“I first knew about John Kander and Fred Ebb in 1965,” Liza Minnelli recalls. “I heard a friend of mine named Carmen Zapata singing a song called ‘If I Were In Your Shoes, I’d Dance.’ I loved it and said, ‘My God, who wrote that song?’ With Kander and Ebb, I heard my feelings stated exactly as I felt them, in the kind of language that I thought was so marvelously straight-ahead and in the moment. In that song…these two songwriters caught envy and regret and a lost chance, and yet without self-pity, because the feelings were stated in such a positive way and with such passion.”
These are Liza’s words in her introduction to the recently released Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz Collaboration, and All That Jazz, by John Kander and Fred Ebb as told to Greg Lawrence. To read the book is to feel like a happy fly on the wall — one that has the golden opportunity to overhear a warm, informative, sometimes hilarious conversation with Broadway’s longest-running composer-lyricist team. I’ve been an admirer of K&E for as long as I can remember and am lucky enough to have become a friend of these two icons during the past decade, so I was thrilled to speak with many others who feel the same as I do about them and their work. When you ask yourself, “Whatever happened to class?” you need look no further than these two guys. But the question of the moment is, “What is your favorite Kander and Ebb song?”
Stephen Schwartz (composer-lyricist, Wicked)
My favorite Kander and Ebb song has always been “A Quiet Thing.” I think it’s one of the most beautiful melodies I have ever heard. And the lyric, in my opinion, is close to perfect. It’s simple, understated, and just poetic enough: “Happiness comes in on tiptoe.” In terms of a show number, I’ve always been partial to “The Pineapple Song” from Cabaret, just because I think it does so much in terms of establishing the characters and their relationship in an enormously charming way.
Linda Lavin (currently touring with her one-woman show, The Song Remembers When)
I love “I Don’t Remember You” from The Happy Time. I used to sing it but it made me cry, which was bad. Then I worked on it in a class with David Craig and could finally do it without crying, which was good. It’s a very powerful song. Of course, I’ve known John and Fred since before they were Kander & Ebb — which makes me sound ancient, so don’t write that!
Jeff Marx (co-composer and co-lyricist, Avenue Q)
Of all the great Kander and Ebb songs that I love, “New York, New York” is my all-time favorite. I mean, how do you begin to write an American anthem like that? It doesn’t happen by accident. The simplicity and catchiness of the musical hook and the strength and universality of the lyrics are just astounding. The words “start spreading the news” immediately evoke the song in everyone’s mind because the song is so well known — and it’s so well known because it’s so exquisitely crafted. That vamp is so proud and vibrant and fearless! Those guys accomplished exactly what we all strive to do: The craft and effort are so transparent that the song sounds timeless and inevitable.
Carol Woods (Follies, The Goodbye Girl, Grind)
I’ve never had the pleasure of singing it but I love “Sara Lee,” which Liza and Kaye Ballard have done for years. It’s a brilliant piece of special material that always makes me scream with laughter. The wide spectrum of material that Kander and Ebb write is amazing, isn’t it? How did two people come up with such brilliance? “Sometimes a Day Goes By” is heart wrenching. I think their ballads are the absolute best. Can’t I just sing them all?
Andrew Lippa (composer-lyricist, The Wild Party)
I have about 900 favorite Kander and Ebb tunes. If I have to pick just one, it would be “Married” from Cabaret. It’s so incredibly beautiful yet terribly sad at the same time. “And the old despair that was often there suddenly ceases to be. Then you wake one day, turn around and say, ‘Somebody wonderful married me.'” I just got chills saying that! It’s always the simple and most direct lyrics that get me. And there’s something so forlorn about that melody; it foreshadows the fact that, in the play, those two characters ultimately don’t stay together.
J. Mark McVey (Les Misérables)
So many of their songs are wonderfully large and alive, but I’d say that my favorite is a very quiet ballad: I was recently asked to sing “Sometimes A Day Goes By” and I really fell in love with it. It gives me the opportunity to just sing the words and not worry about the vocal fireworks. I can delve into the emotional element of the song, which is a comfort. No high notes, no big sell! A perfect piece.
Stephanie J. Block (“Liza Minnelli” in The Boy From Oz)
Needless to say, in doing research for playing Liza, I listened to a lot of Kander and Ebb. In fact, I sang “Maybe This Time” for my initial Boy From Oz audition. I waffle back and forth between favorite songs that they’ve written, but lately my heart has been stolen by “Ring Them Bells.” Liza performed it so brilliantly in Liza With a Z and it’s an incredibly clever story from start to finish. How awesome for a performer to play all those different characters! Musically, it’s fabulous and lyrically, it’s ingenious — like a perfect three-act play for a singer-comedienne-actress.
Mario Cantone (Assassins)
My favorite Kander and Ebb piece in the whole wide world is the entire, 12-minute “Happy Endings” number in New York, New York. It’s a movie musical within a movie musical! What could be better? It’s a takeoff on “Born In A Trunk” from A Star Is Born. [Mario sings like Liza:] “I’m feelin’ aces high!” I want to do the whole number in my show someday. I actually love the entire movie and I’m always begging Fred Ebb to watch it with me, but he won’t. Sometimes I go to Freddy’s and make him dinner or he’ll take me to his favorite place, The Old Homestead, where we order steak, creamed spinach, and sautéed onions. I think his genius comes from high cholesterol. Fred is the one who made me do my Liza Minnelli impression in front of Liza Minnelli. Horrifying! Now, when she sees me, she always screams: “Do me! Do me!”
David Zippel (lyricist, City of Angels, The Goodbye Girl)
I love Kander and Ebb! To choose one song from their remarkable and inspiring body of work is next to impossible. But if I had to choose one, it would be “Cabaret.” The music is so elegant, memorable, and evocative of the period, and the lyric is so deceptively simple but brilliantly crafted. It’s completely in character and, at the same time, universal. It’s also from a truly great Broadway show and, arguably, the best movie musical ever made.
Michael Feinstein (singer/pianist/musicologist)
I have adoration for so many K&E songs, from “So What” to “Isn’t It Better,” so I’ll just choose a song of theirs that has been rattling around in my brain for some time: “I Couldn’t Be Happier.” Liza sang it on her 1985 concert tour and I have never forgotten it because it’s unique. The song is about one friend greeting another and offering congratulations on [his/her] newfound theatrical success. We soon see the jealousy and envy underneath what initially seemed to be sincere and ebullient praise. In Liza words, it’s a “terrific” number!
Donna McKechnie (A Chorus Line, etc., etc.)
I got to do Sally in Cabaret with Billy Crystal quite a few years ago and I was thrilled that they put “Maybe This Time” into the production. It tells you so much about the character — which is, of course, what a theater song needs to do. “Maybe This Time” tells the audience about Sally’s past, about what she thinks of herself, and about her yearning for a second chance. The humanity of the character shines through with such a sense of hope. That makes it even more touching; Sally realizes that she doesn’t have to “hang back with the apes,” as Tennessee Williams said. The music is very torchy but I don’t feel it’s a sad song. “All the odds are in my favor, something’s bound to begin.” If that’s not optimistic, I don’t know what is!
John Kander (composer)
Every once in a while, if you’re a really lucky composer, you’ll write an “of course” song, meaning that it sounds like OF COURSE it was written and it’s probably been around forever. “Love and Love Alone” from The Visit and “A Quiet Thing” from Flora The Red Menace fulfilled our intentions as completely as possible and still make me very content when I hear them. Hearing our songs can be strange. After we finish writing a show, after a song has been performed exactly as we intended and it’s kind of “out there,” it seems as if somebody else wrote it. When I hear the vamp to “New York, New York,” I no longer relate it to myself. It’s a piece that I know but is no longer a part of me. Regarding the way we write, I’m very much for simplicity — not much for padding. There is such a thing as fake music, which is hard to define but doesn’t interest me. You know what’s horrible? When you write something that’s not very good and people love it. That’s really confusing! What’s fun to write is what’s true. I think “All That Jazz” is a true song with no padding. It’s also a brilliant lyric; thank you, Freddy!
Fred Ebb (lyricist)
I’m always uncomfortable answering this question because I’m afraid it’ll sound like bragging. However, I happen to like “Love and Love Alone” from The Visit. If you ask me, and you have, I think it’s the very best melody John’s ever written. My lyric? Ehh! But his work is quite wonderful on that song. I like “Marry Me” from The Rink because it’s so simple and it accomplishes what it starts out to say. Of course, I like “The World Goes ‘Round.” That’s a very satisfying song and I get enormous pleasure out of hearing it sung. The philosophy of the song lives on, too. [At this point, Fred starts pulling my leg:] Because you see, Jim, it’s an eternal truth: The world DOES go ’round. I dug deep into my soul and heart and I think it’s a gem, Jim! When I hit upon that thought, it woke me out of a deep sleep and I thought, “I HAVE GOT TO PASS THIS ON TO THE WORLD AND MAYBE EVEN THE UNIVERSE!!”