Road to the Tonys: With ‘The Visit,’ John Kander Carries On With The Work

The Visit Tony Awards
Walter McBride/Getty Images

This spring, the name on everybody’s lips was Kander.

Composer John Kander, that is. In March, “The Visit,” the show he wrote with his late collaborator Fred Ebb and playwright Terrence McNally, began Broadway previews and went on to snag five Tony Awards nominations, including one for new musical. Around the same time, another Kander and Ebb musical, “Cabaret,” wrapped up its most recent revival after Michelle Williams and Emma Stone each turned heads in the lead role.

In May Kander and Ebb’s 1968 musical “Zorba!” got a quickie showcase as part of New York City Center’s annual Encores! series, while the longrunning 1996 Broadway revival of their musical “Chicago” inched ever closer to 20 years on the boards. Oh, and he’s also got a brand new musical, “Kid Victory” (written with playwright Greg Pierce), that premiered at the D.C. area’s Signature Theater in February and will play Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater next year.

All of which goes to show that at 88, Kander remains tireless in continuing the work — not only the work on the new musicals he writes with Pierce, but on the pieces he wrote with Ebb but felt he never quite cracked before Ebb died in 2004. Pieces like “Curtains,” which played Broadway in 2007; “The Scottsboro Boys,” which opened there in 2012; and “The Visit,” which bowed in Chicago in 2001, played the Signature in a retooled version in 2008, and then in April opened on Broadway (via the Williamstown Theater Festival) in a new, pared-down incarnation staged by director John Doyle.

“It used to be strange, and scary, when I first went on with extending Fred’s work, and having him look down on me and shake his head every time I write a false rhyme,” he said. “But we were far enough along on these pieces that I wanted to complete them.”

The long journey for “The Visit” underscores one of the things that’s often said about Kander and Ebb musicals: They’re ahead of their time. Sometimes it takes a while for the audiences to catch up with them — as famously exemplified by “Chicago,” the prescient tabloid-culture takedown that was largely forgotten after its original 1975 run but returned 20 years later to major acclaim, awards recognition and, eventually, an Oscar-winning movie adaptation.

“I sort of think that yes, it just seems to happen,” Kander acknowledged. “The pieces seem to do better when they come back, whatever that means. I’m not sure why.”

“John and Fred are fearless and bold, and they don’t shy away from challenging their audiences,” said Barry Weissler, the producer of the “Chicago” revival as well as “The Scottsboro Boys.” “They break the rules, and the brilliance of rule-breakers is often underappreciated at the time.”

Among the more obvious challenges of Kander and Ebb musicals: The duo’s ability to find music in the darkest of subject matters, ranging from Nazism and the Holocaust (“Cabaret”) to a horrific, racially motivated miscarriage of justice (“Scottsboro”). There are plenty of shadows, too, in “The Visit,” a coal-black and Expressionistically inclined satire (based on a 1956 play by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durenmatt) about the world’s wealthiest woman returning to her hometown to exact revenge on the man who wronged her.

As Kander sees it, his impulse toward revising and refining is only the natural extension of being an artist whose interests and techniques change as time passes. At a rehearsal for “Zorba!,” for instance, “they played something at the opening of the mime sequence and I said, ‘I didn’t write that,’ ” he recalled with a laugh. “They said, ‘Oh yes you did.’ And I had! It sounded like something straight out of ‘South Pacific.’ I couldn’t imagine it.”

The new perspective that comes with time informs the composer whenever he goes back a show. “With each production, you take a look at it. That’s what happened with ‘The Visit.’ What it is now is the piece boiled down to its essence. I think we finally got it right.”

For Kander, his musical window into show was what he saw as the link between Durrenmatt’s play and “The Merry Widow” — and, by extension, with Viennese opera. (“The score is filled with waltzes and ensembles; it’s just that in this one, we kill someone,” Kander said with a laugh.) Theatergoers — and Tony voters — will notice that the music sounds nothing like the brassy, jazz-era tunes of “Chicago,” or, for that matter, the Greek instrumentation of “Zorba!”

That’s the thing about Kander and Ebb’s work: It’s seemingly impossible to nail them down to a particular style.  “People sometimes say to me, ‘Oh, I just wrote a Kander and Ebb song,’” Kander said. “I don’t know what that means. We wouldn’t recognize a Kander and Ebb song if it came up and slapped us in the face.”

But McNally — currently up for a Tony for his book to “The Visit, and also the writer of the books to Kander and Ebb musicals “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” — has a few ideas. “I think when people think of a Kander and Ebb song, they think of one of John’s famous vamps; that’s John’s signature more than anything,” he said. “And the fact that the music seems to have a catchy, amiable surface to it, but the lyrics are saying something quite different and dark. I don’t think they’ve ever written a show about an easy subject.”

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