PLAYBILL ON-LINE BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Kander

PLAYBILL ON-LINE BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Kander John Kander, the 74-year-old Broadway composer known for his jaunty vamps in Cabaret, Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Flora, the Red Menace and more, has never been afraid of the dark. With his longtime lyricist, Fred Ebb, the composer has welcomed dark subject matter, dark characters, dark themes. Now, in a time when America is plunged into a new darkness, Kander and Ebb and librettist Terrence McNally are, coincidentally, premiering their long awaited musical version of The Visit, at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The source material is Friedrich Durrenmatt's heightened play about the richest woman in the world (here played by Chita Rivera) getting revenge on the man who done her wrong years ago. On the eve of the show's Oct. 1 opening in The Windy City, Kander talked to Playbill On-Line about writing about a dark world in a dark time, about Chita Rivera and about the artistic shelter provided by the resident Goodman company.
Chita Rivera and a chorus of eunuchs and bodyguards sing 'I Will Never Leave You' in Kander and Ebb's The Visit.
Chita Rivera and a chorus of eunuchs and bodyguards sing 'I Will Never Leave You' in Kander and Ebb's The Visit. (Photo by Photo by Eric Y. Exit)

John Kander, the 74-year-old Broadway composer known for his jaunty vamps in Cabaret, Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Flora, the Red Menace and more, has never been afraid of the dark. With his longtime lyricist, Fred Ebb, the composer has welcomed dark subject matter, dark characters, dark themes. Now, in a time when America is plunged into a new darkness, Kander and Ebb and librettist Terrence McNally are, coincidentally, premiering their long awaited musical version of The Visit, at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The source material is Friedrich Durrenmatt's heightened play about the richest woman in the world (here played by Chita Rivera) getting revenge on the man who done her wrong years ago. On the eve of the show's Oct. 1 opening in The Windy City, Kander talked to Playbill On-Line about writing about a dark world in a dark time, about Chita Rivera and about the artistic shelter provided by the resident Goodman company.

Playbill On-Line: How has the experience been at the Goodman?
JK: It's been wonderful, for many reasons. One is that it's possible to work here without looking over your shoulder and feeling, "What are the New York critics gonna say?" and "Does this have commercial life?" You just work, which is terrific. And both [director] Frank Galati, who is brilliant, and [Goodman artistic director] Robert Falls have set just the right tone in our approach to working.

PBOL: The artistic atmosphere feels "safe," then? Money people are not poking you and dictating choices.
JK: Yeah. You feel protected. No decisions are made artistically that aren't the full intentions of the creative group. There's never a sense of, "Boy, [the producers/critics] will kill us in New York."

PBOL: Would it be your hope in the future to nurture your new stuff at a resident nonprofit theatre like the Goodman?
JK: If you could have it as full an experience as this. This is really terrific. We're in Chicago, which has a big talent pool. It makes it feel as if we're doing this production for this theatre and this city.

PBOL: There has been a lot of talk since Sept. 11 about how we go on as individuals and how we go on as artists in light of the new terrorism threat. Have events affected your urge to create, or have you questioned what to create in this time?
JK: I don't feel that. We've been creating a long time. As we all got ourselves together after what happened, and Frank is a great leader in a situation like this, once we went back to work all of us felt extremely grateful to be working because for this 9, 10 hours of the day — or 12 hours — you weren't watching your television set. I think work has become the best therapy any of us could have. I count myself really lucky to be in this situation during this period. PBOL: And yet The Visit is a dark project. A revenge play, and now a revenge-oriented musical. What's it been like working on a new show about the dark side of human nature at this time?
JK: [Laughs.] Well, we've been there before. I don't think we think in those terms. It's a serious piece, but as always, I think, for Freddy and me, we focus on character, and the individual piece that we're working on. This is a piece that excites us to work on. It certainly doesn't feel depressing to be working on it. It's a very energetic piece, it's a very funny piece in many ways. Durrenmatt's play is a vicious and sometimes very funny satire on the society in which he was living. Even though the piece is quite emotional, we have found it very entertaining as well. I don't know how I'd feel if we were working on a rock 'em-sock 'em comedy piece. Maybe great. I'm glad we're working on this piece in this time.

PBOL: Art doesn't happen in a vacuum. It fascinates me that you're working on a show about seeking revenge for great cruelties in this time.
JK: Isn't that weird? It's funny when you're working on a piece. You relate the piece to itself. Other, smarter people than I may find themselves looking at something and saying, "Ah yes, they're doing it now because of such-and-such elements in society and history." For us, we like working on a specific piece. I'm still convinced that most writers, they pick a particular subject to write about just because that's what they feel like right now.

PBOL: The origins of musicals always interest me. Producer Barry Brown wanted to do The Visit as a musical. He initiated it. What shows of yours did you and Fred initiate on your own?
JK: Kiss of the Spider Woman was Fred's idea. He said the title to me, and I said yes. And then we said the title to Hal Prince and he said yes. And everybody after that thought it was the dumbest idea you ever heard. All three if us reacted immediately to the subject. 70, Girls, 70, essentially came from Fred. The two of us had been messing around with an idea that eventually grew into 70, Girls, 70. Steel Pier happened because Stroman and Scott Ellis and David Thompson and Fred and I loved working together, so we sat down to construct a piece. The Visit was brought to us, literally, by Barry Brown. He picked up the telephone. Again, it was one of those yes-right-away reactions. The Rink was us. It started out, oddly enough, based very vaguely on the idea of Peer Gynt. The story obviously changed completely after that. We started messing around with that idea and then we worked with Albert Innaurato for a while. We couldn't lick it. Finally, we agreed to drop it. And then Terrence McNally came into the picture and the piece changed totally.

PBOL: One the things I have admired about Chita Rivera is that she has a potent singing voice, with a kind of fog-cutter quality to it. Can you talk about her and how you write for her voice?
JK: First of all, you take your own natural baritone voice and drop it down about three notes. [Laughs.] It's a very low voice. It's hard to be totally objective about Chita because we've been working with her for over 30 years and she's a great, great friend. She's wonderfully musical and disciplined. Forget about the voice for a second. When it comes to singing she brings to it not only a terrific voice, but a dancer's innate sense of rhythm. She "gets it" really fast. She's also, I think, probably the most focused, disciplined performer I've worked with in my life. Her voice, which I love, like her dancing, is a result of that discipline. She works at her craft.

— By Kenneth Jones