware of their roots. But to negate the desirability of living together is a big mistake. It even reflects itself in the world that we live in right now. We're separating ourselves more and more from the rest of the world.
I loved Oberlin. Even today, there's always something to stand up and demonstrate about. Oberlin exists because of the traditions of its student body. For example, there wasn't a theater department on campus back then. My classmate, Nikos Psacharopoulos '50--who went on to become a major director and teacher and the founder of Williamstown--and I and another friend got together a ramshackle theater organization. There was a condemned shack at the side of Tappan Square that we begged the administration to give to us. We painted it and had weekly workshop sessions, writing and producing new musicals. It was a wonderful experience of making theater--I couldn't not make theater--and it had an incredible effect on me. When you're young and in the theater, you're unbelievably foolish. Things that might scare you 20 years later don't when you're young.
Did you write music for those shows?
What issues were students protesting?
Why didn't you study at the Conservatory?
Did you ever consider majoring in something else?
When I was 6, I started taking piano lessons, but I also played by ear, and I always wrote. In second grade I wrote a Christmas carol during arithmetic class, and my teacher asked me a question that I couldn't answer. She came to the back of the room where I was sitting, writing great big notes and words all about Jesus in the manger. She made me stay after school, then she played the song and realized it was actually a Christmas carol. Later, they sang it at the Christmas assembly.
Years later, I found out that the teacher had called my folks to tell them that I had written a Christmas carol. My parents said, ‘Oh! That's nice.' And the teacher said, ‘Well, I know you're Jewish. Is that all right?' My folks tried to seduce me into religious school after that--it didn't take.
Musical theater is still not a major field of study at Oberlin.
There's still this feeling at Oberlin that the best of what's going to happen to you is what you make happen yourself.
You spoke earlier about theater that happens because
you can't do anything
It's useful for people to get in touch with their passions, to recognize them, and to pursue them, to whatever extent they can. Maybe that's how you get your weekly salary, or what you do on Sundays or after work. In this town every waiter is an actor, but really, they're actors, not waiters.