The Top 10 Kander & Ebb Songs

By Ben Rimalower
12 Oct 2013

John Kander
John Kander
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Playbill.com correspondent Ben Rimalower offers a list of his top 10 songs by the Tony-winning duo of composer John Kander and late lyricist Fred Ebb. 

This was a little easier than choosing my Top Ten Sondheim Songs (and was a natural progression from my Top Ten Chita Rivera Belting Moments). For the most part, I didn't even officially limit myself with the same restrictions I relied upon with the Sondheim list, vis-à-vis songs that work out of context of the show, because I think most Kander & Ebb songs do work out of context, or at least the ones I gravitate to. That being said, it was painful for me to leave off this list "The Pineapple Song" from Cabaret, "Anything For Him" from Kiss of the Spider Woman and both "Don't Ah Ma Me" and "The Apple Doesn't Fall Very Far From The Tree" from The Rink. They don't work as well out of context and despite some fervent late-night YouTubing, I couldn't justify sacrificing one of the following ten songs in their favor.

Click through to read the list of my top ten Kander & Ebb songs.



10. "All I Need (Is One Good Break)" from Flora the Red Menace

 

 

It’s hard to separate this catchy tune from Liza Minnelli’s reedy, open-lunged (19 year-old, Tony-winning) performance. I’m so grateful the Ed Sullivan broadcast (unfortunately taken down from YouTube) preserves it with the inclusion of her introductory verse — a fleeting fragment of original cast album bliss I’ve long treasured, although Minnelli's solo "single" version (available on "Liza Minnelli: The Complete Capitol Collection") offers its own pleasures. All that aside, Kander & Ebb have delivered the epitome of the musical theatre trope, the "I want" song, and indeed, they have raised the stakes to "need."

9. "Isn't This Better?" from "Funny Lady"

 

 

I first became aware of this power ballad through Karen Mason's formidable rendition in the Kander & Ebb revue And the World Goes 'Round. I can't say that I've ever sat through the entire "Funny Lady" film, for which "Isn't It Better?" was written, but I have certainly relished Barbra Streisand's recording. I kept trying to cut this number off the list in favor of more popular songs from Kander & Ebb shows, but it was hard to let go. I'm particularly partial to how after the musical interlude, the song jumps right back full-throttle into the chorus, "Isn't this better? BETTER?"

8. "All That Jazz" from Chicago

 

 

Truth be told, "All That Jazz" is another one I tried to bump off the list — and not because there were other songs to which I felt more beholden (as was the case with "Isn't This Better?"), but because there are other songs for which I have more affection than "All That Jazz." It's hard to feel proprietary over "All That Jazz." Chicago is so huge, and even before the successes of its long-running revival and film adaption, "All That Jazz" had already made considerable headway insinuating itself into our collective unconscious.

This is partly to do with the title which aptly borrows a common catch-phrase, effectively aligning itself with the idiom so that the song is brought to mind whenever we hear those words — further advanced by the success of Bob Fosse's hit film "All That Jazz," which doesn't even feature the song but contributes to its impact subliminally. Of course, the reason this all works is because the song is so catchy and so well crafted (and the cliché of the title is so perfectly set on the hook of the tune) that it can sustain such an elemental role in pop culture. "All That Jazz" may be ubiquitous, but it has earned its place.

7. "Maybe This Time," written as a pop single, used in the film "Cabaret"

 

 

"Maybe This Time" is a great song. You can sing it happy with great optimism, or more pleading, even hopeless. It's hard to believe it wasn't written for Cabaret, considering how perfectly it suits the character of Sally Bowles, especially as played in the film by Liza Minnelli, who sang "Maybe This Time" with both desperation and buoyancy, passionately committed to a bright future with the man she was already fated to lose. There's actually an inherent contradiction to "Maybe This Time" in that the lyric claims, "Everybody loves a winner, so nobody loved me," but it's precisely this underdog status that makes Sally Bowles so, well, winning.

6. "A Quiet Thing" from Flora the Red Menace

 

 

"A Quiet Thing" is the quintessential mid-century Broadway ballad. It's a smart song with a specific point to make (that getting what you want can be a surprisingly subdued, introspective experience) conveyed via pretty, legato melodic lines and evocative, colloquial lyrics. The trick to "A Quiet Thing" is that you ideally want a big, warm belt voice with expansive breath support to fill those long phrases like, "There are no exploding fireworks," but then the higher section wants to be sung sweetly in a mixed voice, not brash and belty, but not vibrato-laden and soprano-y. The video above, of the late Michelle Nicastro, is a pretty perfect answer to this real Goldilocks vocal conundrum.

5. "Yes" from 70, Girls, 70

 

 

In musical theatre, there's sometimes a fine line between the trite and the profound. At least for me, the simple message of "Yes" strikes deep chords. This sprightly song eschews its potentially saccharine subject by expounding on its thesis in colorful, conversational verses which list numerous everyday situations, many of them comically mundane, to make its case. It's hard to argue with a song that speaks literally to you (the lyrics are in second person) and so directly in your own language. Of course, Bob Fosse's lights, camera, action and Liza take it to another level.

4. "Cabaret" from "Cabaret"

 

 

It was hard to keep "Cabaret" on this list because I've listened to it and watched it sung by so many people and sung it myself at piano bars and karaoke so many times over so many years, that I'm kind of over it. At the end of the day, though, there's no getting around "Cabaret." It's a wonderfully brassy and catchy uptempo number with a fun point of view and a dramatic build via a quirky bridge, which leads into a big finish to bring down the house. Once I remembered the first time I reveled in the absurdity of the lyrics, "when I saw her laid out like a queen, she was the happiest corpse I'd ever seen," and relived my joy at Liza Minnelli's holding the note forever on, "When I go, I'm going like Elsie," I couldn't help but admit that I, too, "love a ca-ba-a-reeeeeeeeet!"

3. "Sometimes A Day Goes By" from Woman of the Year

 

 

I find "Sometimes A Day Goes By" so poignant and moving musically with lyrics so simple and basic, that I feel it captures the very language of our emotions. It's like when the doctor asks you to describe the intensity of a pain you're experiencing — you just look for the most concise way to convey your truth with little or no comment. That's what I hear in lyrics like, "It's hardly every day. It's most unusual." And the melody is nothing short of rapturous. As a matter of fact, my one complaint about "Sometimes A Day Goes By" is that it's most well-known as a medley with The Happy Time's "I Don't Remember You" as performed in And the World Goes Round, so you more often hear it that way, and I couldn't find a single acceptable YouTube video of the song by itself.

2. "New York, New York" from the film "New York"

 

 

Countless great songs have been written about "the city so nice they named it twice." It is, therefore, quite a feat that, with "New York, New York," Kander & Ebb managed to (quite arguably!) top that list. So many Kander & Ebb songs feature catchy vamps that immediately announce the tune's distinguished presence, but there is none as memorable and evocative as the internationally recognized "Dun dun dun duh-dun" of "New York, New York." In words and music, it is an infectious paean to the great metropolis and in turn, everything NYC means to so many millions of people the world over, whether that's freedom or fun or opportunity, excitement, glamour, culture, sex, food, or other pleasures and experiences. It's all vividly conjured up by this passionate anthem.

1. "But The World Goes Round" from the film "New York, New York"

 

 

Apparently "But The World Goes Round" was written for "New York, New York"'s place in the film of the same name, but it was rejected by Robert DeNiro and demoted to a less significant spot in the story. While I can see why that choice may have been best for the movie and I'm certainly grateful "New York, New York" is a song, it blows my mind that anyone could pass on "But The World Goes Round." I would include it in my Top Ten songs of any kind — forget about Kander & Ebb. It might even be my favorite song of all time. I can listen to (or sing) "But The World Goes Round" on a bad day, reminding myself that this, too, shall pass, or on a good day, laughing at the cyclical nature of life and happy to be on a high, or on any number of occasions where my disposition might be pitched somewhere else along the spectrum. The lyrics can accommodate any mood and the gritty tune always kicks my energy into gear. Like numerous Kander & Ebb songs, it is a Liza Minnelli signature and this one in particular has remained especially fresh through all the phases of her career. "But The World Goes Round" never shies away from the darkness and yet always looks towards the light. Right on, Kander & Ebb. Right on.

(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)