John Kander and Walter Bobbie Renew a Collaboration With The Landing
By Adam Hetrick
The question that brought 86-year-old Tony Award-winning composer John Kander back to the stage on a new project after a 40-year collaboration with late lyricist Fred Ebb was a simple one: "What do I really feel like doing?"
The answer was The Landing, the new chamber musical comprising of three intimate tales that plays the Vineyard Theatre through Nov. 24.
"I had done a lot of big deal musicals," Kander recalled, "and I wanted to do something that was a little deal. I wanted to do something that was really, really, really tiny. So small that you could do it in your living room with four actors and four musicians."
Kander, who collaborated with Slow Girl playwright Greg Pierce on The Landing, was looking for a change in pace from the razzle dazzle legacy he and Ebb created to Tony Award-winning acclaim on Broadway. "I remember I actually stood up when I thought of the structure. I immediately contacted Greg. Besides being immensely musical in his writing, he's the best storyteller I know."
As Kander casually remarked, "We got together and we sat down and made up a story." The Landing finds Kander exploring a new, more somber and pensive musical palette for the stories that deal with love and loss. "It's funny how quickly a single voice emerges from two people," the composer said. The project also marks Kander's first musical with a new collaborator since Ebb's death in 2004.
"I was surprised," he continued. "Fred and I had over the years had a way of writing that [others] said they could recognize. I could not, but people said there was a voice there. I think Greg and I developed our voice very quickly. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world what we were doing, but my response to the stories we were telling was different musically."
In addition, The Landing provided Kander the chance to explore a fresh collaboration with director Walter Bobbie, who earned a Tony Award for staging the hit 1996 revival of Chicago.
"John and I have had the opportunity to really discover each other in a new way on this project," Bobbie stated. "When I worked with him on Chicago, he and Fred gave us the rights to do it, but they really weren't involved really in the conception, or how we were going to do it. When The Landing came along, it just seemed like a wonderful opportunity. I wanted to get back into the room with artists that I admired."
Kander, who broke ground with subject and style in Cabaret and continued to explore theatrical form with his 2010 musical The Scottsboro Boys, took on a new challenge with The Landing: creating three short musicals that would sustain an overall evening of theatre.
According to Kander, "It's challenging in a good way. It's like writing a short story in every sense. We were very spare about the scenes we showed the audience. You write with the constant knowledge that this will not be a leisurely piece."
Bobbie was challenged with unifying the three stories. "I thought there was a simplicity that had to be achieved because I felt that the tales, while deeply human, had a simplicity to them and the visual metaphor needed to be equally lean. I wanted to try to get into people's minds and not so much into a visual, or literal telling of where we were."
Much of The Landing, staged in a streamlined fashion on a single-unit set of blue ombre tones, is purposefully directed not to elicit applause, according to Bobbie. "We don't want to break the spell of the story. We want to make sure the audience is listening to the story and has their emotional investment. And this is a formidable decision from a composer who really knows how to stop the show with a great tune with the technique he's mastered all these years.
"John is still writing such elegant melodies and chord progression, but he has the ability to write an open musical phrase," he continued. "He doesn't need words on every phrase. He knows how to write all that open space that allows the heart to beat."
"I'm having the time of my life. It's like electrical energy," Kander said of his creative process with Pierce and Bobbie. "I'm really into collaboration. The idea that all of the people involved throw out ideas and then produce a unified work that sounds like all of them. For me, that started back with Flora the Red Menace and George Abbott and later with Hal Prince on Cabaret. I guess that's what our school was. We sat in the room day after day after day creating."
After decades of Broadway success, Kander has found a new creative home at the Vineyard, the Off-Broadway non-profit theatre that nurtured his last Tony-nominated musical The Scottsboro Boys. "It's something I've wanted all my life," the composer said. "Just to have a home where you do your stuff and develop it. I don't know that you can have that on Broadway; there's too much money at play now. There was a time, when my generation was growing up, that you could. We could sit around and develop things."
That same desire to shape and develop new work with less financial pressure was also what led Bobbie downtown after multi-million dollar Broadway productions like Chicago, Footloose and White Christmas. "It's a chance to get back into the sandbox," he said. "I really made a commitment to go Off-Broadway and work with writers like David Ives, Terrence McNally and John Kander. It's also about the writer. When you're interested in someone, you're not just interested in one play, you're interested in their body of their work."
The trip downtown was worth his while. Bobbie says that watching Kander at work during The Landing has been like studying Matisse. "He's renewed. After a collaboration of 40 years, it's remarkable. To talk about an idea and to see he and Greg run over to the piano to try it; it's joyous. When I'm 86, I want to be John Kander. I want to have that sense of curiousty, and creativity, and wonder, and desire to create. It's really inspiring."
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