Opinion
3 min

Paying tribute to John Kander and Fred Ebb

The love never dies for songwriters behind New York, New York and Cabaret

At the risk of outing myself as a nonpareil theatre geek (although, if I’m being honest with myself, the cat may be out of the bag on that one), I remember the first time I heard a Kander and Ebb song the way most people remember their first kiss: it was heady, joyful and a little bit scary . . . but mostly, it felt right. No matter the singer or the band, every word of John Kander’s and Fred Ebb’s lyrics always feels like a perfectly wrapped gift box to me. Finally, on Dec 7 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, I’ll get to open it and see what’s inside.

As an artist-in-residence at the world’s largest LGBT theatre (annual operating budget of about $1.6 million, its own theatre complex and the sexiest staff in theatredom), I’ve been given the gift of exploring every theme and idea I’ve ever wanted to onstage. It was a given that one night would be devoted to the theatre music of Kander and Ebb. They’re justifiably famous for writing Chicago, Cabaret and New York, New York, but in Toronto’s theatre scene, they seem to always be eclipsed by the flashier names or the newer generation.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s great and all, but for every Jesus Christ Superstar there’s a Love Never Dies. Sondheim scores can feel cold and distant, and Ahrens and Flaherty, Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa have yet to really break through with a truly smash hit show. Beyond giving life to Sally Bowles and Broadway’s two best frenemies, Roxie and Velma, Kander and Ebb consistently challenge audience expectations when it comes to art and entertainment. Onstage defecation, prison sex and human rights abuses? They put it to Latin rhythms and won Tony awards for Kiss of the Spider Woman. A prodigal son’s failed nostalgic trip home to his French Canadian village in the 1920s? Robert Goulet won a Tony for singing their songs in The Happy Time. A false accusation of rape against nine black youths and the subsequent racist kangaroo court trial in Alabama? Frame it brilliantly as a minstrel show and it becomes The Scottsboro Boys. This barely touches on their non-theatre work, shaping songs for Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand. As few others have, they’ve literally shaped how our divas and their imitators sound and behave — much of what people think of as Liza traits are actually Fred Ebb’s, and John Kander has perfected the art of the “vamp” and the “pull back,” two musician tricks that tend to drive audiences wild.

The old adage says never meet your heroes, but I’ve been lucky many times over. Meeting Kander socially a few times over the years, I’ve found him to be sweet, caring and generous. Attending the premiere of the Chicago film, he grinned like a kid in a candy store. Hanging back from the air-kissy celebrities and cameras, he asked what my friend and I thought . . . in a roomful of important people, it meant the world to a couple of 22-year-olds that he cared enough to ask. Flash forward a decade, and I had the honour of interviewing him at length about his musical The Visit. A show that mixes dark themes with morbid humour, it has a fascinating and gorgeous score, and hearing from the composer himself about its ins, outs and hidden references made me love it (and him) even more.

Ebb died in 2004, but the magical music of Kander and Ebb lives on. With #KanderAndEbb, I’m eager to find new contexts for their work and highlight songs that are outside their usual canon. They write about love, hardship, sex and humour in equally beautiful and moving ways. Although they have a reputation for writing classic show biz songs, I’d say sincerity is what they do best. Whether it’s about the sparkling “City Lights” of Broadway, the thrill of acquiring expensive new “Yellow Shoes” or helping a loved one survive a brutal beating by telling them “I Do Miracles,” the best way to sing their songs is to sing from the heart. 

I keep telling myself, “No Andrew Lloyd Webber bombast! No Sondheim-style archness!” remembering the thrill of hearing “All That Jazz” and “Maybe This Time.” Maybe someone in the audience will hear a song new to them and fall in love the same way I did. Is that too much to hope for? That’s my sincerity acting up again, and I hope John and Fred wouldn’t mind.