John Kander: Life is still a cabaret

The Times

October 16, 2012


Later he would become “Kander” of Kander and Ebb, creators of such landmark musicals as Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman, but the die was cast early for John Kander. He composed his first piece of music aged 7, during maths class: “The teacher asked me a question. I couldn’t answer. She asked what I was doing. I said, ‘Writing a Christmas carol.’ Eventually they played it at our Christmas assembly.”

Kander, now 85, and speaking in his home near Central Park in New York, laughs. “She called my parents and said, ‘John has just written a Christmas carol and I know you’re Jewish. Is that OK?’ They said it was fine.”

Kander has a new collaborator, after the death of his lyricist partner Fred Ebb at the age of 76 from a heart attack eight years ago. Greg Pierce is the 35-year-old nephew of David Hyde Pierce (Niles from Frasier), and the pair are preparing their first full-length musical, Kid Victory.

“It sounds odd, collaborating with somebody who’s 50 years younger, but working with Greg is leading me to write in a different way,” Kander says. This autumn also sees a production of their first piece, The Landing, a compendium of three musicals, so Kander will not be visiting London to see Rufus Norris’s production of Cabaret, starring Will Young as the MC. “Work is incredibly important to me,” Kander says. “I’m having a very late second childhood. It’s what I like to do.”

As musical-theatre legends go, the winner of three Tonys, two Emmys and two Grammys is affable and modest. His most treasured possessions are posters of every Broadway show that he and Ebb created. “In a funny way Fred and I didn’t stop working together,” he says of the period after Ebb’s death. They were busy on four projects, including the Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys, which opened in 2010.

Kander was “stunned” when Ebb died. “We had worked and been together for so long I was totally unprepared for it. I dealt with it but didn’t deal with it.” Kander didn’t think of stopping writing after Ebb’s death. “If you write music, that’s what you do. You can’t turn off your brain. There’s music going on in my head all the time. There’s this river of sound, so unless that inner radio ever turns off I won’t stop. It’s like a drug habit I guess.”

Is it an expensive one, given the huge costs and risks of Broadway shows? “I’ve been reading about the death of Broadway since I was a kid. Right now I’m not particularly in love with the financial structure, but as far as talent goes I think we’re in a much better period than many people think. There’s not a lack of writers, composers, choreographers, painters and artists — there never is. I don’t know where the money goes; certainly not to creative people. Theatre is in trouble and it’s all financial. I know lots of very gifted people who are unable to show their work. If they do, it’s in tiny places.”

Kander’s workroom has a keyboard, computers and a piano, on which are pictures of loved ones. He grew up in Missouri “with a very warm family life, a lot of laughter”, and began playing the piano at 4. “There was a Mason & Hamlin baby grand in the living room. I found it early. I fell in love with the Metropolitan Opera through live radio broadcasts. My grandmother had studied piano; my father had a wonderful, big baritone voice. He and my brother would sing after supper. My mother was tone-deaf but had rhythm, so I would play marches for her. Someone said of a composer, ‘Everything he ever heard went in one ear and stayed there’; that’s sort of what happened to me.”

As a teenager, “deep down”, Kander wanted to come to New York. “In those days 50 per cent of the hit songs came from Broadway.” He and his brother “went to the theatre every night and every matinee” during spring holidays.

His first job was as a substitute rehearsal pianist on West Side Story and his first produced musical, A Family Affair, was staged in 1962, the year he met Ebb. “We were both very different. When we were working we created this third person whose name was ‘Kander and Ebb’. I was music, he was words, and we were ‘pregnant’ all the time. We could not stop. Fred was the performer, outgoing. I’m not. I’m not funny [this isn’t true]. Fred was more ambitious than me. It’s wonderful when something works and you — and people — like it, but every time you start a project you have the feeling you can’t do it, that you have no talent and you’re a big fraud. We were both terrified of that point when you had to put something in front of people.”

Barbra Streisand sang two of their early songs, but their most enduring relationship was with Liza Minnelli, who starred in their first Broadway show, Flora the Red Menace (1965), winning a Best Actress Tony; she later won an Oscar for her performance in the 1972 film of Cabaret. “Fred was her mentor,” Kander says. “She said she came out of his imagination. We just connected; it felt very natural.” What of Minnelli’s rollercoaster life; the drugs and marriages? “There are a lot of things you can recount about Liza, but you won’t be able to come up with a single instance where she hurt anyone else. She’s a really good person.”

Shows such as Cabaret and Spider Woman showcased complex themes — the ascendancy of Nazism, gay desire — with peppy scores. “It’s much easier to write stories with that kind of richness than ‘boy meets girl’. We weren’t sociologists, we were just in love with theatre,” Kander says. The duo worked in Ebb’s study with a baby grand piano, “making it up as we went along”. Their famous song New York, New York, sung by Minnelli, was composed “in under an hour” when Martin Scorsese, director of the 1977 film of the same name, told the songwriters that its star, Robert De Niro, found their original version “too light”. “We were pretty p***ed off and thought, ‘How dare he?’,” smiles Kander. “But De Niro was absolutely right. Now I can’t remember what that original version sounded like.”

Ebb loved the city, Kander his second home near Woodstock. “When we weren’t working we didn’t socialise much. I was in the country as much as possible; Fred was playing poker.” Both gay, Ebb was single while Kander has been with his partner Albert Stephenson, a former dancer and choreographer 20 years Kander’s junior, for 35 years. They married in Toronto two years ago.

Kander thinks about mortality, “a lot. You can’t be 85 and oblivious to it, but that also makes you aware of the value of life. While you’re alive you have to be alive. You’re eager not to waste your time, to fill it with things that are pleasures — and working is a pleasure for me.” After we meet he is seeing a doctor, he smiles, “to find out if I’m dying or not”. I call the next day. “The check-up was good,” Kander laughs. “I may have a few days left.”