Theater News

Ebb Tidings

More candid conversation between Caruso and Fred Ebb, the lyricist about whom no one need ask,

Fred Ebb, right, with John Kander
Fred Ebb, right, with John Kander

[Ed. Note: Following is the second half of the transcript of Jim Caruso’s conversation with master lyricist Fred Ebb, who with composer John Kander has authored such smash musicals as Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Their latest is the Broadway-bound The Visit. If you missed the first half of this interview, click here.]


JIM CARUSO: Writers often say that their less successful shows are closest to their hearts. In your case, is that true of shows like Steel Pier?

FRED EBB: When I’m asked what my favorite show is, I generally say one of those. I loved 70, Girls, 70 and The Rink. It’s like a father loving his
weakest child best. The Happy Time is really one of the most neglected, underrated, and unappreciated scores.

JC: I guess Chicago doesn’t need your help or approval at this point.

FE: No, and it’s almost foolish to say that’s my favorite. I’d feel funny saying that, somehow. My lawyer likes it best, though.

JC: You’ve just returned from the Toronto set of Chicago, the movie.

FE: I met the whole company. They are a terrific bunch of people and they treated me like royalty when I walked in. Renee Zellweger cut my bagel for me, Catherine Zeta-Jones buttered it. I’m not kidding! Richard Gere brought
my ice cream. There was much hugging and kissing. They are overwhelmed with admiration for the piece, which is wonderful. I got to hear them sing–John C. Reilly sang “Mr. Cellophane” and Renee Zellweger sang “Funny Honey” and “Nowadays.” Richard Gere sang “All I Care About is Love” and “Razzle Dazzle.” He is so charming, you could die. Perfect for the role. Catherine Zeta-Jones sang “All That Jazz,” then “Class” with Queen Latifah. I added a line to “Class” that even shocked me. It was the first line I ever wrote for the song but Bobby Fosse thought it was too rough, so we cut it. Now it’s back in. All these years, the line has been: “Everybody you watch’s got his brains in his crotch.” Now, it’s: “Every guy is a snot, every girl is a twat.”

JC: [huge screams of laughter]

FE: I actually wrote that.

JC: Your mother would be so proud!

FE: It comes out funny. Back when we wrote the show, I was afraid of the line and Bobby was dead-set against it–and he had more balls than anybody. I loved him so much; working with him was very rough, though. Years later, when he was putting All That Jazz together, he called to interview me. He said, “I know I picked on you when you were writing Chicago but I want you to know why.” “Well, why?” said I. “Because you were vulnerable. A guy like me always strikes out at the vulnerable one. The cast respected me but loved you. I think I resented that.” I said, “Bobby, that’s sort of terrible.” He said, “Yeah, I know.” He was being very honest with himself and everyone, sort of making amends. It was like, “I’m sorry,” except kind of not really. He taped that conversation for use in putting the
movie together. I only wish I had that tape, but it’s recorded in my mind.

JC: Were you in Germany during the filming of Cabaret?

FE: No. We wrote “Mein Herr,” and “Money” here in New York, and also decided to add “Maybe This Time.” They took all that with them when they went over. John and I really weren’t invited. In movies, that’s the way it works; you write it and hope for the best. None of the songs in Chicago will be eligible for an Academy Award, so we recently wrote a song called “Don’t Look At Me.” It was to be sung by Roxie, but they cut it. So we just wrote a new one called “I Move On.” Robbie Marshall, the director
of the film, is presenting it to Mr. Weinstein, the producer. It could be used under the end credits.

JC: When you do a demo like that, who sings it?

FE: It’s me singing with John at the piano. The demos from all our shows are just the two of us. I’m pretty good at it, and Johnny plays like an orchestra.

JC: Who do you like to watch perform? Oh, did you happen to catch the Britney Spears concert on television?

FE: Yes. Who is that person? I don’t understand. It used to be Vegas would call for Liza and someone would say, “What scenery do you want?” I didn’t want any scenery; I wanted a clean, bright stage with an orchestra. When she danced, it was in front of the band. Maybe I used two guys with her. It wasn’t such a big thing.

Liza Minnelli with Joel Grey 
in the film of Cabaret
Liza Minnelli with Joel Grey
in the film of Cabaret

JC: You were working with people with insane amounts of talent, though. Why would they need fireworks going off around them?

FE: Exactly. That’s when you look at a Britney Spears and say, “What is that?” Where’s the talent? What’s the distinctive thing, other than that she’s nifty looking. She’s got a swell little body and she moves well. After
that, I’m stumped. I don’t see originality in the material. It’s not memorable, it’s not pretty…it’s not anything. It could be a Radio City revue. She seems very empty, but there are 25,000 people cheering, so
there’s something I don’t know. That’s when I feel old.

JC: It’s probably her goal in life to play Sally Bowles!

FE: Maybe. Good luck to her. You get the feeling that if she did it, she wouldn’t be any good. The last number in her concert, she was under a waterfall. She was soaking wet, poor thing.

JC: [laughing] Kaye Ballard never did anything like that?

FE: No! If someone in the band had a squirt gun, Kaye would have screamed. Here’s this girl singing with water pouring off her. I guess it’s supposed to be sexy. Sexy to me is, the more you wear, the more you imagine what’s underneath–instead of showing your belly button. Catherine Zeta-Jones is sexy. Plus, I know she’s talented and can act. I saw Traffic. I saw her dance fully clothed last week in Toronto. I’ve seen her looking fabulous with loads of clothes on.

JC: I know your favorite lyric is in Sondheim’s “Love, I Hear” [from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum].

FE: Oh! “Today I woke too weak to walk.” That kills me. Can you imagine anything better than that? I actually made a noise in the theater when I heard that lyric. “Adelaide’s Lament” [from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls] did that to me, too. “You can spray her wherever you figure the streptococci lurk…” That made me nuts! It’s amazing.

JC: Thinking back to what you said about Fosse, you’ve had great relationships with some notoriously tough people.

FE: Yeah. People have been pretty nice to me. You hear stories, though. Bacall was supposed to be so tough, but I had a wonderful relationship with her during Woman of the Year. I’m sure there were Liza stories all
these years, but she and I never had problems. I have a very easy manner and I don’t bring out the worst in people. I had a wonderful relationship with Streisand in Funny Lady; John had some issues with her because he went to the recording session of “Let’s Hear It For Me.” That was basically an alright song but it was orchestrated exactly like “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” That upset John; he was afraid that Jule Styne would be offended and he didn’t want to risk that. He was trying to fix it but Barbra didn’t like that.

JC: Did she ever ask to change your lyrics?

FE: Never. The only one who ever did that was Sinatra, for “New York, New York.” He didn’t ask, he just sang that “A-number one” lyric. I don’t even like that expression. He also missed a rhyme because of it; it bothers me every time I hear it. I’m deeply grateful to him for recording the song, though, and I thought he was a brilliant artist. He made a three-year-old song a great, big hit.

JC: It’s now a standard, like “Night and Day”!

FE: That’s true, I guess. Too bad my mother never heard it.

Jim Caruso and Fred Ebb
Jim Caruso and Fred Ebb

JC: Do you consider yourself a celebrity?

FE: No. Celebrity is so weird to me. Like the time someone said, “Fred, Bette Davis is on the phone.” Bette Davis? Hello! What is that? One time, I called my answering service and the lady said, “Bette Davis called, Carol Channing called, Chita Rivera called, and Liza Minnelli called.” All in the same day.

JC: It could have been Charles Pierce playing a trick on you! Why was Bette Davis calling you?

FE: We wrote a musical for her that never happened. It was a musicalization of Emily Kimbrough’s lecture tour. We had a director set and also had Elaine May to do the libretto. Then we got Bette; that’s when the director resigned and Elaine left the project. So then we only had Bette. The whole thing just fell apart. It was very emotional.

JC: Have there been a lot of those experiences? Are there lots of unheard songs and shows in a trunk somewhere?

FE: No. Of course, there are songs that were cut from shows, but not whole projects. “Ten Percent” was cut from Chicago, and I love that song; it was witty and I liked writing it. There are lots of unheard lines from
songs. In “Class,” we were always looking for “ass” rhymes. I came up with “Last week my mother got groped in the middle of mass!” Johnny almost fell off the piano bench, he laughed so hard. We were thrilled. We
told it to Chita and she loved it. So they put it in the matinee that day: Nothing. Dead silence. So we took it out. I’m very easily discouraged.

JC: Did you know that number was hilarious when you were writing it?

FE: Not at all. The first night it went in, I freaked. I ran downstairs to the toilet. I was sitting there and I heard a laugh [from the audience], so I decided to go back up. On the first step, I heard a bigger laugh. Then, on the “nobody even says ‘oops’ when they’re passing their gas” line, there was a huge laugh. That’s when I realized it was funny. It was a big hit. We do those “two-women-and-a-table” songs well.

JC: Like “The Grass Is Always Greener” from Woman of the Year.

FE: Exactly. There’s also one in The Visit, called “You Know Me.” It goes: “You know me, I never gossip. You know me, I’m never mean. But that bitch parading around the station is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. But I’d rather cut my tongue out than say so.”

JC: Let’s talk about The Visit.

FE: Nobody wanted to do it after Angela Lansbury left. Her husband was ill and she felt her place was with him, which I agreed with. After all, it’s only a play. That seemed to be the end of the property, but I applauded her
decision. However, the producer, Barry Brown, had raised $8 million on Angela’s name and on ours, so we had to replace Angela with a name of similar stature. Glenn Close turned it down and Judi Dench couldn’t do it. Then the Goodman Theater in Chicago heard the show and loved it. They thought Chita would be perfect, so it happened. It was bliss working with her again; she’s as good as I’ve ever seen her and the show got extraordinary reviews. The whole thing was a lovely, warm experience. The Trade Center disaster happened while we were there, and I was in and out of the hospital…but, other than that, it was great. Now, we’re just waiting for a theater here in New York. I’m very proud of that show. We’ll see what happens. As the French say, “Qui vivra verra.”

JC: Which means…?

FE: “He who lives will see.”


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