Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber may have the longest-running show in Broadway history, but John Kander and Fred Ebb are the longest-running writing team on Broadway.
Their music and lyrics have thrilled both actors and audiences for more than half a century, with shows that generally tackle offbeart material: Flora the Red Menace (Communism), Cabaret (Weimar Germany), Chicago (Vaudeville and murder), The Act (Career vs. Relationship), Woman of the Year (A strong, independent woman) and Steel Pier (Dance Marathons of the 1930s). Cabaret has returned to Broadway four times, while the Encores production of Chicago is the longest running revival in theater history, having played for over 20 years with 8,200-plus performances to its credit.
There are four Kander and Ebb shows that are especially inventive, and should be considered for future local production.
With the triumph that was Cabaret, Kander and Ebb put their faith in producer-director Harold Prince. Their next chosen property was Zorba, based on the novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. Set in a Cretan village, Zorba follows the unlikely friendship of Zorba and Niko, a young man who’s inherited an abandoned mine, and their adventures as they work toward opening it, thereby bringing prosperity to the citizens. They each fall in love with women of the village: (Zorba with Madame Hortense, an aged prostitute, and Niko with a reviled widow.)
The 'Leader' opens the show with an examination of existence, the song “Life is.” The show is filled with positive energy as Zorba expresses his motto to value and embrace life. The score includes such songs as “No Boom Boom,” “Why Can’t I Speak,” and “I Am Free.”
Starring the late Hershel Bernardi, Zorba lasted ten months, and would have played longer, but Bernardi developed vocal problems. I saw the national tour starring John Raitt (The Pajama Game, Carousel), Barbara Baxley (She Loves Me, Nashville) and the legendary Chita Rivera in Milwaukee, and it’s always been a favorite. In 1983, Zorba was revived with its movie leads, Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova (who won an Oscar for her performance). Zorba is a lively, exciting musical that can be produced with a minimal set and found costumes. There are terrific roles for everyone in the ensemble. Zorba’s time is now!
Everything Old is New Again
During the early 1970s, a nostalgia wave hit the U.S. Peter Allen wrote a song about it, “Everything Old is New Again,” and the fashion world brought back Saddle Shoes, Argyle Socks, long dresses and other stunning outfits. Moviegoers were blessed by the return to the screen of classic movies, especially, The Marx Brothers, thanks to the reissue of their 1930 film, Animal Crackers. On Broadway, No, No, Nanette, Irene, Good News and Very Good Eddie were revived, bringing new interest to the music of Vincent Youmans, Ray Henderson and especially Jerome Kern. However, not every show during that period was a revival.
Collaborating with Joe Masteroff (librettist for Cabaret), Kander and Ebb took a delightful play, Breath of Spring (filmed at Ealing Studios in 1960 as Make Mine Mink), into the even more delightful 70, Girls, 70. The story concerns a group of retirees about to be displaced by urban development. One of them has discovered that no one pays attention when the elderly steal something, so the residents plot to rob fur stores and sell the goods themselves. This allows them to buy and refurbish their home, the Sussex Arms Hotel.
70, Girls, 70 was the last Broadway show for Lillian Roth (I’ll Cry Tomorrow, I Can Get It For You Wholesale), Hans Conried (Rocky and Bullwinkle) and David Burns (Hello, Dolly!) who expired onstage while the show was in Philadelphia. The original production lasted a month, but not because it’s a bad show. There were too many similar presentations on Broadway at the time, especially the Sondheim musical, Follies. The score included such gems as “Go Visit Your Grandmother,” “Yes” (later sung by Liza Minnelli in concert), “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” and the exciting title song.
I saw the Encores revival of 70, Girls, 70 with a cast that included Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis, Charlotte Rae, Carleton Carpenter, Carole Cook, Bob Dishy and Robert Fitch, all aging performers themselves. One of the few shows written specifically for an older cast, there are only a couple of younger characters. Casting shouldn’t be difficult. It’s about the real, if whimsical, troubles of Senior Citizens. Give this splendid musical a chance!
First Lady of the Musical Theater
The performer who’s benefitted most from her work with Kander and Ebb is Broadway’s First Lady of the Musical Theater (yes she is!), Chita Rivera. She created the role of Velma Kelly in the first Broadway production of Chicago and won both of her Tony Awards for shows with scores by them. The Rink, which Kander and Ebb wrote especially for her, and the shows mentioned below.
In 1990, the University of New York, Purchase established a development program for new musicals. Three shows were presented. One of which was Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Three years later, with Chita Rivera, Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello, the show opened on Broadway for 904 performances.
With a libretto by Terrence McNally, it’s based on the late Argentinian author Manuel Puig’s novel of the same name. Set in a prison, it concerns Valentin Arregui Paz, a Marxist in poor health who shares a cell with Luis Alberto Molina, a gay window dresser imprisoned as a sexual predator. In order to survive, he relates to Valentin the plots for movies starring the mystifying Aurora, including the terrifying story of a deadly Spider Woman. Valentin counters with stories of his girlfriend, Maria.
At one point, prison authorities ask Molina to spill all he knows about Valentin, using the ruse that Molina’s mother is ill and has been asking for him. Shortly after, Molina has a reaction to poisoned food, meant for his cellmate. Hallucinating, he talks to both his mother and Aurora. Later, after Valentin has been tortured and while trying to protect him, Molina is shot. Finally, he reveals the plot for The Spider Woman, and Aurora arrives to give him her deadly kiss.
With songs like Over the Wall, Dear One, Where You Are, The Morphine Tango, Gimme Love, The Day after That and the title song, Kiss of the Spider Woman is arguably Kander and Ebb’s finest score, rich with music that enhances the story and plot-driven lyrics that are among the best they’ve ever written.
The Minneapolis Musical Theater presented this lively and exciting musical in 2007, and Edward Williams, Jr. was honored for his performance as Molina. If you’re looking for an offbeat, challenging project for actors, directors, designers and audiences, take a look at Kiss of the Spider Woman.
40 Years After Lunt-Fontanne
In 1958, the careers of America’s foremost acting couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, was heading towards retirement. The couple was honored when Broadway’s Globe Theater was renamed the Lunt-Fontanne, and their last Broadway show, Frederich Durrenmatt’s expressionist play, The Visit, was presented in that theater. Following this engagement, they’d retire after 40 years onstage to Ten Chimneys, their estate in Genesee Depot, WI. Now an historic site, a tour of their estate is a magical experience of theater past.
A few years later, The Visit was made into an unsuccessful film with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, but because it required a large cast, the property has been seldom produced since then.
While at first glance, The Visit didn't sing, in 2001, Kander, Ebb and librettist Terrence McNally transformed the property into a vehicle for Angela Lansbury. She turned it down because her husband was ill and later passed on. Chita Rivera was the logical replacement and the show went through one of the longest development processes of all time. Over time it was staged in Chicago, with the late John McMartin playing opposite Rivera. It would’ve moved to Broadway, but September 11 happened. Eventually, McNally revised the script, but its engagement at the Public Theater, starring Rivera and Frank Langella, was cancelled due to lack of funds.
Rivera returned to Broadway in three other shows (including the revival of Nine and her solo show, Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life). Meanwhile, The Visit played the Signature Theater in Arlington, VA. George Hearn played opposite Rivera, one of the last projects he undertook before retiring. A one-act version finally opened on Broadway in 2015 and played for two months. It was the final production for co-star Roger Rees, who passed on shortly after it closed. It’s also, very likely, Rivera’s swan song.
Told almost completely through music, Kander and Ebb surpassed their previous work by creating a score that’s equally operatic, sentimental, character driven and challenging as it advances this remarkable story forward.
It opens with a haunting, foreboding theme that gives way to a lighter waltz, with childlike passages. This becomes music you might hear at Oktoberfest, danced by Liederhosen-clad performers. They’re excited because former resident Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman, has returned to the now desolate town, hoping that she’ll bail them out of bankruptcy.
Claire was forced to leave town in shame when Anton Shell, a shopkeeper, refused to marry her after she became pregnant. Determined to have revenge, Claire married and was widowed several times, thus amassing her wealth. At a dinner in her honor, she’s told about the town’s financial difficulties, but Claire surprises them by relating her version of the story: It is she who owns the town and destroyed its livelihood. She agrees to help them on one condition: that they kill and present her with the corpse of Anton Shell.
At first, the Mayor scoffs at this request, but because of both greed and the hope of a brighter future, the citizens decide they have no choice. Shell makes peace with his fate, as Claire promises him eternal devotion on her island in the Mediterranean.
Smart and edgy, a production of The Visit won’t be easy, but it will give audiences an opportunity to hear a magnificent score and actors at the top of their game a chance to develop performances with the kind of roles that only come along occasionally.
The music of Kander and Ebb is all around us. A television presentation, First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb; a recording of the pair performing their own music, Evening With John Kander & Fred Ebb and of course the CDs from all of their musicals, including the revue, And The World Goes Round (produced recently at the Jungle Theater) are available on CD and DVD.
When Kander and Ebb take us on a journey as the world goes round, it will always be a pleasure.