This week, we’re taking a closer look at John Kander, one of our 2013 Letter of Distinction award recipients. Kander is an iconic Broadway composer whose career has spanned seven decades. His revolutionary musicals created with lyricist Fred Ebb tackled unprecedented and often uncomfortable topics such as the rise of Nazism, racism in the American south, the corruption of the legal system, and prison torture in Latin America. Never didactic, Kander & Ebb’s musicals elucidated difficult subject matter by always entertaining and their songs went on to become major hit records and also helped propel the careers of Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, and many others.
John Kander was born in Kansas City, Missouri on March 18, 1927. Kander began studying music as a child and in his early career worked as a conductor and accompanying pianist. Kander attended Oberlin College before earning a Master’s degree at Columbia University where he was a protégé of Douglas Moore and studied composition with Jack Beeson. While he loved classical music, particularly opera, he was obsessed with musical theatre.
An auspicious chain of events led to Kander’s career as one of the most successful Broadway composers. After working on Broadway as a pianist for the rehearsals of West Side Story and the auditions for Gypsy, Kander was asked to write the dance arrangements for the show Irma La Douce. Then, in 1962, his first original musical, A Family Affair, was produced on Broadway. Although it ran for a mere 65 performances, it marked the directorial debut of Harold Prince. Kander’s collaborators on the show, the brothers James and William Goldman, also went on to important careers. (James wrote the hit Broadway play The Lion in Winter as well as the book for Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies; William remains an extremely sought-after screenwriter whose credits include All the President’s Men and The Princess Bride.) Later that year Kander met lyricist Fred Ebb and began a songwriting collaboration that would last for more than half a century.
Kander & Ebb were practically an instant success. Only months after they began writing together, a charismatic young singer named Barbra Streisand recorded two of their songs; their song “My Coloring Book” was Streisand’s second released single. Harold Prince hired them for his new Broadway show Flora, The Red Menace which was the debut of another singing star, Liza Minnelli. But it was Kander & Ebb’s second Broadway musical, Cabaret, that permanently established them in the pantheon of the Great White Way. All in all, they created 16 musicals together including such classics as Zorba, Chicago, Woman of the Year, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. After Ebb’s death in 2004, Kander completed their final collaboration, The Scottsboro Boys, which thus far has had six productions around the country. Their writing for films has been no less notable. In addition to the highly successful film adaptations of their shows Cabaret and Chicago, they wrote five new songs for Streisand’s 1975 Funny Girl sequel, Funny Lady. One year later, the title song for the film musical New York, New York, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Minnelli and Robert De Niro, became their biggest hit since “Cabaret” and has gone on to be the unofficial anthem of New York City. Kander’s work has received three Tony Awards, two Emmy Awards, and two Grammy Awards.
Never one to rest on his laurels, last year at age 85 Kander teamed up with 34-year-old playwright Greg Pierce to create The Landing, a collection of three one-act musicals which was presented by the Vineyard Theatre.
John On NewMusicBox
In May 2010, Frank J. Oteri interviewed John for that month’s Cover Feature. You can read and watch the multi-part Cover below, or over on NewMusicBox. (And read Frank’s reflection on our capacity for “bursting into song”, inspired by this Cover, here.)
Watch & listen
As the NewMusicBox team prepped for the above Cover feature, they discovered a treasure trove of online video footage from just about every musical John Kander and Fred Ebb created together. Here are some of our favorites. You can catch the rest over on NewMusicBox here.
Rare archival footage from the original 1975 Broadway production of Chicago.
Liza Minnelli performs “City Lights” on the 1978 Tony Awards.
And here’s a charming little video of John and Fred Ebb performing “All That Jazz.”