Fred Ebb (born 1932) is the lyricist half of the award-winning songwriting team of Kander and Ebb. Partners since the early 1960s, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have collaborated on some of the greatest musical creations ever to grace the American stage including the classic crowd pleasers Chicago and Cabaret.
Ebb's long and prolific career has encompassed writing lyrics for the stage, the silver screen, and television, in addition to directing and producing. He has amassed Tony awards on Broadway, Academy Awards for movie work, and Emmys for his work for television. His songs have helped launch careers and have been sung by legends like Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Robert Goulet, Gwen Verdon, and Chita Rivera.
The classic Kander and Ebb sound was described by another collaborator and admirer, author David Thompson ( Steel Pier ). The music is "a little sassy and with mustard," wrote Thompson. The duo's signature songs include "Cabaret," "New York, New York," "Maybe This Time," "All That Jazz," and "How Lucky Can You Get." The music is lively and the lyrics are sophisticated, witty, and sometimes barbed. The theatrical works for which Kander and Ebb wrote scores tackle dark and controversial subjects not usually associated with musical theater. Their first hit, Cabaret, dealt with anti-Semitism in Nazi-era Berlin; its female lead underwent an abortion. Chicago cynically suggested that a cold-blooded killer could get away with anything provided a convincing lawyer was on hand. Kiss of the Spider Woman set prison torture and homosexuality to music. "Kander and Ebb combine razzmatazz with a political conscience, and make brazen spirits seem a kind of moral courage," wrote David Richards in The Washington Post. Despite the fame that has come with their nearly 50 successful years together, Kander and Ebb remain "the two nicest guys in show business," according to Thompson.
No Early Hint of Musical Genius
There is little in Ebb's background that would have portended a distinguished lifelong career in music. He was born into a poor family in a New York City tenement on April 8, 1932. He told David Thompson in a 1997 interview for television's "Great Performances" that growing up, "There was no music in my house. Nobody played the radio. Nobody sang. I developed a love of music independently." He fell in love with theater after he saw Al Jolson perform on Broadway in a musical entitled "Hold Onto Your Hats." "I loved the fact that it was live—that it was real, even though it was all illusion," Ebb told Thompson.
Ebb told Barbara Rowes of People magazine that as a young boy he was an optimist and a daydreamer. He liked to pretend he was a rich boy living in a grand home on Long Island or that he was movie star Cary Grant, signing autographs for fans. "The point is," he told Rowes, "I didn't want to be me." His mother, Anna Evelyn (Gritz), a woman with a more practical bent, tried to bring the boy down to earth. She "used to tell me I looked at the world through rose-colored eyes," Ebb recalled. When Ebb was fourteen years old, his father, Harry, died. After his death, it was discovered that the senior Ebb's best friend had been embezzling from the family's dry goods business for years. Ebb and his mother were left practically penniless.
Ebb rallied to become valedictorian at DeWitt Clinton High School. When he informed his mother that he wanted to become a writer, she replied "that and a dime would get me on the subway." She convinced him to enroll instead at New York University (NYU) to study accounting. "Accountants never starve," she counseled him. At age 18 he proposed marriage and was accepted, but the young lady broke off the relationship to marry a dentist. Ebb remained a lifelong bachelor.
Ebb attended both NYU and Columbia University, where he changed his major to English literature and earned a Master's degree in 1957. He supported himself by working as a trucker's helper for a hosiery company. He worked a midnight shift authorizing credit in a department store. He also did a stint as a baby shoe bronzer. Upon graduating, Ebb headed West with a portfolio of short stories he hoped to sell to the movies, but he was unable to get steady work. Within a year he returned to New York and took a job selling giftware for his uncle. "From the back I looked exactly like Willy Loman," Ebb recalled in his interview with Rowes. But he yearned to be a songwriter.
"One night," he told Thompson, "I was pouring my heart out to a friend, a lady trumpeter named Patsy Vamos. I was telling her about how much I loved the musical theater and wished to be a part of it. But I didn't have a notion how to do that." Vamos introduced him to a professional song-writer named Phil Springer, who agreed to take Ebb on as a student. Their first song, Heartbroken, was recorded by Judy Garland. "It was a rhythm song that suited Judy because it had some real belt notes in it. "I'm very fond of belt singing as most people know," Ebb told Thompson. Garland's recording bombed, but another early Ebb and Springer song, "Santa Baby," became a hit for Eartha Kitt. Over the next several years Ebb wrote for nightclub acts, revues, and for the satirical television show "That Was the Week That Was."
A Life-Changing Partnership
In the early 1960s music publisher Tommy Valando introduced Ebb to pianist and choreographer John Kander. Both men were smarting from recent failures (Ebb had written lyrics for the Off-Broadway musical Morning Sun,, a flop, and Kander had composed music for the Broadway play, A Family Affair, also a flop). There was an instant rapport between the two. "We came to each other fresh from our failures," Ebb told a Kennedy Center interviewer. "It was a case of instant communication and instant songs." They composed their first song together, "Perfect Strangers," on the spot. Kander told People magazine: "A musician is supposed to improvise, but it's almost unheard-of for a lyricist. Yet Fred can improvise in rhyme and meter the way I can at the keyboard." Kander and Ebb's first hit was the song "My Coloring Book," introduced by Kaye Ballard, made popular by Sandy Stewart on "The Perry Como Show" and recorded by Barbra Streisand. Streisand introduced Kander and Ebb's "I Don't Care Much" in 1963.
Kander and Ebb next collaborated with Richard Morris on Golden Gate, a play that did not open in San Francisco as planned but did so impress influential director-producer Harold Prince that he asked the pair to write the songs for the Broadway musical, Flora the Red Menace. Flora, a satire on bohemians, was set in 1930s Greenwich Village and marked the Broadway debut of seventeen-year-old Liza Minnelli, who would become Ebb's friend and frequent muse. The play opened to fairly tepid reviews and closed after 87 performances, but it netted Minnelli a Tony award for outstanding actress. The day after Flora opened in May 1965, Prince met with Kander and Ebb to make plans for their next project, Cabaret, a musical adaptation of John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera, which in turn was based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories.
Cabaret Brought Fame
Cabaret, the work that made Kander and Ebb famous, opened in November 1966 and was a major critical and box office success. Cabaret is the story of an American performer living in Berlin between the two world wars and reflects the anti-Semitism and growing political tumult of those times. Cabaret had a Broadway run of 1,166 performances and captured the Tony Award as the season's best musical. The original cast recording won a Grammy Award and the 1972 film adaptation won eight Academy Awards. Years later, in a panel discussion involving several of the people who worked with him on Cabaret,, Ebb said about the play and the nature of the collaborative process: " Cabaret is one of the happiest memories I have because [the final product] was mostly what I had in mind, and I think mostly is the best you can do."
Kander and Ebb worked steadily together in the years that followed, producing the musicals The Happy Time (Broadway opening, January 1968), Zorba (November 1968), 70 Girls 70 (April 1971), Chicago (June 1975), The Act (October 1977), Woman of the Year (March 1981; it earned four Tony Awards, including one for its star, Lauren Bacall, and another for Kander and Ebb), The Rink (February 1984), Kiss of the Spider Woman (London, October 1992; another Tony Award-winner for its star Chita Rivera and for the songwriting duo), and Steel Pier (April 1997). Interspersed with their work on Broadway musicals were several projects for television, including the classics "Goldie and Liza Together" (with Goldie Hawn), "Liza Minnelli Live From Radio City Music Hall," "Ol' Blue Eyes is Back" (with Frank Sinatra), and "Baryshnikov on Broadway." Kander and Ebb also produced songs for movies, including Funny Lady and the title track for New York, New York.
There were some disappointments for the songwriting team. Zorba was a box-office failure, and 70 Girls 70 closed after only 36 performances. Steel Pier, a story of love and corruption that took place behind-the-scenes at a 1930s Atlantic City dance marathon, was panned by the critics and closed after two months. Two Kander and Ebb musicals had the distinction of losing the most Tony Awards (11), Chicago in 1976 and Steel Pier in 1997. Chicago unfortunately had to compete with A Chorus Line, which dominated the musical categories with nine awards. Ironically, Steel Pier saw several of its nominations lose to the Broadway revival of Chicago, which, on its second go-around, took home six awards. Critic David Lefkowitz wrote of the 1995 Broadway revival of Chicago :" Chicago 's value as entertainment now comes chiefly from the way fine dancers and larger-than-life theater personalities can mix outrageous camp and deadpan seriousness, not to mention the way Kander and Ebb's score holds together as a unified—and awesomely zippy—song cycle." Lefkowitz also raved about the 1996 revival of Cabaret, calling it "the most wrenching, thrilling musical of the season, a major event, likely to be studied by musical theater directors for years to come."
Kander and Ebb continued working throughout the 1990s. In 1998 they were among six people chosen as Kennedy Center honorees for "the unique and invaluable contribution they have made to the cultural life of our nation," in the words of Kennedy Center Chairman James A. Johnson. On June 5, 2000, Kander and Ebb were presented with the eleventh annual Oscar Hammerstein Award at York Theatre Company's annual fundraiser. Among the York's productions is Musicals in Mufti, a mounting of small revivals of "underrated" musicals. Kander and Ebb's 70 Girls 70 was a 1999 revival at the York.
For years Ebb has lived and worked in an apartment overlooking New York's Central Park. He decorates his apartment with memorabilia and German Expressionist paintings and drawings, and he collects record albums as a hobby.
Broadway Song and Story: Playwrights/Lyricists/Composers Discuss Their Hits, edited by Otis L. Guernsey Jr., Dodd, Mead, 1985.
Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1978.
Contemporary Dramatists, Third ed., St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre, Dodd, Mead, 1976.
Who's Who in the Theatre, Volume 1, Gale, 1981.
Architectural Digest, November 1995, p. 204-5.
Backstage, May 26, 2000, p. 2; November 17, 2000, p. 34.
People, September 17, 1979, pp. 71-72+.
"Cabaret." Total Theater Online: Criticopia Broadway. http://www.totaltheater.com/criticopiabroadway(January 1, 2001).
"CurtainUp's Sneak Peek at the New Kander and Ebb Musical Steel Pier. " CurtainUp Main Page, http://www.curtainup.com/steelpie.html (December 17, 2000).
"Fred Ebb," E Index Biographies of Composers and Lyricists, http://nfo.net/.CAL/te1.html (December 17, 2000).
"John Kander-Fred Ebb." The Kennedy Center Honors, http://kennedy-center.org/honors/history/honoree/kanderebb.html (December 12, 2000).
"The Music of Kander and Ebb: Razzle Dazzle." The Class of 1960 by David Thompson," Musical Theater A Look at the Work. http://www.wnet.org/gperf/feature3/html/look_look.html (December 12, 2000).