CLEVELAND, Ohio – Though we feed on tales of tantrum-throwing divas and bastard geniuses, in a career that has spanned 65 years, John Kander – who sat at the piano and created some of the greatest Broadway scores of all time with the late lyricist Fred Ebb – has engendered a wellspring of goodwill that would be hard to believe if attached to a character on the stage. Too good to be true! the critics would cry.
Believe it. Ask anyone.
Cleveland Play House alum Joel Grey, who rose to fame playing the Kit Kat Klub's white-faced Master of Ceremonies in Kander and Ebb's peerless "Cabaret," offers a succinct assessment of his old friend: "He's the best."
His kindness is infectious, says actress Karen Ziemba. Like Chita Rivera, the triple threat was a favorite of the duo, appearing in three of their 14 shows produced on Broadway. (The partnership was impossibly fruitful – "we couldn't not write," Kander has said. "We'd look at each other and get pregnant.")
Says Ziemba, "If you have an opportunity to be in a production that John Kander is part of, there's a certain tone that is set from the top, a trickle-down effect that permeates the entire company. Not just the cast, but everybody who works on the show."
"You feel that support, you feel that camaraderie, you feel that kindness, patience and intelligence, and it informs your work. . . . He just makes you feel like you're the most important person in the room when he's talking to you, and nobody is excluded, nobody is more special than the next guy. That's really rare."
Even if the show isn't a runaway hit – like the team's Jazz Age sensation "Chicago," the longest-running American musical in Broadway history, with more than 7,800 performances and counting – when the artistry and sense of family is there, "it's what you long for as a person in the theater," she says.
Ziemba is coming to the Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square this weekend to honor the gentle genius in "Perfectly Marvelous: The Songs of John Kander," a multimedia retrospective produced by The Musical Theater Project and conceived by artistic director Bill Rudman, who will join Ziemba as narrator and guide.
(The Project is also producing "John Kander: Hidden Treaures, 1950-2015," a two-CD collection of rarities peppered with unheard demos, including two Kander made in 1950 as a student at Oberlin College and new and classic recordings of overlooked gems. It's out Tuesday, Nov. 17.)
From Kander, Ziemba learned to respect the composer, to really hear the music as written before trying to stylize it, adding her own pyrotechnic trills and riffs. And from both men, she learned the power of stillness.
"If you're singing great material, let the audience do some of the work," she says. "Give them the credit that they're gonna get it without you gesticulating and indicating everything. Just sing. Let it come out of you. Tell the story."
Kander and Ebb won three Tonys telling stories with songs – for "Cabaret," "Woman of the Year" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" – and earned Tony-nominations for their work on eight more.
In the decade since Ebb's death in 2004, Kander has completed three of their unfinished scores – "Curtains" (2007) "The Scottsboro Boys" (2010) and "The Visit," starring Rivera, in 2015, shepherding them to Broadway.
"I was still working with Fred, if you will," Kander says, "writing with Fred's ghost."
More astonishingly, he has continued making music with a new collaborator, Greenwich Village playwright and short-story writer Greg Pierce, an Oberlin alum 51 years his junior.
(Kander is 88, Pierce, 37 – and, coincidentally, the nephew of actor David Hyde Pierce, who starred in "Curtains.")
The two are retuning to Oberlin for a staged reading of their musical "The Landing," on Thursday, Oct. 29, and heading to Cleveland to take in "Perfectly Marvelous" on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
Though in their heyday Kander and Ebb lived four New York City blocks from each other, with Kander frequently out of town at his retreat in the Catskills, Kander and Pierce have had to embrace long-distance improvisation.
"We use the voice memo function on our iPhones, and for an 88-year-old, he is just remarkably sophisticated at technology," says Pierce. "He had an iPhone before I did."
Before meeting through what Kander jokingly calls the "Oberlin mafia," the tight-knit network of artists who share a degree from the bucolic Ohio liberal arts college, Pierce, known for unhurried, intimate family dramas like the riveting two-hander "Slowgirl," had never dreamed of writing a musical, let alone penning one with a master of the from.
"That kind of thing can be so paralyzing, to think of, like, the huge difference in our resumes," says Pierce. "But John makes it really easy to ignore that fact, because when you are in the room with him, he's just incredibly humble and generous.
" . . . You put the ideas out there, and he gets very excited – he has a kind of childlike enthusiasm – and that legendary status totally disappears. He's just a fun guy to work with."
In an interview in mid-October, the man himself was as humble and generous as advertised – and delightfully droll, too – talking about the sublime nature of accidents, writing without a censor and why Robert De Niro was right.
Q: What brought you to Oberlin?
A: Well actually, I went east to college. I'm from Kansas City. I was looking for a good liberal arts school, which had a strong music program. I didn't want to go to a conservatory, because I wanted a more complete education. And my brother went to Antioch, so you can sort of see the predilection of the family.
Oberlin was perfect for me because it was small – it was like 2,200 people when I was there. Right after World War II, campuses all over the place were older than normally now – an entering freshman then was about three years older – and very political. And Oberlin was as close to a truly integrated society as I have ever seen.
Q: How did you start writing with Greg Pierce?
A: It was actually a very specific thing that brought us together. I was sitting in my office, or studio, which is where I am now, and I asked myself a question which I really hadn't asked before which is, "What do I feel like writing?"
And I thought, "Right now I feel like writing something really, really tiny that you could do in your living room. Something for four actors and four instruments."
And . . . I thought, "Well, who do I feel like doing that with?" And Greg was far and away the best story writer that I knew.
I called him and we got together, and we started making stories. [A friend] came and saw a workshop that we did, and he suggested we write a couple more and try to make an evening out of it. And so we did. Lo and behold, we got it produced . . . . It's called "The Landing."
We had such a good time that we wrote another piece called "Kid Victory" that was done in D.C. and will be done in New York a year from now.
And we just finished the first draft of a third piece together [an adaptation of the Jean Giraudoux play "The Enchanted"]. So everything is an accident. I think that's true of most of our lives anyway.
Q: Like when you met Fred Ebb.
A: It was an accident. We were both signed to the same publisher separately. And he said, "Hey, I think you guys should meet each other – I think maybe you'd like each other." That was in 1962, and it went on til he died in 2004.
Q: Now you are writing with a man who is five decades younger. How does that work?
A: It seemed natural. It didn't seem like, "Oh, wow, this is really mysterious and exotic." It just seemed like writing, and it's continued to be that way.
Q: It's chemistry, too, isn't it?
Q: It's like meeting someone you want to spend your life with – you either click or you don't.
A: That's right. The chances of my departing the world before he does are pretty strong, but I think we just wanna keep writing.
Q: Did you have a similar ease working with Ebb?
A: Yeah. It's different in many, many ways, but it's the same of course feeling that you have when you start writing with anybody. It's funny – it's very hard to define. I have lived with the same person for 38 years [husband Albert Stephenson], and it doesn't seem complicated. It's hard to go beyond that.
Q: That's where that elusive chemistry comes in – it's like trying to describe a performance that is extraordinary. Technically, you know why it's extraordinary, but it goes beyond technical greatness, and that's when it gets difficult to describe what's happening as a critic.
A: Right. Yes. That's a very good way of putting it. . . . Very often I read reviews where the writer will say, "Well clearly, this is what they were trying to do," and then they will describe what you were trying to do – and you shake your head and you think, "Sorry."
Q: Speaking of critiques, I know you received a pretty epic one from Robert De Niro.
A: Freddy and I wrote, I think it was five or six songs for the movie "New York, New York," and we went down to play them for Liza [Minnelli] and [director Martin] Scorsese.
De Niro . . . was sitting on a couch almost at the other of the room. I didn't even know he was listening.
We played our songs – Scorsese and Liza liked them a lot. We were just about to leave, and Bobby, over on the couch, waved his arm, and Scorsese said, "Excuse me just a minute," and he went over and talked to him.
It was a very animated conversation in terms of arms, but we couldn't hear what they were saying.
He came back, very embarrassed and said De Niro thinks that the song "New York, New York," a song which is identified with him throughout the movie, is much more lightweight than "But the World Goes 'Round," which is a song identified with Liza. He feels that it weakens his character.
And so Scorsese, in the most apologetic way said, "Would you guys mind taking another shot at it?" Of course we were – I don't know if there's the phrase "high dudgeon" anymore, but if there is, we were in it. Some actor's gonna tell us what's a good song and what's not?
So we went back to Fred's apartment and in about 45 minutes, because we were angry, we wrote this song called "New York, New York" – another one. Anyhow, we brought it back to them. They seemed to like it a lot. The upshot of it is, that's what went into the film, and De Niro was absolutely right.
The earlier song we wrote was really, I don't know if it was an altogether bad song, but it was certainly very light. If you asked me to sing it right now, I couldn't. And the one we wrote afterwards became kinda famous.
Q: You could say that.
A: The thing is that Freddy and I really like to write. There had been several occasions where something like that happened, and we would sometimes play-act – "Really, how can you do this to us?" And then we would leave the room and be tickled to death, because we could go off someplace and write a song, which is what we liked doing.
Q: Both versions of "New York, New York" are on the new CD set. Bill told me he wanted to make sure you were happy with every track. There are 49 of them. Are you happy?
A: This is gonna be hard to answer. Sure I am. I don't think about what I've written in the past very much, I really don't. It's just not what interests me. Once you finish writing something, particularly if it's for the theater and it gets done in the way that you intended, it's like, that's over with.
Sometimes somebody will play me something that we wrote that I simply can't remember at all. I think that's primarily, at least with me, because I'm really interested in what I'm doing right now.
Q: I've read that you've written more than 2,000 songs.
I don't know exactly where that came from. Certainly if I did, and it's very possible that I did, you can't say, "He wrote 2,000 good songs." You just write. Writers write.
When Freddy and I wrote together, we wrote very, very fast, and we tore up very, very fast. But it was sort of a rule, and I don't know how we came to it, that we didn't have a censor sitting on our shoulders when we were writing. If one of us had an idea and it was interesting enough to spend a morning on it, we would write it without feeling that if it wasn't any good that somehow or other we were going to hell.
I think it's just as important to know when you've written something terrible. I think that for us, we just had to keep that pipeline open.
Q: When you were working on a show with Ebb, did the two of you decide on a general overall sound before specific songs were written?
A: The only time I could say that [we did] that was a show like "Cabaret" or "Zorba" or "Chicago" or "Kiss of the Spider Woman," which have recognizable and exotic musical flavors to them.
For "Cabaret," I just listened to lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of German jazz of the '20s, and then I forgot about it, with the hope that the flavor of that would seep into the music.
And the same with "Zorba." I just listened to lots of Greek music, and with "Spider Woman," Latin American music from all sorts of different cultures within Latin America. I didn't do much conscious imitation after that.
If you listen enough and then just take the needle off the disc, it somehow or other would seep into your own personal writing.
Q: Which came first, the music or the lyrics?
A: When I was working with Freddy, it all came at the same time, because we were in the same room at the same time. And he could improvise and rhyme a meter the same way I could improvise at a keyboard.
So what would come first would be maybe a line or maybe a rhythm. The very first thing that was written for "Cabaret" was that little vamp. But there was no rule about it.
With Greg, it's more long-distance. Sometimes we're able to get together, but thank God for the iPhone. It's almost like being in the same room. But he will send me phrases or a chunk of lyric or I will send him a melodic idea, and it's a somewhat different process just because of geography, but still, it's as complete a collaboration as you can make it.
Collaboration is a major, major, major thing to me. When you get finished with whatever you're doing, it should sound like one person.
Q: Of the 14 shows you and Fred had produced on Broadway . . .
A: God, that's a lot.
Q: Ha! Which of those shows do you think best captured the Kander and Ebb collaboration?
A: Oh, I really can't answer that. I mean, there are pieces I love more than others, some pieces that failed commercially that I think of as better work than pieces that were commercially successful.
Q: Can you talk about some of those?
A: Sure. I think "Steel Pier" was a piece which I admire to this day tremendously. "The Visit" is one of them, but that's very recent, too.
I just think we got better. I think "The Rink" [with Rivera and Liza Minnelli] was a very strong piece. And I think, without going into it, some of the pieces we got good reviews on were weaker.
Q: Fair enough. When we meet, you can whisper those titles in my ear.
A: Then I'll have to kill you.
Q: But it will have been worth it! The stories you're dawn to seem to be provocative, off-kilter, questioning. Did you and Fred consciously find yourselves drawn to stories like that?
A: We were just interested in writing pieces that we were interested in, that make you feel like writing, that have color and emotional challenges in them.
You know what's really hard? What's really hard is writing boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. That's really hard to do.
I remember we were just sitting in Fred's room once, we weren't even talking about what we wanted to do next, and he said, "Kiss of the Spider Woman." And I said, "Yeah!"
The next thing we did is, we called Hal Prince and we just said the title, and he said, "Yes!"
And everybody after that thought that was the worst idea they had ever heard of. But for the three of us, it was kind of obvious. God, all of that color, all of that passion. It's those elements that make you want to write.
Performances of "Perfectly Marvelous: The Songs of John Kander" are 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1, at the Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square, Cleveland. Tickets: $35-$50. Go to playhousesquare.org or call 216-241-6000.