Terrence McNally On Collaborating With Fellow Broadway Icons John Kander, Fred Ebb and Chita Rivera

News   Terrence McNally On Collaborating With Fellow Broadway Icons John Kander, Fred Ebb and Chita Rivera
 
Terrence McNally reflects on his long-time collaboration with John Kander and Fred Ebb, as well as leading lady Chita Rivera.

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Playwright Terrence McNally still recalls the first time that he ever saw John Kander and Fred Ebb, his collaborators — and current fellow Tony contenders — for The Visit.

All were Broadway babies of 1965 and once found themselves at adjacent tables in a bar across the street from the then-Royale/now-Jacobs where McNally's And Things That Go Bump in the Night was being briefly housed, and the songwriters were loudly lusting for the theatre to launch Liza Minnelli as their Flora, The Red Menace.

Tom Kirdahy and Terrence McNally
Tom Kirdahy and Terrence McNally Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"I overheard them say, 'I understand that show's not doing so hot,' and I was hurt, so when Flora got less-than-exemplary reviews, I felt, 'Well, that levels the playing field.' Neither of our first shows was a success. That's the first time I laid eyes on Kander and Ebb. Years later, I told them that story, and we all had a good laugh."

McNally wound up book writer on what will be the last Kander-and-Ebb show, The Visit. It took 14 years to reach Broadway. Ebb died along the way, but, by the time it got here, its star was the most Tony-nominated musical performer in history.

Chita Rivera's 10th competitive nomination equals the record of the late Julie Harris, who was nominated for only one musical (Skyscraper). The two shows that won Rivera Tonys — The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman — were Kander-Ebb-McNally creations. (Incredibly, her star-making turn in West Side Story was NOT nominated.)

And that's the Rivera McNally remembers — a brain-burning experience, to hear him tell it: "I was at Columbia University when I saw her in West Side Story, and, to this very day, whenever I look at Chita, I see Anita doing the mambo in the school gym."

Now, those flashy '50s petticoats she flaunted in the "America" number are light years away from the ermine elegance she exudes making her entrance in The Visit.

She is Claire Zachanassian, haughty and haunted, a wronged woman who comes home to bribe the townfolk into killing a lover. Confidently, she comes with a coffin.

The Visit bowed as a big musical in Chicago in September 2001 and, through three other incarnations, has been shrinking ever since. The version that got to Broadway was radically retooled by director John Doyle and choreographer Graciela Daniele. "What John and Graciela really gave the show was a different vision," McNally admits. "Their biggest contribution — other than the whole look of the show — is when John came to us and asked, 'Would you consider doing the show in one act?'

"As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. It was like getting permission to do what we knew was right in our hearts all along. In the first production, 'Yellow Shoes' was a big, happy-go-lucky dance number. Now, it's a sinister number where he sees his doom being sealed as everyone runs out and buys things. He knows what's going to happen. People in debt do desperate things."

Doyle and Daniele's revisions required some cutting and rewriting on McNally's part. No songs were cut, but music was reordered and re-orchestrated.  And in fact, Kander added a new one with his own lyrics for the doomed lover (Roger Rees) to sing.

But the lingering lilt that the show leaves in your heart comes from "Love and Love Alone," an exquisite ballad Rivera not only delivers with throaty emotionalism but also dances to with a ghost of her younger self (Michelle Veintimilla). "That can bring tears to your eyes," McNally admits. "I told Michelle, 'You're learning more being on stage with Chita eight shows a week than you'd learn in any conservatory.'"

In addition to the Kander-and-Ebb roles that McNally wrote for Rivera, he also served as her theatrical Boswell by writing the book for Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life.

These three creatives and their star initially came together courtesy of Arthur Laurents, who was trying to direct The Rink from a script so bad it was shelved in midstream. McNally was brought in to start afresh. All he knew was Rivera and Minnelli were a mother and daughter with a skating rink, and he was off...

Kander and Ebb liked the result enough to bring him back for their next Rivera, Kiss of the Spider Woman, in which she was a film-star fantasy who only existed in song (and one book scene supposedly taken from one of her movies). The only other character to exist solely in song was Kander and Ebb's Cabaret emcee (Joel Grey).

"Fred always said my stuff was easy to cannibalize. He'd take a scene I wrote and turn it into song lyrics. I said, 'Fred, I feel flattered, not cannibalized.' A book writer's suppose to inspire the lyricist and composer. That's why we were a good team.

Clearly, McNally has enjoyed his 50-year career walk with legends. "I'm 76, the kid on the team. Chita's 82, and John's 88, off writing a show with Greg Pierce. Their energy's astonishing. They're family, and they're friends — but they're also icons."

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