In the early 1960s, there was a transition happening in the musical theatre world that was moving away from the jolly realm of musical comedy and the hopeful, inspiring musicals of the Rodgers and Hammerstein template. This segue brought us to a place where the dark, edgy underbelly of society could be explored through humor and brazen honesty and the deeper complexity of human emotions could be probed. At the forefront of this artistic awakening in musical theatre was the composing team of Kander and Ebb.
John Kander and Fred Ebb began composing together in 1962, initially writing songs like "My Coloring Book," which was famously recorded by Barbra Streisand. The popularity of their work led to their first score for a Broadway musical, Flora, the Red Menace (1965), which also introduced Liza Minnelli to the musical stage. The show was a modest success artistically, but bigger things were to come. In 1966, the musical piece that would ignite their collaboration and send it into the stratosphere was Cabaret. The show, set in 1931 Berlin as the Nazis are poised to come to power, unfolds at a sleazy establishment called the Kit Kat Klub. The performers therein offer commentary on the harshness of the world closing in around them by representing it audaciously through sex, vulgar humor, and a seedy pizazz that is in startling contrast with Cabaret's serious stories of anti-Semitism, homosexuality and abortion. This juxtaposition of serious narratives against overt optimism, celebratory escapism and blatant delusion would become a recurring theme throughout many of their works, including Chicago (1976), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), Steel Pier (1997), The Scottsboro Boys (2010) and The Visit (2015).
What also made Cabaret a shift in musical theatre storytelling was the utilization of the show-within-a-show format that Kander, Ebb and their collaborators (including Harold Prince) gravitated toward. Just as Cabaret would use the Kit Kat Klub performances as a device to make commentary on the action, Chicago used the vaudeville stage, Kiss of the Spider Woman the classic cinema, The Act a Vegas nightclub, Steel Pier the dance marathon and The Scottsboro Boys a minstrel show to similar effect. The success of this innovation in 1966 opened the door for non-linear, multi-tiered storytelling, paving the way for its evolution at the hands of Prince and Stephen Sondheim in the early part of the next decade. Company, Follies and Pacific Overtures are, in many ways, shaped by the success of Cabaret.
When people think about a Kander and Ebb song, they conjure images of Bob Fosse choreography, jazz hands and a razzle-dazzle of sequins and feather boas. True, many of their best-known songs such as "Cabaret," "All that Jazz," "The Theme from New York, New York" and "Razzle Dazzle" are cut from that cloth. In would be unfair, however, to pigeonhole Kander and Ebb with such generalizations. Many of their songs are delicate, introspective character studies. Scores for The Happy Time (1968), Zorba (1968), 70, Girls, 70 (1971), Woman of the Year (1981), The Rink (1984), and Curtains (2006) reveal a different side of the composing team that is both subtle and emotionally driven. Their talents were eclectic and spanned a wider range than they are often given credit for.
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Kander and Ebb were equally successful writing for film, providing additional songs for the screen adaptation of "Cabaret" (1972), and scores for "Funny Lady" (1975) and "New York, New York" (1977). They were also successful creating original songs for the concert stage, most prominently for Liza Minnelli. Kander and Ebb have won numerous awards (Tonys, Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys) and received multiple honors including induction into the American Theatre Hall of Fame (1991) and The Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Achievement.
In 2004, Fred Ebb passed away, leaving John Kander to press on and complete projects that they had been working on together. This season's Best Musical nominee The Visit, starring frequent Kander and Ebb collaborator Chita Rivera, is the final installment in what is a triumphant, 50-year partnership of friendship and artistry. It is important that, as we reflect upon their durable careers in musical theatre, we recall what mighty giants and poignant innovators these two gentlemen always were. They never shied away from challenging themes, complicated storylines or characters who are difficult to like. If there was an important story to be told, and they could augment that narrative through music and lyrics, Kander and Ebb found a way to make it both entertaining and uncompromising.