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Perfectly Marvelous

Two years after his death, Fred Ebb remains one of Broadway's most beloved lyricists. logo
Fred Ebb
What pain Fred Ebb must have endured on July 24, 1965 as he watched the final performance of Flora, the Red Menace. What was he feeling when he heard Liza Minnelli and Bob Dishy sing "All I Need Is One Good Break"? He'd just had as good a break as one could expect -- Harold Prince as producer of the show, George Abbott as director -- and yet, here was his first official Broadway musical closing after only 87 performances. Sure, From A to Z had only lasted a fourth as long in 1960, but he was just one of 14 contributors to that revue. Flora was his baby, and it had taken him five years to get to Broadway with it. Now it was ending.

During the closing performance, was he inspired when he heard Mary Louise Wilson sing, "You must do more. You must do much more"? Did he feel defiant when Minnelli sang "Sing Happy," the 11 o'clock number that he quickly wrote in Boston when something, anything, had to go into the show? There was Minnelli delivering the lyric "Sing me a happy song about happy endings," when there wasn't one for Fred Ebb. How did he feel when he heard his words, "There's quite enough around me that's breaking my heart"?

"Whoever gets a second chance?" he'd write in Steel Pier three decades after he got his own: Just 16 months after Flora's closing, Ebb's fortunes turned around completely when his groundbreaking Cabaret opened on Broadway. He and composer John Kander would go on to have the longest running songwriting collaboration in musical theater history -- one that ended only when Ebb died, two years ago this week. Maybe the Cabaret emcee and his two ladies were known to "switch partners daily," but Ebb stayed true to his writing partner once he found Kander.

Even if he's no longer here in body, he's still with us. The revival of Chicago -- a show that originally opened in 1975 -- celebrates its 10th anniversary on November 14, making it Broadway's longest-running restaging of a book musical. (What's in second place? The Roundabout's revival of Cabaret.) Meanwhile, Curtains, a musical that couldn't get on in the 1980s and 1990s, has just finished a triumphant run in Los Angeles and now seems set to come to Broadway in the spring. Although Rupert Holmes came in and changed some of Ebb's work, many Ebb lyrics remain, ensuring that a new song from him will have been heard on Broadway in five consecutive decades. Maybe that achievement will be stretched to a six decade, since productions of his adaptations of The Skin of Our Teeth and The Visit are set to surface in regional theaters over the next 12 months.

If those shows make it to Broadway, perhaps some of the cast members should save some space on their mantles. Since the 1960s, when Ebb first razzle-dazzled us, there's never been a decade in which a musical with his lyrics hasn't won someone a Tony. In fact, 17 performers -- including 10 women -- have captured the trophies after singing Ebb's words. That an actress (Liza Minnelli) and supporting actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones) won Oscars for their respective performances in the film versions of Cabaret and Chicago at a time when movie musicals were out of fashion wasn't accidental, either; Ebb's lyrics helped them get the gold.

Ebb found a unique style of lyric writing. Notice that the first line of Cabaret, "What good is sitting alone in your room?", doesn't rhyme with any other line in that first A-section. You have to wait till the first line of the second A-section to hear "room" rhymed with "broom." Then, in the following two sections, come "doom" and "tomb." Even more impressively, Ebb followed the same procedure with the second lines of each section: "Come hear the music play" rhymed with "day," "way," and "stay."

He used that same scheme for his most famous song. The first line of each section rhymes "news" with "shoes" and "blues," while the second line links "today," "stray," and "away." That "New York, New York" didn't win an Oscar for Best Song in 1977 is not the most astonishing gaffe in Academy Award history; that it wasn't even nominated is. And to think the winner was Joe Brooks' "You Light Up My Life"! No matter. "New York, New York" became the unofficial anthem of the city, the last monster hit of Frank Sinatra's career, and the song that's still played at the end of at least 81 games a year at Yankee Stadium. It alone would have cemented Ebb's reputation.

In addition, Ebb was generous with up-and-comers, mentoring such people as Scott Ellis and David ("Tommy") Thompson. Now, through The Fred Ebb Foundation, underappreciated songwriters such as John Bucchino, the first recipient of the annual Fred Ebb Award, benefit financially. As Roxie says of Amos, "You could love a guy like that." Granted, Ebb could be cynical both in his life and his work. The titles of several songs in Woman of the Year show a dour sensibility: "Shut Up, Gerald," "It Isn't Working," "I Told You So," and "So What Else is New?" (which put Ebb's voice on Broadway as the voice of Katz, a comic strip cat). But all of Ebb's pessimism is ameliorated by one spectacular song: "Yes," from 70, Girls, 70, in which he urges us to seize the days, weeks, months, and years of our lives.

Ebb's influence has also been felt in more subtle ways. Where do you think the 46th Street cabaret club Don't Tell Mama got its name? The title of Ethan Mordden's book The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen comes from another Cabaret lyric. And would Bob Fosse have thought of calling his autobiographical movie All That Jazz had Ebb not provided those words a few years earlier?

So, what's the one conclusion I can bring this article to? The man who wrote "But nothin' stays" in Chicago was wrong. Fred Ebb's words, and his stature as one of Broadway's best lyricists, have indeed stayed with us. In 50 years or so, it won't change, you know.

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