'Young at heart' composer John Kander readies 'The Visit'
NEW YORK (AP) — In John Kander's Manhattan apartment there's a framed poster on a wall with a blown up crossword puzzle clue.
It reads, simply: "Ebb's partner."
His nephew in Los Angeles sent the clue to the Tony Award-winning composer decades ago and Kander took it as a sign that he'd arrived.
"It was the first time I ever felt like anybody knew my name," he said in his four story brownstone he's called home since 1968.
These days, everybody knows Kander's name but the 88-year-old refuses to rest on his laurels as a co-creator of such groundbreaking shows as "Cabaret," ''Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman."
"The Visit," the musical he wrote with Fred Ebb that debuted in 2001 in Chicago has finally made it to Broadway, and "Kid Victory," a musical he co-wrote with Greg Pierce, made its world premiere earlier this year in Washington, D.C., and is scheduled to play at New York's The Vineyard Theatre next fall.
"The older I grow, the more passionately in love with the theater I become," said Kander. "I'm lucky to be healthy and in a profession that is not ageist and doing what gives me the most pleasure."
With a story by Terrence McNally, "The Visit" centers on a billionaire who pays a visit to her hardship-stricken European birthplace. It has gallows humor, a murder plot and asks questions about morality and greed. Chita Rivera plays the billionaire.
Kander has had to rewrite the music without lyricist Ebb, who died in 2004. The two men lived four blocks from each other and were collaborators for four decades.
"Fred is, God knows, very much a part of it. He's up there on that stage all the time," said Kander. "Whenever I go in and rewrite something — rewrite a lyric or change something — I always couch it in, 'Fred spoke to me last night and we did this.'"
The two transformed American theater with dark, dazzling stories that had a socially conscious edge — the rise of Nazis in "Cabaret," the danger of celebrity in "Chicago" and exploitation in "Steel Pier."
They went head-on in their tackling of racism and the wrongfully convicted in "The Scottsboro Boys" in 2010. Critics loved it but audiences stayed away. A few years later, it became a hit in London.
Kander is philosophical about how audiences respond. "I guess it would be more frustrating if everything you do is for approval," he said. "If you did, you would just die all the time."
Kander's creativity these days has been sparked by his new work with rising playwright and novelist Pierce, who is some 50 years his junior. Their first musical was "The Landing" in 2013, three imaginative one-acts examining longing, love and regret.
Pierce's uncle, the actor and director David Hyde Pierce, who has starred in Kander and Ebb's "Curtains," has long admired the composer and his vitality.
"This amazing connection that he's made with Greg Pierce has given both of them a new lease on life and a new chapter in their careers — one for a very young man and one for a man who's still young at heart," said David Hyde Pierce. "That's just so beautiful to me."
The room where Kander writes his music is at the top of his home near Central Park. Several flights of stairs take you into a room filled with memorabilia, including framed posters of shows, art work and even a "Scottsboro Boys" pillow.
"I'm sorry about the climb," he said with a laugh. "It makes you feel kind of proud once you actually get to the top and start breathing again."
He composes using a Macintosh computer and a Yamaha keyboard. He uses the Finale music program to help him transcribe music into notes. "Being intrinsically a really lazy person," he said, "it was made with me in mind."
He said he inherited his optimism from his mother and his favorite thing about the theater is when his shows are in rehearsal. That's when collaboration and brilliance strikes.
"Alongside a great, unimaginable sexual experience, I can't think of a pleasanter atmosphere," he said with a hearty laugh.
Kander's enthusiasm for those who work to create theater is undimmed.
"I remember Freddy and I got an award some years ago and I drunkenly accepted for me. And I said, 'Thinking it all over, I've decided that people who spend their lives working in the theater are the best people in the world.' And I think I mean it."