A song that shows range

One of the musical theatre’s greatest living composers celebrates his 90th birthday today. So, a few words about John Kander. We’ve met on many occasions, and working with him, playing his piano in his home is one of my most cherished memories. He is kind and generous, gentlemanly and humble. But the most amazing thing, I think, is that he keeps going. There’s a new Kander musical playing in New York right now (Kid Victory) and I’m hard pressed to think of another Broadway composer who’s created new work at this age. God knows what he’ll write in his nineties, but I’m looking forward to it.

There are a couple of things everybody says about Kander & Ebb and I hate restating the obvious. But Kander and his brilliant lyrical collaborator Fred Ebb had no fear: They were willing to take on topics nobody else would think of turning into a musical. Unpleasant parts of history get combined with sprightly old-fashioned Broadway tunes and somehow, sometimes, the combination works. Of course, there’s their masterpiece, Cabaret. We’re instantly charmed by the razzmatazz of the Kit Kat Klub, and, over the course of the show, that seductive music works on us. As Hitler gains power, we feel what the characters feel, that this evil has snuck up on us while we were enjoying a merry dance. Similarly audacious was using the trappings of a minstrel show to tell the appalling tragedy of The Scottsboro Boys. Think how easily that idea could have gone south, using a form now considered offensive to add energy and humor to an expressionist depiction of a miscarriage of justice. Prisons are prominent in a number of Kander & Ebb productions: Kiss of the Spiderwoman is set entirely in a South American cell. But the characters keep their sanity by recalling the music of their lives outside.

The other thing is that Kander is the vamp king. The introductions to his refrains are infectious, and convey delight. Think of Wilkommen or When You’re Good To Mama; the first bars of All I Care About Is Love could be a song in itself.

One of the hardest of his vamps to play, in my experience, is the sixteenth-note riot leading into Colored Lights. That’s one of the songs I had to play on his piano as he coached one of my students. He couldn’t have been more gracious in helping me with my struggle, playing it himself, saying, just run your fingers over those keys with a little swell, like waves coming in from the ocean.

Allow me to clear up a myth about the American musical with more Broadway performance than any other: Chicago was a hit the first time around. It opened the same season as A Chorus Line – one of those dancers chose to ditch the Michael Bennett project for the Bob Fosse – so it didn’t win at the Tonys, though there were eleven nominations. Still, it was a very hot ticket, and ran for a long time, yet, for some reason a lot of people believe it was some sort of a flop. Of course, everything seems like a flop compared to the revival, which has been running more than twenty years on Broadway and counting. I saw the original production: a flower thrown by Gwen Verdon landed in the lap of my friend sitting next to me. In high school, a bunch of friends wanted to perform Cell Block Tango but couldn’t acquire the music, so I transcribed the whole thing – a painstaking process that I’d only undergo for a song I dearly loved.

My favorite Kander tune has always been Why Should I Wake Up? At first glance, it seems a plain 1960s ballad, alternating between a major seventh on the tonic and a minor seventh on the second note of the scale, like a lot of tunes of the era. But after the lyric “euphoric state” the accompaniment surprises with a flat fifth. The music tells us there’s an evil undercurrent beneath this romantic fantasy. And it’s subtle enough that listeners don’t recognize what’s happening. Another ballad that uses the flat fifth, If You Leave Me Now, got cut before The Happy Time opened. It’s gorgeous – I cry every time I play it – but, I suppose, had too little to do with the show’s Quebec setting.

Music should direct our imaginations to a specific time and place. The opening strain of Zorba transports us to Greece. A measure of Steel Pier gets us to the Atlantic City boardwalk during the depression. Or the pounding organ waltz of The Rink and we’re on a different pier on the other coast. In thinking about Kander’s amazing career, I’m reminded of his song, Don’t Leave, which mentions so many places around the world. Not to be confused with Don’t Go, which is rapturous, and was created for a long-forgotten revisal of Cabaret.

Since the original Cabaret is such a brilliant and moving entertainment, the mere existence of a revisal sticks in my craw. To me, it’s a horrible shame that most people know Cabaret from the strange rewrite where the American bumpkin is more into Sally Bowles’ green nail polish than her erogenous zones, making an abortion far less emotional than it had been previously. The only saving grace is the score. And you get to hear I Don’t Care Much.

I’m a sucker for minor key waltzes, and sitting on the second note of the minor scale is a form of harmonic propulsion that’s catnip to me. Once, at a party, Kander & Ebb were challenged to improvise a song. “What should the song be called?” Ebb asked. “I Don’t Care Much” was the response, and, legend has it, Kander instantly launched into a minor oom-pah-pah. Amazingly, they later wrote this down as the first draft of a song they intended for Sally, around the time of that abortion. That was cut from the original. The hit revisal robs it of its piquancy, weirdly giving it to a male narrator.

My inability to embrace Cabaret Redux makes me seem old and out of touch, like someone who’d carp “They don’t write ‘em like they used to.” But Kander does. Here in the twenty-first century, Kander still gives us melodies as hummable as anything from the Golden Era.

And, of course, he’s one of the great composers of the tail end of that era. So, my happy birthday wish quotes Ebb, and one of the first songs he and Kander wrote together:

It’s a fact you can quote
Best old goat is good old goat
Happy New Year
My dear friend

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