A Conversation with Composer John Kander John Kander and songwriting partner Fred Ebb are best known for creating the music behind Cabaret and Chicago and for the song "New York, New York." Liane Hansen visits with Kander at his home studio in Manhattan.
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A Conversation with Composer John Kander

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A Conversation with Composer John Kander

A Conversation with Composer John Kander

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Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb are the heart and soul inside some of Broadway's and Hollywood's most recognizable songs: Cabaret, All That Jazz, New York, New York. Their partnership lasted 40 years and when Fred Ebb died in 2004, they still had four different musicals in the works. John Kander celebrated his 79th birthday this weekend. We were recently invited to visit his townhouse on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Kander greeted us in a cozy basement room with a garden view and a baby grand piano. And he began to play and talk.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHN KANDER (Composer): I've had this piano since I moved to New York in 1951 to go to grad school.

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. KANDER: My folks gave it to me and it cost $425.

HANSEN: When you went to grad school at Columbia University, right?

Mr. KANDER: Um huh.

HANSEN: You have a master's degree in music. So what songs have been conceived here?

Mr. KANDER: Oh gosh. A lot of vamps have been made here.

HANSEN: Define that to me.

Mr. KANDER: A vamp is the music that comes before the actual melody. For instance, Wilkommen starts with a vamp.

(Soundbite of music from Cabaret)

HANSEN: Let's talk a little bit about your work in the theater, in the musical theater, particularly in the four decade long partnership you had with Fred Ebb. The first big show that you did together was Flora, The Red Menace.

Mr. KANDER: Actually Flora was the first show that we ever had produced. And a song in it called A Quiet Thing that is one of the personal favorite songs that Fred and I wrote together. I think it's a wonderful lyric and I think it says something that people just don't think about.

(Soundbite of A Quiet Thing)

Mr. KANDER: You think about when something wonderful happens to you that you're going to jump up and down and yell and scream and ring bells. And it's not, at least here for most of us when something suddenly wonderful happens, it's like you're hit in the stomach for a second. You have to sit down.

HANSEN: Was it a little like that when you met Fred Ebb?

Mr. KANDER: You mean did I get quiet?

HANSEN: All of a sudden like you were hit in the stomach thinking that this is something?

Mr. KANDER: No, we use to...

HANSEN: How did you meet?

Mr. KANDER: We were both signed to the same publisher, and he said I think you two guys should meet each other. I think you'd like each other. And we did, and we were writing right away. It just seemed natural. I must say, without sounding gooey about it, it really stayed that way for 40 years. We just had a good time writing. We were pregnant all the time.

HANSEN: Describe your partnership. How did you complement one another, do you think?

Mr. KANDER: The way we worked, the manner in which we worked, stayed the same basically for 40 years. The curious thing is that both of us are very thin skinned people, but we could say anything to each other.

HANSEN: Are you similar people with similar backgrounds? You were born in Kansas City?

Mr. KANDER: Right.


Mr. KANDER: He's a New Yorker.


Mr. KANDER: I think we were so different that whatever came out of that room was this third creature named Kander and Ebb. And I can't for the life of me tell you who that person was.

HANSEN: Do you listen and remember music?

Mr. KANDER: I'm sure everything that I've heard influences me or has influenced me. I find it very difficult to get music out of my head. Sometimes at night I have to put on some quiet music to go to sleep. Otherwise my own music starts going on in my head and will keep me awake and make me really unpleasant.

HANSEN: Retaining all of these songs in your head. It's like this giant file cabinet you have of music. When you're working on a commission, is it almost as if you pull open a drawer and say this would be appropriate?

Mr. KANDER: No, it's not an intellectual experience at all for me. Usually my hands do it. I always have a feeling if I put my hand on the piano, something will come out. And it does. The fingers seem to have a will or mind of their own. And just as I could improvise at a piano...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KANDER: ...Fred could improvise that way with rhyme and meter. I've never known anybody who could do that. It baffles me. Even when I'm writing my own lyrics, it's not like that. I have to work at it.

HANSEN: Is there an example where you started with a vamp and he all of a sudden started singing lyrics for it?

Mr. KANDER: Actually New York, New York is an example, because you put your hands on the piano and you don't know what they're going to do. And they go...

(Soundbite of music from New York, New York)

Mr. KANDER: ...and that became, when Fred started to improvise the first line of the song...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KANDER: ...and if you want me to explain why that should happen, I have not the vaguest idea in the world.

HANSEN: Was it always easy to get to the end?

Mr. KANDER: Yeah.


Mr. KANDER: That sounds terrible to say. I should say no, we worked and we worked, and we would take homework at night. Not true. We wrote very fast, Fred and I. And we wrote a lot of crap and we did that fast too. But we never didn't have a good time while we were working. A song like New York, New York or Wilkommen probably took maybe a half an hour.

HANSEN: Fred Ebb said that songs can change even while they're being written.

Mr. KANDER: Um huh. That's true.

HANSEN: There's a song that you wrote called Bobo's together.

Mr. KANDER: Right, that's just what I was thinking about.

HANSEN: Yeah, you tell the story.

Mr. KANDER: We were writing a very jaunty song about a bar outside Omaha that we made up called Bobo's, and it was very raggy and very up. And I got a phone call that had to do with the death of an old friend of mine. And the call was to tell me that he went off the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a real blow, and Fred and I talked about it for a while. And then he said why don't we go back to work? Maybe that's the best thing to do. And we went back to writing Bobo's, and all the characters in that bar had been so jaunty and happy, turned out to be people with such sadness inside of them. In spite of the fact that Syd Charese had a kind of happy sound.

(Soundbite of Bobo's)

HANSEN: What about what you were working on when Fred died?

Mr. KANDER: We were working on Minstrel Show at that time. I have high hopes for that because there's something in it to offend absolutely everybody. So we'll have a good time with it. We had about, I'd say about three quarters of the score done. And as far as the new material is concerned, I've sort of tried to channel Fred in my head and write the way I think he writes.

HANSEN: Was it hard for you to get back on the piano bench, as it were?

Mr. KANDER: Well, yes and no. If I think about it, Fred's disappearance is unbelievably traumatic, but the funny thing is, as long as I'm working on pieces that we were working on together, it just does feel like a continuation and not something terribly sad. I think I'll be sad after it's over. Then I probably will find myself affected by his departure in a funny way more than I am now.

Every once in a while I look up or down or wherever the hell he is, and need him or curse him for cutting out like this. But mostly he's, he's around.

HANSEN: Do you go to see Yankee games at Yankee Stadium?


HANSEN: You know what happens at the end of every ballgame up there. If the Yankees win, they play Frank Sinatra's version of New York, New York, and if the Yankees lose, they play Liza Minelli's version of New York, New York.

Mr. KANDER: Why does Liza get the losing one?

HANSEN: I don't know. I don't know, but I want to know, do you get royalties?

Mr. KANDER: I don't know. I think I'll find out about it though.

Right now I'm pissed off for Liza that, that doesn't seem right.

HANSEN: John Kander, I want to thank you so much for inviting us into your home and to sit at your piano and have the chance to talk to you.

Mr. KANDER: Well, I've enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.

HANSEN: Do you want to vamp us out?

Mr. KANDER: Sure, I know one.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KANDER: This piano wrote that too.

HANSEN: Minstrel Show is one of the four projects John Kander started with Fred Ebb before Ebb's death. The others are an original musical called Curtains, a musical based on the Skin Of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, and the musical version of the Frederick Durrenmatt play, The Visit.

By the way, we called the New York Yankees organization to ask about playing New York, New York after the team's home games. Michael Bonner, the director of scoreboard and broadcasting, is responsible for the music at Yankee Stadium. He says both Frank Sinatra's and Liza Minelli's version of the song are played when the team wins and when the team loses. There's more music by Kander and Ebb on our website, NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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