New work, gala turn heads toward composer

John Kander isn’t one to seek out attention. “Anybody who knows me knows I’m not much of a spotlight kid,” says the self-effacing composer of celebrated tuners including “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”

But this spring, Kander will find himself in the limelight anyway. Along with the 50th anniversary Dramatists Guild gala held in his honor June 3, the 85-year-old is also in the midst of Off Broadway performances for the new chamber musical “The Landing” — his first entirely new work to be penned without longtime collaborator Fred Ebb since Ebb died in 2004.

The composer, working with Greg Pierce on “Landing” at Gotham’s Vineyard Theater, sidesteps individual attention by attributing his success to the alchemy of working with talented colleagues. “Collaboration is everything, which is what Freddie and I learned with each other,” he says.

He also cites valuable lessons learned from George Abbott, who directed and wrote the book for Kander and Ebb’s first Rialto outing, “Flora, the Red Menace,” in 1965; and from Harold Prince, who produced “Flora” and then produced and directed “Cabaret” in 1966. They were the ones, he says, who taught him the ropes — everything from the best place to judge an audience’s reaction to a new work (smack dab in the middle of the audience, not at the back of the house) to how to compose and create as part of a team.

“I learned the collaborative process from them, very early on,” Kander says. “I would not know how to work any other way.”

To hear him describe it, his process has been the same for years, no matter who his collaborators are. “In general, you sit around and you talk and you talk and you talk before anything gets written, until what gets written hopefully sounds like one voice,” he explains. “By the end of the process, if you stay open and there’s no power play going on, you end up with a piece which is true to your intentions. Whether it works or not.”

Although the four-actor, four-instrument “Landing,” comprising three mini musicals, reps a smaller creative endeavor than Broadway outings such as “Curtains” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” it nonetheless seems notable that Kander’s still at work, with no sign of stopping, at an age when most people have long since retired.

Does he ever think about it? “Oh sure, I’m really lazy, as Fred would be happy to attest if he were here,” Kander says. “But I guess I’m not ready to lie down yet.”

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