Kander & Ebb: The Names Behind The Name

Michael Waterston, Ordway 5/24/16

You know the shows: Flora the Red Menace, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Act, Fosse, Chicago, and Cabaret. The rollicking, razzle-dazzling stories that helped launch Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera into the stratosphere.

You know the songs: “New York, New York,” “But the World Goes Round,” “Maybe This Time,” “All That Jazz,” and “Isn’t This Better.” The same titles that became soaring staples in Barbara Streisand, Martin Scorsese and Frank Sinatra’s repertoires.

These are all iconic, era-defining works that many would consider to be part of Broadway’s Mount Rushmore. But here are two names you may not be quite as familiar with – John Kander and Fred Ebb. The composer-lyricist duo were responsible for all of the works listed above, and some of the greatest works to ever grace the stage. They were royalty within the theater community, but far from household names.

So who were the names behind the names? Until 1964, they weren’t anything special. John Kander started his career in 1950 as a choral director in Rhode Island, and his composing debut on Broadway was a complete flop titled A Family Affair. Fred Ebb’s career started with a stumble as well. After growing up in what he described as a “music-less house” and developing his love of music later in life, his first Broadway production, Morning Sun, closed after just eight performances.

In 1962, Kander & Ebb were introduced by their mutual music publisher, Tommy Valando, and began collaborating on a piece titled, Golden Gate. The show was never produced, but it did serve as “…basically a test to see if the collaboration was any good,” according to producer-director, and longtime business partner, Harold Prince.

The first official musical that Kander & Ebb brought to the Broadway stage was Flora the Red Menace in 1965. The production also featured the Broadway debut of Liza Minnelli, who would become one of Kander & Ebb’s go-to performers, along with Chita Rivera.

The following year, Kander & Ebb created the show that would establish them as Broadway powerhouses–Cabaret. The show won a Tony Award for Best Musical, while the original cast’s soundtrack recording earned a Grammy Award. The show’s run eventually topped 1,100 performances and inspired a feature film, directed by Bob Fosse, which won eight Academy Awards.

Chicago was an equally successful production in 1975, ending after an impressive run of 936 performances, but the show’s revival in 1996 would propel it to new heights. After becoming the longest-running revival in Broadway history, it made its way to the big screen in 2002. Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and Richard Gere, it earned six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Fred Ebb passed away in 2004 as the duo worked on what would be their final collaboration, Curtains. The show, which is about a series of deaths that take place during a Broadway production, turned out to be hauntingly prophetic. In addition to Fred Ebb, the production also suffered through the passing of its book writer, Peter Stone, and it orchestrator, Michael Gibson.

In 1998, Kander & Ebb were recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors for their contributions to theater and music.

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