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The Old Razzle-Dazzle

Colored Lights is a somewhat slapdash Q&A with Kander and Ebb but it offers some entertaining insights, opinions -- and dish! logo
Because a few of their songs ("New York, New York," "Cabaret," "All That Jazz") have lodged themselves firmly in the national consciousness, it's easy to think of John Kander and Fred Ebb as having a "style." A strong vamp, a catchy hook, a colloquial but literate life-loving lyric -- that's Kander and Ebb, right?

Well, no. That such an assessment undersells the celebrated pair's versatility is borne out by Colored Lights (Faber and Faber, 231 pp, $23), a retrospective of their lives and careers that essentially sits the two down at Ebb's kitchen table and turns on the tape recorder. The results, "as told to" Greg Lawrence and with additional material by pals Hal Prince and Liza Minnelli, don't allow much time for reflective biography or lingering analysis; for one thing, some 25 pages are given over to often-familiar lyrics. But the format does permit an intimacy that larger works may lack. For all the touching-up that's been done here -- and we're never sure where Lawrence is interjecting or editing -- the back-and-forth between John and "Freddy" feels honest, sheds some light on what makes a creative partnership survive for four decades, and tells you things you probably didn't know about every musical on which they collaborated.

Non-intimates of the pair may think of them as a single entity, but they're the products of very different upbringings. Kander (b. 1927), an assimilated-Jewish Midwesterner, grew up in a loving, supportive household that paid for his piano lessons and encouraged his interest in opera. Ebb (born in 1933, although the book says 1936) was a New York kid from a hardscrabble, working-class family; he saw his first show at 15, he says, and his cold, culturally indifferent father begrudged him even those balcony seats to Barefoot Boy with Cheek. Given such disparities in background, it's not surprising that Kander emerges as the optimist and romantic (several times in the book, he starts a sentence with something like "Remembering this will make me weep, but...") while Ebb is the neurotic urban cynic, less gratified by success and less likely to sentimentalize the past.

What the two agree on unequivocally is that they were born to work together. Each had already had minor theatrical careers -- Ebb contributing lyrics to revues, Kander arranging dance music and composing one flop -- when, in the early 1960s, music publisher Tommy Valando indulged in some professional matchmaking. "It was a case of instant communication and instant songs," says Ebb; they wrote a song at their first meeting, soon after penned the durable "Sara Lee," and have led charmed lives as co-writers ever since. To hear them tell it, they write quickly, welcome deadline pressure, work concurrently in the same room (so the question "Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?" is unanswerable), and have never had a major fight. Each feels secure throwing ideas out to the other, and if some of those ideas are harshly rejected, who cares? Their mutual respect is infinite and another idea is never far off. (Can collaboration really be so idyllic? Comments from their peers bear out this description and a sometimes-caustic edge to the Kander/Ebb banter hints at a slight emotional distance for all of their obvious affection, so the answer appears to be yes.)

After Golden Gate, an unproduced musical written essentially as a collaborative blind date, the pair were offered Flora, the Red Menace. That show introduced them to lifelong muse Minnelli, though she wasn't the first choice for the title role -- and you'll never guess who was. This is one of the book's most entertaining sections: Director George Abbott is initially unenthusiastic about his leading lady but comes to adore her; Minnelli is raw, klutzy, and Mama-domineered but winds up with a Tony; Kander and Ebb's 60-odd songs are boiled down into a score that buffs love. Flora wasn't a hit but it did get the boys Cabaret. Later in the book, while praising Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, they admit sadly that today's Broadway economics just don't permit that kind of second chance.

From Cabaret, it's a swift, not-always-chronological tour through Zorba, The Happy Time, 70, Girls, 70, Chicago, The Act, Woman of the Year, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Steel Pier, some movie and TV work, and a few titles that didn't pan out or are still in progress. Most of the shows had respectable runs; almost none paid back the investors. But a mere glance at the title list reveals the team's sometimes-overlooked range. They excel at concept musicals (though they profess not to understand the term), traditional book shows, and hard-to-categorize hybrids. They can write to stars' strengths or cleverly hide their limitations (think of how vocally underequipped Woman of the Year was). Their songs can work spectacularly in context and nearly as well outside of it ("Cabaret," "Maybe This Time"). And, given time and a sympathetic producer, they can turn disaster into triumph: Both men praise Garth Drabinsky to the skies for believing in Spider Woman and supplying the resources to turn it around.

Their own take on their output often bucks critical and popular opinion -- though, of course, they have the benefit of having lived with their shows from concept to execution. The Happy Time, they say, was marred by David Merrick's meddling, Gower Champion's misguided visual opulence, and an unlucky opening night. (But they have only warm words for star Robert Goulet and, on other projects, Lauren Bacall, Raquel Welch, even a rhythmically challenged Anthony Quinn.) The Rink was a heartbreaker; to cite their pride in this little-mourned flop, they give five pages over to one lyric. (Wouldn't you rather read Ebb's less accessible special material lyric "I Love Roz," which, he says, literally made Carol Channing pee in her pants?) They also lament the short run of Steel Pier, though this sounds less like a case of good material gone wrong than of a love-in among the creative team that everyone hated to see end. Yet neither has much affection for Woman of the Year, even though it yielded a show-stopper ("The Grass is Always Greener"), a semi-standard ("Sometimes a Day Goes By"), and a Best Score Tony.

Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon in Chicago
Obviously, it's fun to get such opinions straight from the authors' mouths. It's even more fun having stereotypes about inarticulate composers and hyperarticulate lyricists blown out of the water: Throughout, Kander is wordier than Ebb and analyzes lyrics just as brilliantly. Praising "Adelaide's Lament," it's Kander who observes that the word "streptococci" makes the whole line work and that the singular "streptococcus" wouldn't be as funny. Another extremely entertaining chapter, the final one, lets Kander and Ebb riff on some current Broadway hits: Neither finds much to like in The Lion King or Mamma Mia! (As pieces of writing, who does?) And when Kander opines that seeing Hairspray "didn't make me want to write," Ebb shoots back, "I did want to write. I wanted to write and tell [the authors] to go home and listen to Frank Loesser, which would be good advice for anybody."

Admit it, though -- you want dish, don't you? Well, for all of their mutual admiration and the praise of their colleagues, Kander and Ebb offer plenty. A revealing chapter on the movie of Chicago practically pummels Miramax's Harvey Weinstein to the ground. Recalling the original Broadway production, Ebb still smarts over Bob Fosse's mistreatment of him -- though ultimately he forgives him and wishes that Fosse were still around. And who can resist the image of a theatrically clueless Martin Scorsese directing The Act, videotaping rehearsals then editing the results as if they were the day's rushes? There are also telling anecdotes of Gwen Verdon, Kaye Ballard, Rob Marshall, Jack Gilford, and Lotte Lenya (all favorable), as well as Debbie Reynolds, Barbra Streisand, and Frank Sinatra (less faborable), Walter Kerr and Janet Jackson (unfavorable).

The Q&A format really makes Colored Lights zip along -- you can read it in a night -- though it's often at the expense of comprehensiveness. Except for the team's childhoods, their personal lives are barely touched on. Minnelli's introduction and interjections aren't exactly deep. (On the song "And the World Goes 'Round": "I choose to sing it as the truth, that sometimes you're happy and sometimes you're sad, but the world goes 'round." Uh, thanks, Liza.) Prince's running commentary is more coherent, it's but more about process and production than about John and Fred. Most frustratingly, the book refers to incomplete or obscure projects without always following through on them. But then, we may not have heard the last of Curtains, The Visit, or Over and Over -- anyway, let's hope not. And after a long history of giving us the old razzle dazzle, Kander and Ebb can be forgiven for leaving us wanting more.

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