When Greg Pierce was a student at Oberlin College, he used to write and perform as part of a local improv group. The ensemble had a small following, which included none other than John Kander. The Chicago and Cabaret composer had graduated from Oberlin 50 years earlier, but liked to keep in touch with his alma mater and its new graduates.
“I was very struck with his work,” recalls Kander. “I thought it was wonderful.” Kander approached Pierce with the idea of turning one of his short stories into a paired-down show with four actors, each playing an instrument—the kind of thing that could be performed in a living room. The two started collaborating immediately.
“From the very beginning, it’s been this remarkable storytelling habit,” says Kander. “We build stories together. I don’t know how that happened or where it came from but it was there at the very beginning.”
Now, their third collaboration, the musical Kid Victory, begins performances February 1 at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. The story follows 17-year-old Luke, played by Brandon Flynn, who returns to his small Kansas town following a one-year absence. The show features music by Kander and book and lyrics by Pierce.
“As soon as we finished writing The Landing we immediately wanted to write another piece together,” explains Pierce, referencing their earlier musical, which was also staged at the Vineyard. “We hit on this idea of people that had gone missing…and how very little is written about what their lives are like when they come back.”
The show had its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia last year, and has undergone numerous changes for its New York debut. Tony nominee Liesl Tommy helmed the original production, and returns to direct at the Vineyard.
Tommy had directed Pierce in a Fringe Festival production years before Kid Victory, but he immediately thought of her for his and Kander’s new musical. Tommy—who says that Cabaret is her “favorite musical of all time”—never expected to be working with the celebrated composer.
“It was one of those wild things where I just got a phone call. They said Greg Pierce and John Kander want you to talk to them about this show. I had never met John Kander in my life,” she says. “I almost said, ‘No. I probably shouldn’t do it.‘ I was just too overwhelmed at the thought of meeting him and I didn’t think I’d be able to work with him.”
Tommy went ahead with the meeting, which was held at Kander’s home, and immediately fell in love with Kid Victory. “I loved the story. I loved the heart and soul that they’d brought into the creation of it,” says the director. She couldn't believe it when Kander, after playing a song from the musical on his piano, asked her directly to work with them on the show. “I’ll go to my grave remembering that meeting,” she says.
But above all, Tommy was most impressed by Pierce and Kander’s way of working together. “I was very moved by their collaboration. I could see that there was something really special in the way that they spoke to each other and the way they spoke to me about their work,” she says. “The respect they have for each other, where they challenge each other, and where they’re a single mind, makes for something really unique.”
Though Pierce is technically the book writer and lyricist, and Kander is the composer, the two of them agree that the stories they build are a joint venture. “Nobody’s keeping score and it just feels like the ideas we’re both excited about stick, and the others fall away,” says Pierce. “By the time we’ve made a piece, it feels like we completely made it together.”
It doesn't seem to phase Pierce that he is making musicals with a legendary three-time Tony winner; for him, it's just a great collaboration. “It doesn’t really enter the room when we’re working on a piece,” he says of Kander’s history. “It just feels like two collaborators who really like each other and really like working. When I step back from it, I’m amazed at what John’s accomplished and what he continues to do.”
Kander, whose music-making career spans decades and several accolades, continues to impress his collaborators. He seems to inspire awe in all who work with him. “He is unstoppable, this octogenarian,” says Tony winner Karen Ziemba, who stars in Kid Victory, and who has worked with Kander on numerous productions. “He’s an amazing man, so gifted, and so open to newness and to life. He’s always curious and that’s why his work continues to flourish.”
“The fact that John is the age he is and is wanting to take risks…that he wants to make work that is unlike any other work out there, is really inspirational,” agrees Tommy. The director describes Kander as “pure art,” and someone who is unafraid to take chances. “It’s all conversation and trying things. He has no fear of failure in the room. If he feels safe he’ll try anything and that’s a really great model for the people around him.”
And at 89, there’s no stopping him. He and Pierce are already working on their fourth collaboration, another musical. What’s it about? The two share a smile when posed the question—they’re not ready to talk about that yet.
Watch highlights from the world-premiere staging of Kid Victory below: