Remembering Fred Ebb

Remembering Fred Ebb Such a quiet man, such a multitudinous voice
Fred Ebb
Fred Ebb Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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“Mister cellophane / Should have been my name / Mister cellophane / 'cause you can look right through me walk right by me / And never know I'm there.”

But he was also swaggering hotshot Billy Flynn giving 'em the old razzle dazzle.

He was Valentin the macho revolutionist, in blood-stirring forecast of victory over the totalitarian oppressors: "If not tomorrow, then the day after that — or the day after that — or the day after that..."

He was Molina, the supersensitive, movie-dreaming, homosexual window dresser, Valentin's cellmate in the torture prison bracing against horror with ecstatic recall of "Dressing them up!... Ooh! That frock, too much red in it! I would not be caught dead in it!... Dressing them up!... I had the touch! Thank you very much!" He was the grinning emcee of the Kit Kat Club, luring us with "Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!" into a twentieth-century Hieronymus Bosch hellpit of wine, women and song, not to mention a few other genders and a spot of holocaust.

He was — above all — Miss Sally Bowles, girlfriend of the late Elsie of those four sordid rooms in Chelsea, deliciously cajoling us to put down the knitting, the book and the broom, and come hear the music play.

He was every one of those voices, tongues, personas, private lives, public guises — and hundreds more. He was Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, Chita Rivera, Joel Grey, Brent Carver, Natasha Richardson, Karen Ziemba and on and on — their delivery, his words, his lyrics, to John Kander's equally wondrous music.

Fred Ebb, the quiet man. Well, quiet goes for both of them, Ebb and Kander — except, that is, when it comes to their craft, their art, their brilliance. And relevance. And courage.

I do not know what, even now, 38 years after the show's Broadway premiere, 59 years after the death of Hitler, could be more gutsy and biting and scary and relevant than the words Fred Ebb put into the songs of Cabaret, from that "Willkommen" on through the pastoral idyll that suddenly swells to a terrifying Hitler-jugend "Tomorrow belongs to us" (diametric ideological opposite of Valentin's tomorrow) — or the Kit Kat Club emcee's smirking "If you could see her like I do... she wouldn't look Jewish at all," as he waltzes with his skirted gorilla bedmate. That line was so shocking, it was deleted from the 1966 Broadway premiere and only restored at Bob Fosse's insistence when, six years later, he made the movie.

Or — jumping three decades from 1966 to 1993 — what could be more courageous and relevant than the Kiss of the Spider Woman that Fred Ebb and John Kander and Terrence McNally and Hal Prince (aided, most exquisitely, by Brent Carver and Chita Rivera) put together to fling in the teeth of fascism and homophobia and obtuseness and brutality and prison cages everywhere in the world (Guantanamo, for instance), then, now and always?

Not only that, but the turning of Manuel Puig's 1976 novel and Hector Babenco's 1985 film into a Broadway show was actually Fred Ebb's idea. "Spider Woman came from Fred," John Kander told this writer a couple of years ago. "He said the title to me one day. I said: 'Yes.' That was it. No further conversation. We said the title to Hal Prince. He said: 'Yes.' And everybody else said: 'A terrible idea.'"

Everybody except Terrence McNally. It ran two-plus years on Broadway. I know somebody who saw it seven times. I'm married to her.

Isn't it amazing that this man, Fred Ebb, who could create lyrics of such force and precision about gut issues like fascism, tyranny, depravity, brutality, racism, revolution and sexuality (of all sorts and persuasions), could also find just the right words to put all that jazz into a Chicago, or the fresh breeze of romantic possibility into "I met this perfectly marvelous girl...," or, in an almost incongruous, different dimension, what was to become New York City's own all-purpose celebratory anthem? That blockbuster may be, as some fussbudgets point out, illogical, ungrammatical and banal, but there are those of us — several million of us — whose pulses nevertheless skip a beat whenever those swaggering chords announce "New York, New York" and Mr. Sinatra or anyone else plows into it.

Fred Ebb, lyricist, took his peculiar art form and — with grace, with grit, with wit, with intelligence, with inventiveness to match, let us say, Larry Hart or Cole Porter — made of it an ongoing thing, indeed, of art.

He left us on, as it happens, 9/11/2004, in St. Luke's–Roosevelt Hospital Center, not far from his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The quiet man did not talk about his age. He was either 70 or 76 or something in between. He did not talk about his private life either, but it's all there in the work, not between the lines but in the lines — words that will last as long as Cabaret and Spider Woman are with us, which looks to be a good long time.

"Fred Ebb is a great American poet," said one of his stars, Karen Ziemba, not long ago. She was right.