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Broadway composer John Kander is a living legend. With his late partner, Fred Ebb, he wrote the scores for the smash-hit musicals "Cabaret" and "Chicago," as well as the enduring anthem "New York, New York." Now at age 86, Kander has a new writing partner and a new musical, "The Landing," opening off-Broadway tomorrow. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: For a guy with such an illustrious history, John Kander is not terribly nostalgic. He's a writer and he likes to write. And despite the pain of losing a collaborator of over 40 years, he knew the time had come to move on.

JOHN KANDER: Fred and I had a wonderful, long time together and it was a huge part of my life but life goes on. And I never thought about living in the past. I just don't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE LANDING")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) There are numbers all around us and they're changing all the time. Prices go up, the weight of this stool, the sawdust in the plane, the gallons in our pool, the surface of the grass in the shade. They're changing all the time. And you can graph every single one of them.

LUNDEN: So a few years ago, Kander called up Greg Pierce, a young playwright and short-story author he'd been mentoring, and asked him if he wanted to work on a small-scale musical.

KANDER: The idea was to have four actors and four instruments and have it be very, very, very, very, very small.

LUNDEN: And that was OK with Greg Pierce.

GREG PIERCE: When I got that phone call from John, I mean, that was one of the most exciting phone calls I've ever gotten. And the thought had crossed my mind that maybe we could work together. I would never have asked him because of, you know, where I was and where he is. And it's just been a real joy. Every work session has been a joy.

LUNDEN: And working with the 35-year-old playwright has made Kander, 51 years his senior, approach composing with a new vigor.

KANDER: Working together as we do has made me write in a different way. And it's been a great adventure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE LANDING")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) We are whitewater bashing away.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Splashing and pouring through whitewater.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) And everything pouring. We're whitewater.

LUNDEN: "The Landing" is an evening of three small musicals that play like short stories. Each one has a narrator and each ends with a surprising plot twist. In the first story, a bright but lonely young boy befriends a carpenter and learns about the constellations, the mythology behind them, as well as some painful life lessons.

In the second, a woman who loves gangster movies buys a brick from the Saint Valentine's Day massacre and it comes to life, with comic and crazy consequences.

In the third, a gay couple adopts a boy who seems too good to be true and it turns out he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE LANDING")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) And I am so happy.

LUNDEN: Greg Pierce.

PIERCE: Essentially, in these pieces, someone wants something really badly and they don't know what they're in for.

LUNDEN: Walter Bobbie, who directed the hit revival of Kander and Ebb's "Chicago," has directed "The Landing," eliciting finely etched performances from the tiny cast of four playing multiple roles.

WALTER BOBBIE: The consequences to everybody's desires in each of these stories is remarkably different and sometimes both simultaneously sad and romantic. There's a really kind of a lyric quality to these pieces that I found beautiful.

LUNDEN: Bobbie says he was also drawn to the new writing partnership.

BOBBIE: It is immediately a different collaboration. It's not Kander and Ebb light. It's Kander and Pierce completely. And that caught my ear and my attention. You know, the show very often doesn't have songs, and yet, the music continues. And all of a sudden, someone will sing the next line of dialogue, and then they'll go back to talking. And it's just surprising.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE LANDING")

LUNDEN: Regardless of what the critics say after "The Landing" opens at the Vineyard Theatre tomorrow, John Kander has two more projects he's working on with Greg Pierce to keep him busy and in the present.

KANDER: As far as I'm concerned, without dwelling on my age, every once in a while, I think to myself, I better hurry up.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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