With Curtains, Kander Writes a Love Letter to Theatre — and to Absent Friends

News   With Curtains, Kander Writes a Love Letter to Theatre — and to Absent Friends Near the end of Act One of the new Broadway musical Curtains — the show about theatre people trying to work out the kinks of a new musical while a cop seeks to solve a backstage murder — there comes what fans and cast members alike have been calling "the song."

John Kander
John Kander Photo by Joan Marcus

Sung by Jason Danieley, who plays a Broadway composer, "I Miss the Music," a plaintive ballad, speaks of the character's creative and emotional frustration since losing his lyricist and wife, played by Karen Ziemba.

He sings:

I miss the music
I miss the song.
Since she's not with me
It comes out wrong.
It doesn't matter
How hard I try
I've lost the music.
I don't know why.

Not only does Curtains composer John Kander manage to explore character and plot in the number, he unknowingly paid tribute to his late, longtime lyricist Fred Ebb, who did not live to see Curtains come to commercial fruition at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

The lyric for "I Miss the Music" was written by Kander himself, about a topic so intimate and close that he said he did not immediately recognize the autobiography of it. Kander told Playbill.com, "Jason [Danieley] said, 'You wrote that about Fred, didn't you?' I said, 'No, I don't think so.'"

A shorter version of the song was heard in the 2006 Los Angeles tryout of Curtains; at the time, "the number was less explicitly about collaboration," Kander said.

Is "I Miss the Music" a love letter to Ebb, the Tony Award-winning lyricist who, in a 42-year monogamous creative partnership with Kander, co-wrote songs for Cabaret, Zorba, Woman of the Year, The Happy Time, Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and more?

"That's what it turned out to be," Kander admitted. "I didn't know that's what I was doing when I was writing it. When we came to New York, I expanded it. First, I had to recognize that, yeah, it really was about Fred, and then I could write the rest of the song."

The lyric continues:

When you're writing a song
And you've a partner
The room is filled with jokes and chatter.
She says something.
You say something.
She writes a line.
You play a vamp.
But when you're writing a song
Without a partner
That's a completely different matter
No one tells you,
"That's not funny."
No one says, "Let's cut that bar."
No one makes you better than you are.

What would "Freddy" have thought of the song? Kander said with a laugh, "He would think I was being a sentimental fool. I don't know that he would have approved of it..."

Despite some famous, "directly emotional" lyrics by Ebb over the years (including the early K&E pre-Broadway pop hit, "My Coloring Book"), Ebb was much happier (and more famous for) writing salty, pungent, dirty lyrics such as "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago or "Everybody's Girl" from Steel Pier. The latter was directed by Scott Ellis, who also helms Curtains.

Act Two of Curtains features a muscular song called "It's a Business," about commerce as the root of all showbiz, as told by a blowsy producer named Carmen Bernstein (played by Debra Monk). The lyric, Kander said, "is quintessential Freddy":

Shaw and Ibsen
Take 'em away
And don't bother me with Moliere
Those Russians never pay!

Act One's song about theatre critics, with a lyric by Ebb, was originally "much longer and much more disgusting," Kander said.

Dirtier?

"I would have to go back and look at it," he said. "I know it was pretty vicious."

Following the 2004 death of Ebb, Curtains moved forward with both book writer Rupert Holmes (who had already joined the project following the 2003 death of librettist Peter Stone) and Kander penning "additional lyrics." Despite the revelations of lyric credit here, the list of musical numbers in the Playbill does not indicate who contributed lyrics to individual songs (there were five post-Ebb numbers). Kander said the creative team wanted to speak with one voice. Thus, there is no published breakdown of lyric credit.

Georgia and Aaron, the estranged songwriting couple in the show, represent one of two romantic partnerships in the Curtains plot. The other is homicide detective Lt. Frank Cioffi (played by David Hyde Pierce) and ingénue Niki Harris (played by Jill Paice). He's star-struck and lends a hand at fixing structure and writing issues of Robbin' Hood, the show playing Boston's Colonial Theatre in 1959. Oh, and he's also present to solve the murder of its star.

Was romance a part of Curtains in earlier Peter Stone drafts?

The "seeds were there," Kander said, "but Rupert aided and abetted it. Let me put it this way: The show evolved without our ever saying, 'Gee there should be more romance in it.' Whatever's there came about as a natural kind of evolution and also through Rupert's wildly talented mind."

Romance tends to be the key to most successful musicals, right?

"I have no idea what the key to most successful musicals is, I truly don't," Kander said with a laugh. "I love the fact that both those relationships are all about the theatre. I'm glad people are finding the show touching as well as funny. There are moments in it that really touch me. I guess it sounds like an awfully tired cliché, but the piece really is a kind of a love letter to the theatre, or to musical theatre."

Debra Monk and the male ensemble of <i>Curtains</i> sing "It's a Business."
Debra Monk and the male ensemble of Curtains sing "It's a Business." Photo by Joan Marcus