John Kander (born 1927) is a composer who has produced award-winning work for theater, film, and television. He is best known for his collaborative efforts with lyricist Fred Ebb. For almost 40 years the partners have produced hits for Broadway, such as Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. In television they are best known for their musical productions with actress, singer, and dancer Liza Minnelli.
John Harold Kander was born on March 18, 1927 in Kansas City, Missouri to Harold and Berenice (Aaron) Kander. He was exposed to music at an early age. Kander believed that a bout of tuberculosis as a baby, which had kept him isolated from other people, had actually helped him develop his sense of sound. At age six he began taking piano lessons from a woman in the neighborhood. Kander spent many evenings with his parents and brother playing and singing.
Kander's formal musical training began at Oberlin College. While still a student he composed his first theater scores for Second Square and Opus Two in 1950 and Requiem for Georgie in 1951. In that same year Kander received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin. He went on to attend Columbia University where he earned a Master of Arts degree in 1954. During the summers of 1955 to 1957 he worked as the choral director and conductor of the Warwick Musical Theatre in Rhode Island. Kander began to work steadily as a pianist in 1956 when he landed a job for the pre-Broadway run of The Amazing Adele and An Evening with Beatrice Lillie in Florida.
The Big Break
Kander believed that his big break in New York came by accident. He went to a club in Philadelphia after seeing a performance of West Side Story. By chance he happened to meet the pianist who asked Kander to substitute for him while he went on vacation. The stage manager for West Side Story then asked Kander to play the auditions for her next show Gypsy. During the auditions Kander met the choreographer, Jerry Robbins, who then suggested that Kander actually write the dance music for the show in 1959. After that experience he wrote dance arrangements for Irma la Douce in 1960.
Kander made his Broadway debut in 1962 with a score for the musical A Family Affair, which was produced at the Billy Rose Theatre. While the show was not a success, it nonetheless led to future successes for Kander. The producer of this show, Harold Prince, would work with Kander again. A year later, in 1963, Kander was introduced to lyricist Fred Ebb by the legendary music publisher Tommy Volando. Ebb had been writing songs for nightclub acts and television shows. He had also had an unsuccessful Broadway debut with Morning Sun. Kander and Ebb began to work together and their first song, My Coloring Book, was nominated for a Grammy award.
Kander and Ebb's first theatrical collaboration, the Golden Gate never opened on Broadway. However, the score convinced Harold Prince, the producer from A Family Affair (1962), to hire the pair for his next production called Flora, the Red Menace. The show opened at the Alvin Theatre in 1965. While it was not a hit, the experience solidified the team of Kander and Ebb. The show was the Broadway debut for the young Liza Minnelli, who would also work with Kander and Ebb again.
Kander and Ebb worked with Harold Prince the following year on the production that brought the pair fame. On November 20, 1966 Cabaret opened at the Broadhurst Theatre and ran for 1,166 performances. The story about a relationship between a German cabaret performer and an American writer in pre-Nazi Berlin was based on the book Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood and the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten. The show won the 1966 Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best musical and Kander and Ebb won for best score. In 1972 Cabaret was adapted to film starring Liza Minnelli and won several Oscars. The play was revived at the Imperial Theatre in 1987 with some of the original cast returning to their same roles. It was revived again in 1998 when it won another Tony for best revival.
After the success of Cabaret the partnership of Kander and Ebb was strengthened and they continued to work together on Broadway. In 1968 they wrote the music for The Happy Time, produced at the Broadway Theatre, and for Zorba, produced at the Imperial Theatre. In 1971 the team wrote music for 70, Girls, 70 at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Their next big Broadway success came in 1975 with the help of Bob Fosse and Chicago. This musical was based on a 1926 play written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. It was a story about a chorus girl who murdered her husband and then used the ensuing trial to boost her show business career. The show opened on June 3, 1975 at the 46th Street Theatre and ran for 898 performances. It starred Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach and included the popular songs All That Jazz and Razzle Dazzle. While the musical was nominated for 11 Tony awards, it did not win any because of the overwhelming success of A Chorus Line. However, the show was revived again in 1997 and won six Tony awards, including best revival, best choreography, and best direction.
Kander and Ebb continued their collaboration with The Act in 1978. They received their second Tony award in 1981 for Woman of the Year. That production won three other Tony awards, including one for actress Lauren Bacall. In 1984 the duo worked on The Rink for the Martin Beck Theatre, which starred Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera. While The Rink did not do well on Broadway, Kander considered it one of his favorite musicals because the songs were very emotional.
Success returned to Kander and Ebb with The Kiss of the Spider Woman, a play based on the novel El Beso de la Mujer Arana by Manuel Puig about two men in a Latin American prison. The show was produced in Toronto, Canada in 1990 and then at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London in 1992. It made its Broadway debut on May 3, 1993 at the Broadhurst Theatre where it ran for 906 performances. Kander and Ebb won a Tony award for best musical score and actress Chita Rivera also won for her role. The show also won a New York Drama Critics award for best musical.
Kander and Ebb's next two productions were not as critically acclaimed. In 1997 they wrote the music for Steel Pier, a play about a dance marathoner during the depression. In 1999 they wrote the music for Over and Over, a play based on the book The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder. In 2000 Kander and Ebb were working on a new musical together called The Visit based on a play by Friedrich Durrenmatt.
Film and Television Scores
Kander's career has not been limited to theater. He has written scores for several films. These include: Something for Everyone (1969), A Matter of Time (1976), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Still of the Night (1982), Blue Skies Again (1983), Places in the Heart (1984), I Want to Go Home (1989), and Billy Bathgate (1991). He also collaborated with Ebb for one of their most famous accomplishments, New York, New York (1977). The duo also wrote music for Cabaret (1972), Funny Lady and Lucky Lady (1975), and French Postcards (1979).
Kander and Ebb also collaborated on music for several television specials. In 1974 they won an Emmy award for their work on Liza with 'Z' and the soundtrack also won a Grammy award. They won another Emmy in 1993 for Liza Minnelli in London, Steppin' Out. The partners also worked with Minnelli on Goldie and Liza Together (1980), Standing Room Only: Liza in London (1986), Liza Minnelli: A Triple Play (1988), and Liza Minnelli Live! From Radio City Music Hall (1992). Additionally, the duet created music for Shirley MacLain's Gypsy in My Soul (1976), Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980), Breathing Lessons (1995) and The Boys Next Door (1995). Kander and Ebb also wrote music for two Academy Awards presentations in 1988 and 1993.
Awards and Impact
In addition to his Tony, Grammy, and Emmy awards, Kander has received other public acknowledgements for his contributions to music. He received honorary doctorate degrees from Oberlin College in 1988 and Niagara University in 1994, where he is also a guest lecturer. In 1996 he received the President's Award from the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. In 1998 both Kander and Ebb were Kennedy Center Honorees and in 2000 they were awarded the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in musical theater by the York Theatre Company of New York City.
For almost four decades Kander and Ebb have been writing music together for theater, film, and television. Their collaboration is a true partnership. As Kander explained, the two always work together in the same room at the same time when they are writing. In a February 1997 article in American Theatre, Marilyn Stasio wrote that "The two artists who do not always agree with each other have nevertheless maintained a perfect balance in their work. They complement each other as Kander's lyricism sweetens Ebb's wit and Ebb's cynicism toughens up Kander's raging romanticism."
While the two artists have been successful in many endeavors, they have left the biggest impression on Broadway. As Kander stated in a February 1997 article with Marilyn Stasio in American Theatre, "if you're going to write on a canvas of some size, the Broadway theatre is still the only place that offers you that opportunity." They have created a unique style of musical theater that is characterized by youthful joy and romanticism. In an April 1997 article in the New York Times, Ethan Mordden wrote, "Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb celebrate the Big Break, the American love of show biz, making it, performance. Their musicals may be set in Germany, Greece, or South America, may defy Fascism or flirt with death. But at the center of their art lies a love of the talent-take-all wonder of entertainment."
Broadway Song and Story: Playwrights/Lyricists/Composers Discuss Their Hits, edited by Otis J. Guernsey, Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1985.
American Theatre, February 1997, p. 10.
New York Times, April 13, 1997, p. 4.
Variety, September 27, 1999, p. 157.
"John Kander," http://www.niagara.edu/theatre/faculty/kander.html (February 17, 2001).
"The Kennedy Center Honors," http://kennedy-center.org/honors/history/honoree/kander-ebb.html (February 17, 2001).
"The Music of Kander and Ebb: Razzle Dazzle," http://www.wnet.org/gperf/features/html/meet-meet.html (February 17, 2001).