Kander & Ebb still in tune

'Curtains' ushers in final four musicals

When “Curtains” opens on Broadway this week, it doesn’t so much mark the swan song for the long-running theatrical team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb as it marks the launch of four final projects from the duo.

Those projects were in the works at the time of Ebb’s death in 2004, making Kander — who just turned 80 — currently the busiest theatrical composer working on or off Broadway.

Three more Kander & Ebb shows are waiting in the wings, hoping to join the David Hyde Pierce starrer “Curtains” and the 10-year-old revival of “Chicago” on Broadway:

  • “All About Us,” the musicalization of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” is set to world-preem next month at the Westport Country Playhouse (Conn.). Commercial producers are attached to the show, which stars Eartha Kitt, Shuler Hensley, Cady Huffman and Yvette Freeman.

  • “The Visit” will be revisited in September at Signature Theater in Arlington, Va. The show reunites the team that first staged the show at Chicago’s Goodman Theater: writer Terrence McNally, director Frank Galati, choreographer Ann Reinking and star Chita Rivera.

  • “The Minstrel Show,” a retelling of the Scottsboro Boys case, does not have a production locked in, but helmer Susan Stroman is attached. Tuner is the last project on which Kander and Ebb collaborated.

“When Fred died, I had to take a deep breath and consider the four shows that were at various stages of completion,” says Kander. “So I decided to complete them. But be careful what you wish for, because they all seem to be happening. I just didn’t expect so many of them to be happening at the same time.”

All four shows have been in development at various stages for years. “Curtains” dates back to the mid-’80s, when the backstage murder mystery musical, conceived and scripted by Peter Stone (who died in 2003), was called “Who Killed David Merrick?” The show has since been revised with book writer Rupert Holmes, who worked with Kander on additional lyrics. The new version, helmed by Scott Ellis, bowed last year at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theater and opens March 22 in Gotham.

“All About Us” also had a long gestation period, beginning with a 1999 production at Signature, helmed by the theater’s a.d., Eric D. Schaeffer.

After mixed to negative reviews, the project disappeared until Kander & Ebb and book writer Joseph Stein began reworking the script with new helmer Gabriel Barre.

“We kept working on it around Fred’s kitchen table because we all just loved it,” says Stein, 94. “We learned a lot from the Signature production, and we were still enormously enthusiastic about it. It was at least 95% done when Fred died.”

A 2005 workshop at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., gave the creative team confidence in their revisions.

Producers Roger Berlind, David Brown and Jacki Barlia-Florin teamed with Kander and Stein to fund the workshop. Barlia-Florin then arranged for a presentation for reps of regional not-for-profits in January 2006.

Westport was selected as the venue for the new version’s preem. With low six-figure enhancement money from Barlia-Florin — about one-fifth of the total budget — the show, with a cast of 17, runs April 10-28.

Barlia-Florin says after the Westport run, critical and audience response will help the producing and creative team decide the next step. She estimates that a Broadway production would be capitalized at around $7 million.

In addition to “The Visit,” Signature will be staging a mini K&E festival in the fall, with 1993’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” on the main stage as well as a revival of 1968’s “The Happy Time” in the company’s new black box theater.

“I think Fred would be over the moon about all the productions,” says Schaeffer, who helms the “Kiss” revival.

Schaeffer says no enhancement money or commercial attachments are in place regarding Signature’s production of “The Visit,” but he hopes it will be the show’s launching pad. “The Visit” was expected to segue from its 2001 Goodman bow to New York later that year, but the production failed to materialize.

Perhaps most intriguing — not to mention problematic — is the future of K&E’s final work together: “The Minstrel Show.” Tommy Thompson is scripting the show, based on the notorious case of nine black teenagers wrongly accused of the 1931 gang rape of two white girls in Alabama. “It’s a chilling, terrible tale told completely in terms of a yuk-yuk minstrel show,” says Kander.

“There’s something in it to offend everybody,” he adds. “Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe everyone will hate it. But for Fred and me, the pieces which seemed to be too out there seem to have worked the best.”

Stroman has been involved in developing “Minstrel Show” but is first committed to direct and choreograph Mel Brooks’ new tuner “Young Frankenstein.” Kander projects that things won’t move on “Minstrel” until 2008.

“Stroman, Tommy and I are just waiting for a time when our schedules are clear enough to start workshopping it,” he says.

And after the final four K&E shows have been given their best sendoff?

“There lies the Caribbean,” says Kander.

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