JOHN KAN­DER IS DO­ING THE WORK FOR TWO

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Bar­bara Isen­berg cal­en­dar@la­times.com

It’s been 50 years since the de­but of “Flora, the Red Men­ace,” the first Broad­way mu­si­cal from com­poser John Kan­der and lyri­cist Fred Ebb. Over time came Tonys, Em­mys and Gram­mys for songs, films and more than a dozen ad­di­tional mu­si­cals, among them “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spi­der Woman” and “The Scotts­boro Boys.”

Ebb died in 2004, but Kan­der, 88, likes to say he chan­neled Ebb in com­plet­ing this year’s Tony-nom­i­nated mu­si­cal “The Visit,” a dark tale of ro­mance and re­venge star­ring Chita Rivera as wealthy widow Claire Zachanas­sian and Roger Rees as An­ton Schell, her ill-fated former lover. Kan­der and Ebb have taken us from pre-war Ber­lin in “Cabaret” to a South Amer­i­can prison in “Kiss of the Spi­der Woman” to 1930s Alabama in­jus­tice in “The Scotts­boro Boys.” What at­tracted you to Friedrich Dür­ren­matt’s 1956 play about a Swiss vil­lage af­ter World War II?

Dür­ren­matt’s pla ywas a scathing at­tack on Swiss so­ci­ety about their greed dur­ing thewar. But there’s no point in tak­ing a play and say­ing, ‘That’s a good play, let’s put songs in it.’ Our in­ter­est was in the two main char­ac­ters. We thought it­would be in­ter­est­ing to open their re­la­tion­ship and learn more about them. With [li­bret­tist] Ter­rence McNally, we be­gan to ex­am­ine that re­la­tion­ship. You were well into this project when Fred Ebb died in 2004?

Our first pro­duc­tion was in 2001 at the Goodman The­atre in Chicago with di­rec­tor Frank Galati. Fred was sick dur­ing a lot of our time in Chicago, though hewas try­ing to dis­guise the fact he had oxy­gen at re­hearsals. John Doyle di­rected the pro­duc­tion we’re see­ing now on Broad­way. How­did he change the mu­si­cal you’d worked on ear­lier?

He felt it should be just one act, and that meant a lot of cut­ting. It was mainly tweak­ing— tight­en­ing the text and read­just­ing mu­sic, adding un­der­scor­ing. We have just nine in­stru­ments, but ev­ery once in a while, you can take a lim­i­ta­tion and­make it work to your ad­van­tage. We have no brass and very few strings. In­stead, we have a lot of per­cus­sion and plec­trum— or pluck­ing— in­stru­ments, in­clud­ing a zither, partly to give it a cen­tral Euro­pean feel­ing. Did you write new songs for the Doyle pro­duc­tion?

Chunks of songs. My­main con­cern was to not let the lis­tener feel therewas any dif­fer­ence be­tween what Fred and I wrote and me, my­self. You also wrote some new lyrics for “The Scotts­boro Boys,” which be­gan be­fore Fred Ebb’s death as well. You once told me that with “The Scotts­boro Boys,” you would “chan­nel” Fred Ebb.

I still do that. Fred and I sat in the same room writ­ing to­gether, and we’d cre­ate lyrics to­gether too. The lyrics I’ve writ­ten af­ter Fred died are an ex­ten­sion of wha twe were do­ing in that room. De­scribe theway you and Fred Ebb worked all those years.

Fred lived four blocks fromme. I liked the idea of go­ing towork, and he liked the idea of not. So we’d sit around his kitchen ta­ble, then even­tu­ally go into a small room with a pi­ano where most of the work was done. It­was al­most al­ways about char­ac­ter and what is mu­si­cally and lyri­cally true for that char­ac­ter. Fred had this amaz­ing abil­ity to im­pro­vise in rhyme and me­ter the same­way I do at the key­board. So you wrote a great deal more than you used?

Fred and I both wrote fast. Someof it­was re­ally ter­ri­ble, but we al­lowed our­selves to do that. We would rip it up fast so no­body ever sawit. If you keep the pipe open, you have a chance of ac­tu­ally find­ing the right mo­ment.

Did you do that on “The Visit?”

With “The Visit” and other later pieces, we prob­a­bly wrote less. Maybe af­ter all those years of work­ing to­gether, we be­gan to rec­og­nize the junk ear­lier. You didn’t have to get though a whole song with three cho­ruses to rec­og­nize that it­was lousy. Doyou have a sim­i­lar process work­ing with Greg Pierce, the young play­wright with whom you’re now writ­ten two mu­si­cals?

Greg lives down­town, so we’re not in the roomat the same time as of­ten as Fred and Iwere, but the ac­tual out­line of theway we work is not so dif­fer­ent. We’re in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion when we’re on a project. We can call one another, set the phones dow­nand im­pro­vise. We­work very closely, and we’re nowon our third piece to­gether. You’ve been work­ing in the the­ater a very long time. How­would you char­ac­ter­ize the the­ater busi­ness then and now?

Pro­duc­ing the­ater is so­much more ex­pen­sive to­day. Jerry Herman, Stephen Sond­heim, Shel­don Har­nick and Jerry Bock— wewere all part of a gen­er­a­tion that­was al­lowed to fail. Aweek or two be­fore “Flora, the Red Men­ace” opened, our pro­ducer Hal Prince said we’d meet the day af­ter it opened and talk about our next show. “Flora” opened, and it wasn’t a suc­cess. But the next day, we met and started talk­ing about this thing called “Cabaret.” Have your own feel­ings about your pro­fes­sion changed over time?

If any­thing, I am­more in love with writ­ing for the the­ater than I ever was. For me, the re­hearsal room is the safest place in the world. You walk into a room­full of tal­ented, hard­work­ing peo­ple, and you spend the en­tire day try­ing to make some kind of art.

You can’t do bet­ter than that, re­ally.

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

COM­POSER John Kan­der says “chan­nel­ing” his ex-part­ner, the late Fred Ebb, helps his writ­ing.

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