John Kander and Fred Ebb will attend a performance of Steel Pier by the Niagara University Theatre in western New York April 23-25, a weekend celebrating the 35th anniversary of the school's theatre program.
Lyricist Ebb and composer Kander attended rehearsals of the undergrad revival of their short-lived 1997 musical and met with theatre students March 23. In 1994, the pair received honorary degrees from Niagara University, just outside Niagara Falls, NY., and remained friendly with the founder of the theatre program, Brother Augustine Towey.
Brother Augustine told Playbill On-Line April 22 there was talk earlier this season that Ebb, Kander and book writer David Thompson might make some alterations to the 1997 script and score, which ran briefly on Broadway, but nothing significant was changed, he said.
The Atlantic City-set musical, tells the fanciful, Depression-era story of an ex-pilot who falls in love with a good-hearted dance marathon diva stuck in a bad marriage.
Towey said the theater students at the university were impressed by the authors of Zorba, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Chicago. Some who didn't know their work, ran out to buy CD's of Chicago and Cabaret. Brother Augustine directs the Steel Pier revival, one of six NU undergraduate shows this season. Steel Pier performances began April 15 at the 168-seat Leary Theatre on the NU main campus, continue to May 2.
Kander and Ebb recently designated the theater program as the recipient of a $5,000 grant -- money from the Japan Musical Award, for which winners designate a non-profit institution to share in a $10,000 honorarium.
A panel discussion, "Theatre in Search of an Audience," happens 10 AM April 24 at the Castellani Museum on the main campus. Kander and Ebb will be on the panel. The topic explores "economic realities and their impact on the theater, the impact of 'super critics' and whether on not the theater meets the needs" of a contemporary audience. Eileen Heckart is expected to be among the panelists, said Brother Augustine. (Heckart, incidentally, appeared in Kander and James and William Goldman's A Family Affair, Kander's musical prior to working with Ebb.)
The young NU theater program was just beginning (as an extracurricular program) in 1964, the year Kander and Ebb worked on their first musical, Flora, the Red Menace. In Brother Augustine's time, NU offered a theater concentration by 1979 and, in 1989, a formal department, offering a BFA, was established. A professional affiliation now exists between NU and Artpark, the nearby Actors' Equity theater in Lewiston, NY. NU has a theatre faculty of 12, and 80 undergraduate students.
For information about Niagara University Theatre, the panel or Steel Pier, call (716) 286-8480.
-- By Kenneth Jones