Kander & Ebb on showstoppers, 'Class' from 'Chicago,' working together

Fred Ebb, who died Sept. 11, 2004, gave his final interview at a June 15 press conference that year at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. In a Q&A conducted by Harold Prince, Ebb, along with John Kander, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, commemorated the library’s acquisition of their respective archives regarding such seminal works of the American musical theater as “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “She Loves Me,” “Fiorello!” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

As Kander recently pointed out, “Fred was in especially high form that day.” As the two songwriters made abundantly clear in the interview, they can’t do it alone, to paraphrase their song from “Chicago.” Herewith are a number of comments Ebb and Kander shared with the press at the library.

On writing popular tunes for a musical:

Ebb: “I think if you sit down and write a musical today with your eye on a pop hit, you might as well kill yourself. I wouldn’t know how to do that. If it happens, and it has happened to us, it’s like a happy accident. It’s like when you’re out-of-town and you’re in the room with the dreaded producer who tells you, ‘Guys, what we need here is a showstopper’ — kill him. You can’t go home and write a showstopper. You can go home and do the best you can. And Bob Fosse told us, ‘Go home and write a showstopper.’ I would have liked on a number of occasions to kill Bob Fosse. You can’t sit in a room and say, ‘John, let’s write a showstopper.’ “

On writing the showstopper “Class” for “Chicago”:

Ebb: “I didn’t think it was funny — although I wrote it — and I really didn’t want to do it, and I wouldn’t perform it at what amounted to backers’ auditions, and I wouldn’t let (Kander) do it, no. But (he) put it in the show because you like it. And the opening night in — where did we open? — Philadelphia. There’s Mary McCarty, and there’s Chita Rivera, and the number begins and I’m in the back of the theater, and the number starts, and there’s a stairway down to the men’s room, and when the number starts I’m in the men’s room. I’m terrified of that number, because I’m positive it’s gonna tank. I’m sure it is not funny and I am down there listening. And then I hear a little bit of a laugh, and then I hear a little bit more of a laugh, and now I’m creeping up. And now we got a good, hearty laugh, and now I am in the theater! And the number does wonderfully well, everything John assured me it would be, and it was a very successful number, and I was wrong, I was dead wrong. It was an illustration of how wrong you can be. And I don’t know if that was what happened, he’ll probably tell you ‘no.’ But I have been right on other occasions where John didn’t like the number, and you gotta go with it. He’s smart — once in a while — and if he loved a number dearly, I would always say, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ And I’m sure he feels that way about me, too.”

On how much thought they give to what theatergoers want to see:

Kander: “Fred says that he gives a lot of thought to it.”

Ebb: “Sure, I want to communicate.”

Kander: “At the same time, you were the one who came up with the title ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman,’ and I said yes, and the next person we called…”

Ebb: “I didn’t come up with the title, I read a book.”

Kander: “This collaboration — we’re reaching a historic moment right here!”

Ebb: “I’m going to call Cy Coleman when I go home!”

Kander: “He’s been threatening me with that for 40 years! Anyway, Fred came up with the idea of ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman,’ and I said yes. The next person we called was Harold Prince. We told him the title and he said, ‘Yes’ — literally, that’s what happened. And after that, everybody said, ‘That is the worst idea for a musical I’ve ever heard,’ and I’m sure if we had been really worried about ‘are we doing something that the public is going to like?’ we would never have touched it. But the fact is, it was something that we wanted to do, and so Fred saying that he gives a lot of thought to the commercial possibility of the show…”

Ebb: “Not commercial, but I care when we write it that I can communicate my feeling about it to the people who will watch it, see it, hear it…”

Kander: “Right.”

Ebb: “…and understand the passion I felt for it.”

On which comes first, the lyrics or the music:

Kander: “Fred and I, for most of what we produce, work in the same room at the same time. Everybody works differently, every team works differently, but for the most part it’ll be us improvising at the same time.”

Ebb: “We walk into the room, and he’s John Kander and I’m Fred Ebb, and then we do this [puts hands together into a ball] and what comes out of that room is Kander & Ebb.”

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