Colleagues Remember Sardonic, Truthful Fred Ebb at Broadway Memorial

News   Colleagues Remember Sardonic, Truthful Fred Ebb at Broadway Memorial
"Fred would have loved this," said John Kander of his late writing partner, Fred Ebb, at a Nov. 15 memorial at the Ambassador Theatre. "A big house, big stars and lots of feeling."

Kander delivered the opening remarks at the near-capacity event in honor of the lyricist of Cabaret and Chicago, who died on Sept. 11. (His age was in doubt. "I still don't know how old you were, Fred," said Terrence McNally. "I don't even think the New York Times knows how old you are.")

"Fred once said to me," Kander continued, "'If I die before you, for the memorial I want you to rent a big place. Radio City Music Hall is probably not a possibility, but some place big, because I want everybody who comes to get a seat. Now, if you die first, then I'll rent a place. I was thinking the Booth. No, I know: the Lucille Lortel.'"

The crowd roared at this sample of Ebb's dark wit, universally characterized as "sardonic." They heard many more examples of it through the ceremony.

Terrence McNally, who had written librettos for three Kander and Ebb shows, told of sitting in The Theatre Bar next to Ebb in 1965, a few days before his first original play, Things That Go Bump in the Night, was to open across the street at the Royale Theatre. Ebb's first musical, Flora, the Red Menace, was also due to premiere.

"I didn't know Fred at that time. He was talking to someone and the other guy said, 'What do you hear about that show across the street?' And Fred said, 'I hear it's a dog!'—a knife through the heart of a young playwright. When I reminded him of this incident many years later, he shouted back, 'Well, it was a dog, wasn't it?!'" McNally began his speech with a bit a black humor worthy of Ebb, saying, straight-faced, "What do you say about a homophobic, anti-Semitic gay Jew?" Later on, he applauded Ebb for a quality he said was in short supply in the theatre: truthfulness. "Fred never lied. You may not like what he has to say, but he's going to give it to you. It wasn't something that was not always easy to take, but I came to really appreciate it."

Appropriately, the memorial was framed with music. However, the pointed focus was on songs from Kander and Ebb musicals which have yet to find a New York production. Brian Stokes Mitchell sang "Be Friends With the Truth" from The Scottsboro Boys, the last show Kander and Ebb completed. Chita Rivera, a veteran of several of the composers' projects, sang "Love and Love Alone," from The Visit, which Rivera starred in at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Brent Barrett, meanwhile, gave voice to the title tune from The Skin of Our Teeth, which had a 1999 premiere (under the title Over and Over) at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. Barrett finished off the song with a series of elaborate arm gestures—the kind that the theatrically-minded Ebb had once offered to coach him on.

Also, Debra Monk sang "It's a Business" from Curtains, a show about a musical going through a torturous out-of-town tryout. The lyric, sung by a bottom-line producer, was a typically salty bit of Ebb:

"The National Endowment doesn't need to turn a buck
That's not business
So give 'em Lysistrata and I wish 'em lots of luck!...
I'm in business
Ibsen and Shaw, take them away
Don't talk to me about Moliere; those Russians never pay!"

Those wishing to hear the familiar were also satisfied. Joel Grey opened the songlist by recreating "Willkommen," the opening number from Cabaret, the show that made the fortunes of Grey, Kander and Ebb. Later, the present Broadway cast of Chicago, led by Wayne Brady, performed "Razzle Dazzle," a song which—in light of the memories being related—seemed an appropriate theme song for Ebb's life. And Liza Minnelli sang "New York, New York," a tune she introduced in the film of the same name, and probably Kander and Ebb's best known composition.

The director of the original production of Cabaret, Harold Prince, was also on hand. He read a lyric by Ebb, entitled "Yes," an entreaty by the writer to grab life with both hands again and again, not matter what's offered.

"Life keeps happening every day
Say yes
When opportunity comes your way
You can't start wondering what to say
You'll never win if you never play
Say yes"

A little known side to the lyricist—that of the frustrated performer—was revealed in several anecdotes and a short film. The latter opened with a personal appearance of both composers on a talk show. Kander sat at the piano, vamping the first bars of "All That Jazz." Ebb stood downstage with a microphone, utterly groovy in wide-collared open shirt, frilly scarf draped over his shoulders.

"I'm Fred. He's John," said the lyricist. "In case any of you are thinking of writing any letters of complaint. This is called a 'vamp til ready.' That means he vamps until I'm ready. I like the idea of that. The power." He then sang the tune with considerable style and obvious relish, ending each stanza with a juicy "Jay-yazzz."

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