Colored Lights

Colored Lights

by John Kander and Fred Ebb as told to Greg Lawrence

Faber And Faber

John Kander & Fred Ebb are now so linked that the name of one was once a crossword puzzle clue for that of the other. Best known for Chicago and Cabaret, and arguably second only to Stephen Sondheim among their generation of theatrical songwriters, composer Kander and lyricist Ebb have been collaborating since 1962. In that time they’ve written some of the most successful songs ever to enter the culture, including the title song of Cabaret, “All That Jazz,” from Chicago, “Liza With a Z” and “Theme from ‘New York, New York’.”

Amazon would do well to offer an anthology of their music like And The World Goes ‘Round at a discount with purchase, as that’s the kind of book this is: It sends you mentally scanning through your record collection cursing the fact that more of their musicals are not represented. Presenting the story of their careers in the form of a conversation between them was a good idea, as their dialogue with each other seems to reflect the chemistry of their collaboration: Two distinct voices that sometimes disagree but ultimately come together to tell one tale.

Kander opens by telling the story of writing his first song while still in second grade. It was a Christmas carol, a fine hobby for a nice Jewish boy. This book takes us from there through the Tony-winners, missed opportunities, Kennedy Center Honors, not-bad musicals that still flopped and bittersweet film successes that followed. All done with charming humility that appears to be genuine and imminently satisfying intelligence. For example, Ebb good-naturedly admits he thinks their musical adaptation of the film “Woman of the Year was a mistake…we won Tonys, but mostly because there was nothing much up against us.”

They do not whitewash the difficulties of working with some of their other collaborators, but they don’t sling mud, either. The first and most recent incarnations of Chicago provide telling comparisions. Talking about the original stage production, Kander says much-admired director Bob Fosse thought of himself as a “‘Perfectionist.’ Isn’t that a wonderful word? Most bullies like that will try to justify their behavior that way.” But Ebb tells us he “always thought it was worth it,” adding, “It’s a very complicated issue, isn’t it? There you are working with a man who in your opinion is a bona fide genius, but at the same time…”

Both speak with approval and praise of Chicago movie director Rob Marshall’s work, along with that of screenwriter Bill Condon. However, their frustration is evident when talking of Harvey Weinstein and Sony, who insisted on placing a song Kander & Ebb did not write on the soundtrack album. Ebb says: “Miramax kept hedging their bets… the way we were treated personally — that was not a pleasant experience.” As a result, he concedes he doesn’t “have the kind of joy I would have had [from the success of the film and record] if all this hadn’t happened along the way. But it did happen and I don’t have the charity in me to forget it.”

I don’t want to give the impression that this book is made up of a lot of groaning, so let me mention that I laughed out loud more reading this book than any other in recent memory. Like most show folk, Kander & Ebb love a good actor story; keep a special eye out for an anecdote involving the late David Burns, Carol Channing, and a vasectomy.

Ebb’s quick-witted lyrics are quoted throughout, including a very funny song about… heh… critics called “What Kind Of Man,” from a work in progress about a theater company:

“What kind of man would take a job like that?/ What kind of snake would drive the stake like that?/ Who could be jerk enough?/ Hard up for work enough?/ To want a job like that?”

Then, Ebb explains, “the tone suddenly changes after a member of the company reads a good review…”

“What kind of genius has a mind like that…”

This being a book, quotation is of course not a venue available to Kander–you see why I want a CD to come with it? But the composer doesn’t lose out; in fact, he shows himself to be nearly as skilled with words as his partner, in conversation. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me. The author and screenwriter William Goldman, who went to college with Kander, has written of his frustration at the ease with which the future composer wrote A+ stories for writing class, while Goldman was still struggling.

Kander & Ebb finish up their book by expressing concern but not despair for the changes on Broadway — most prominently the question of where does young talent get a place to work? — and the inspiration (or lack of same) they find in the current scene. Looking to the future and new musicals on which they are currently working, Kander concludes, “We can only speak our own language and write in our own style, as we always have.”

This book, spoken in their own language and written in their own style, is highly, highly recommended. If nothing else, you’ve got to read it so you can hear about how Ebb once mistook Lauren Bacall for James Coco.

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