Broadway Composer John Kander Reflects On A Career Of 'Hidden Treasures'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, composer John Kander, along with his longtime lyricist, the late Fred Ebb, wrote the songs for the Broadway shows "Cabaret," "Chicago" "Flora The Red Menace," "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and "The Scottsboro Boys," as well as the songs for Martin Scorsese's 1977 film "New York, New York." The title song was a big hit for Frank Sinatra.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK, NEW YORK")
FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Start spreading the news. I'm leaving today. I want to be a part of it, New York, New York.
GROSS: In a moment, we'll hear Kander and Ebb performing the first version they wrote of "New York, New York." That version is included on the new double CD "John Kander: Hidden Treasures, 1950-2015." In addition to some of Kander and Ebb's most famous songs, it collects songs from shows that weren't hits and songs that were never used. Many of the recordings are demos featuring Kander and Ebb performing, but other singers are featured as well. The album is produced by Harbinger Records and The Musical Theater Project, which released similar recordings collecting the works of Sheldon Harnick and Hugh Martin. So here's the first draft of "New York, New York" with my guest composer John Kander at the piano and lyricist Fred Ebb singing. This demo was recorded in 1976.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK, NEW YORK")
FRED EBB: (Singing) New York, New York, New York, New York. New York, New York, New York, New York. Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo (ph). They always say it's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there - New York. They always say it's a nice place to sightsee, but I wouldn't want to live there - New York. Of course I do like a 'do on Park Avenue or to view a gnu at the Central Park Zoo or stare at the glare of the Broadway lights or go to Madison Square to catch the fights.
GROSS: John Kander, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's such a treat to have you back on the show. I love this new collection. I'm so glad that it was produced. It's so much fun to hear that first draft of "New York, New York" and compare it to the anthem that you finally wrote. Tell the story of why this version was rejected.
JOHN KANDER: Well, to start with, I'm surprised that I ever let anybody hear that first version.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why?
KANDER: It's - I guess because it's terrible.
KANDER: That's part of the reason. The story of how the other one got written is Fred and I were writing songs for a film called "New York, New York." And Martin Scorsese was directing it and starred Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. We wrote five or six songs and went down to Marty's (ph) office to play them. And Liza and Marty were there and then in the background - I don't know if we got introduced tor not - was Robert De Niro sitting on a couch. I'm not sure I even knew that at the time. Anyway, we played the songs for them and everything was all set and - until suddenly we saw this arm waving from the couch. And Marty went over and said excuse me, De Niro wants to speak to me. And then we watched what was a very animated conversation and we couldn't hear anything. And Scorsese came back and in a very embarrassed way said that De Niro had felt that the title song, which was very much attached to him in the film, was just too lightweight compared to the song that was attached to Liza, which was "The World Goes Round." And would we consider taking another crack at it?
GROSS: Were you angry that the actor Robert De Niro had rejected your song?
KANDER: I think we were - I think we were very polite.
KANDER: And I think we were probably a little stiff, but we said, yes, we would go out and take another crack at it. And of course we left and thought some actor is going to tell us how to write a song? And we could not have been more internally pompous I think. Anyway, we went back to Fred's apartment. And I think because the juices of rage were coursing through our bodies, we wrote another song, very fast, probably 45 minutes, called "New York, New York" and took it back and that was the song that was used in the movie and became the song which is now pretty well known.
GROSS: So this new album collects a lot of your demo recordings. Explain how you've used demo recordings through your career
KANDER: Well, Fred and I, like most songwriters, eventually - if you're writing - when you're writing for a piece of theater, at the end of the process, or near the end of the process, for your own use really, you go into a studio and put down a demo, which means in our case I would be playing and Fred would be singing. Or sometimes I'd be singing. Or sometimes we'd both be singing. And it's just there for our reference. When the idea of actually putting these demos out in public, I was really horrified. It's like somebody doing a trip through your underwear drawer.
GROSS: No, I'm glad you did. I'm very glad you did.
KANDER: A part of me had to say what would Fred do in this situation? And I think he would've said yes.
GROSS: OK. So I want to hear a - I want to play another demo that you wrote. And this is the first song that broke through that you wrote with lyricist Fred Ebb called "My Coloring Book." What was the occasion for writing this song?
KANDER: This was very early in our collaboration and Fred had an idea for writing a comic song about a coloring book. And my memory of it was that I think when he suggested it for some reason I had some sort of mild annoyance. And I think I said to him why does everything have to be funny? And we started talking about how you could take a song about a coloring book and make it real, poignant, somehow or other truthfully emotional. And so we went in that direction. But I have to preface this by saying Freddy and I wrote a lot. We were pregnant all the time, so the idea of writing a song...
KANDER: It's really true. We just wrote songs and we like to write songs, so the idea of taking that idea and going in another direction was not a moment of friction between us. It was OK, let's try that, and we ended up writing a song which I like very much to this day because it's so simple.
GROSS: I like it a lot too and I remember when it was a hit by Sandy Stewart in - was it the '50s or the '60s?
KANDER: Oh, Freddy and I met in 1962.
GROSS: So this was in the 1960s that it was a hit.
GROSS: This is a version that you recorded in 1973. I think this was in performance at the 92nd Street Y.
GROSS: OK, so this is - this is...
KANDER: I think so anyway.
GROSS: I think that's right. So this is John Kander at the piano playing and singing a song he wrote with Fred Ebb called "My Coloring Book" that had been a hit for Sandy Stewart and has been recorded by many other people.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY COLORING BOOK")
KANDER: (Singing) If you admire coloring books, and lots of people do, I have a new one for you. A most unusual coloring book, the kind you never see. Crayons ready, very well, begin to color me. These are the eyes that watched him as he walked away. Color them grey. This is the heart that thought he would always be true. Color it blue.
GROSS: That's my guest composer John Kander performing a song that he wrote with Fred Ebb, "My Coloring Book." How did that song change your life? Because it was a big hit.
KANDER: I think internally it sort of validated us. I don't know if that's true or not. And looking back on it, I think so. Suddenly, there was a song out there that lots and lots of people were singing. And it sort of puts you in a - or at least it did for me - a slightly different place in your head. It's good and bad.
GROSS: What's the bad part?
KANDER: I think it's scares - it's a little scary. If you're writing as I do really kind of for the pleasure of writing, it suddenly puts you in a kind of commercial place that you hadn't really thought of or I don't know how to express it quite - I remember I was in an elevator in a tall building on a high floor. And I got into the elevator and I was the only person in the elevator and the doors closed and Muzak - remember Muzak?
>>KANDER; The doors closed on the 535th floor of this building. And a gooey string version of "My Coloring Book" started and nobody else was on the elevator. And we were going down fast and I thought I am going to die.
GROSS: (Laughter) My guest is composer John Kander who co-wrote the songs for "Cabaret," "Chicago," "The Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and "The Scottsboro Boys." His new double CD is called "John Kander: Hidden Treasures." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is composer John Kander. And he, along with lyricist Fred Ebb, wrote the songs to "Cabaret," "Chicago," "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and "The Scottsboro Boys." Now, there's a new double album called "John Kander: Hidden Treasures, 1950-2015."
Let's move on to a very famous song you wrote from a very famous show, "Cabaret." You wrote the songs with Fred Ebb for the show, which was revived as recently as last year. And I was surprised to learn in the liner notes for the new album of your demos that the song "Cabaret," the title song, was actually written during the dress rehearsals. Was there a hole that needed to be filled that you needed to write a new song for?
KANDER: I am trying to - I'm trying to remember exactly what was going on. I know that the moment when Sally makes a decision to have an abortion was a moment which, I think, had not yet been properly musicalized. I'm just trying to remember this now. I don't know if it's all correct, but we wrote a song which did exactly that. It was a song which starts out very jaunty and nasty and cheerful all at the same time, sung by a girl who's just been insulted by her lover and who's found out that she's pregnant and, actually, is in misery. And in the middle of the song, our intention, without tipping it lyrically, was that she make her decision to get rid of the baby. I think it works really well on the stage. The interesting element in that song is that all the sort of popular versions of it - most of those performances are of a very jaunty, cheerful, hey mate, come in from the rain and let's have a good time. And, of course, that's the opposite of the intention of the song.
GROSS: The song is all about denial. Sally Bowles in denial that she's pregnant and is probably going to have an abortion. This means the end of her relationship with her lover, who is also bisexual. That was not necessarily going to go well anyways. And she's in denial that the Nazis are taking over Germany. And it's not going be a fun time. Things are on the verge of not only collapse, but destruction. So, you know, you get that in the show, but, yes, when people sing it out of context, it's like, yeah, isn't life fun?
GROSS: So let's hear the demo recording. This is you and Fred Ebb, recorded in 1965. And was this made to demonstrate the song for the performers of the show?
KANDER: It was a regular demo that we would normally make and continue to make throughout our careers. It was part of a demonstration of the score of the whole show. It was really for our use. It was never, never intended to be...
GROSS: Heard by me and our listeners (laughter). So - OK, so this is you at the piano and Fred Ebb is singing.
GROSS: so this is you at the piano -- and Fred and is singing this is recorded in 1965.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN KANDER SONG, "CABARET")
EBB: (Singing) What good is sitting alone in a room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret. Put down your knitting, your book and your broom. Time for a holiday. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret. Come taste the wine. Come hear the band. Come blow a horn. Start celebrating. Right this way; your table's waiting. No use permitting some prophet of doom to wipe every smile away. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret. I used to have a girlfriend known as Elsie.
GROSS: So that was a 1965 demo recorded with the composers John Kander at the piano, lyricist Fred Ebb singing. John Kander, what impact did writing the songs for "Cabaret" have on you as a secular Jew - because it's - you know, it's set in Germany as the Nazis are coming to power.
KANDER: I don't think I ever thought about that. I think I thought about it a piece of theater. So...
GROSS: It's just that it's a terrifying piece of history, particularly for Jewish people.
KANDER: Yes, and - but a piece of history and something that you're writing are two different things - at least it is for me. Sometimes there can be an impetus for writing something that comes from your own personal feelings and your own experience. But once you write - start writing - you're not thinking extracurricularly - at least for me. We're thinking about the moment in the theater, so if I want to see Cabaret and had not written it, I would have a reaction to it that would be somehow or other colored by being a Jew. But maybe it's some defect on my part, but I did not think about that when we were writing.
GROSS: I saw the revival of the revival (laughter) with Alan Cumming last year. He was wonderful, so was Linda Emond in the title...
KANDER: Oh, you bet she was.
GROSS: So was Linda Emond in the role that was originated by Lotte Lenya in "Cabaret" as Fraulein Schneider. And Lotte Lenya was such a great singer. And she was also, of course, the widow of Kurt Weill. And some of the songs sound very influenced by Kurt Weill, who, I would imagine, you listened to a lot while writing the songs, since he's the composer we most associate with that period. He's the songwriter we most associate with that period. He's a German songwriter who fled the Nazis.
KANDER: The interesting thing is that I listened to everybody but Kurt Weill because I knew that was a dangerous area to be walking into. I listened to lots and lots and lots of German jazz and German vaudeville music of the '20s, but I stayed away zealously from listening to Weill at all. What I think happened is that the kind of Kurt Weill musical pieces that we hear in our heads were influenced by the same thing that I was sort of digging into. His early music and more serious music is, in many ways, in a totally different style and quite wonderful and slightly academic. When he comes to writing to his musicals or operas, if you will, he's reflecting the sounds of those vaudeville houses and German jazz and that sort of sleazy world that I was trying to reflect, also. But the actual influence of Weill's music itself was nonexistent.
GROSS: And you it would've been dangerous to listen. And I assume you mean you didn't want to risk imitating him.
KANDER: I didn't want to sound like second-rate Kurt Weill.
My guest is composer John Kander. After a break, we'll hear and talk about more music from his new album, "John Kander: Hidden Treasures." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with composer John Kander. Along with the late lyricist Fred Ebb, he wrote the songs for the musicals "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and the film "New York, New York." A new double CD called, "John Kander: Hidden Treasures," collects many of his demo recordings as well as recordings of great songs from his shows that were not hits. When we left off, we were talking about writing the music for "Cabaret," which is set in Berlin as the Nazis are coming to power. The original cast co-stared Lotte Lenya, who is the widow of composer Kurt Weill. Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill fled the Nazis, so they - they really know - they know the story. They know the climate in which "Cabaret" is set. So I want to play a song that you wrote for her character that she does such a wonderful job with in the original cast recording and that Linda Emond did such a great job with in the revival. And the song is, "What Would You Do?" And this character that she plays is a tough but lonely older women who runs a boarding house. There's a Jewish man who wants to marry her, but when it's clear the Nazi's are coming to power, she rejects him to save herself. And she sings this song, "What Would You Do?" as if to ask, if you were in her position, would you stand up for your principles or save yourself? Let's hear a little bit of the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT WOULD YOU DO?")
LOTTE LENYA: (As character, singing) With time rushing by, what would you do? With the clock running down, what would you do? The young always have the cure being brave, being sure and free. But imagine if you were me. Alone like me and this is the only world I know. Some rooms to let the sum of a lifetime, even so. I'll take your advice, what would you do? Would you pay the price? What would you do? Suppose simply keeping still means you manage until the end. What would you do, my brave, young friend?
GROSS: That was Lotte Lenya from the original cast recording of "Cabaret." And my guest, John Kander, wrote the songs. He wrote the music. His longtime late collaborative partner Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics. And now there's a double album of John Kander demos that's been released, called "Hidden Treasures, 1950 to 2015." One of my favorite recordings on this collection is sung by Linda Emond, who is the performer who I heard in the role that Lotte Lenya originated in "Cabaret." I saw Linda Emond in the revival of it. And on this new collection of your songs, she sings a song that you and Fred Ebb wrote for the musical adaptation of the Thornton Wilder play "The Skin Of Our Teeth." And the 1999 production never made it to Broadway. You were revamping the production when Fred Ebb died in 2004. The song is called, "He Always Comes Home To Me." And I think this is like a married woman singing to her maid. And the married woman knows that her maid has probably had an affair with her husband. Do I have that right? I've never seen the show.
KANDER: Yes. One thing I need to interject herethe - we lost the rights. The Wilder estate withdrew the rights later on, which is why we weren't able to go ahead and complete it.
GROSS: Oh. So what happened to the song? It's - it's a beautiful song. Actually, let me play the song, and then we'll find out what happened to it. It - it troubles me when a song this good (laughter) hasn't had - hasn't had the life it deserves. So here's Linda Emond singing a song by John Kander and Fred Ebb.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE ALWAYS COMES HOME TO ME")
LINDA EMOND: There were others, quite a few. Some were strangers. Some I knew. But he always comes home to me. Late for dinner quite a lot. Do I argue? I do not. For I wake in the morning and see he's lying there close to me at home. I know you think I'm foolish. I ought to be more strong, combat him, defy him. But I say you're wrong. I've children, a marriage. I'd do it all again. It's just an inconvenience he puts me through now and then. So I'm staying by his side.
GROSS: That is Linda Emond singing a song by John Kander and Fred Ebb. That's included in the new collection, "John Kander: Hidden Treasures, 1950 to 2015." So you mentioned that the show that that song was written for, "The Skin Of Our Teeth," that you lost the rights to it, that the Thornton Wilder estate withdrew the rights. So what happens to the song when you lose the rights to the show?
KANDER: Well, I guess I'm busy finding that out. We own the songs that we wrote, so what I think we can't do is mount a production of it. But I don't know how far we can go in properly presenting these pieces because a lot of it has to do with situations which only exist in the story. "He Always Comes Home To Me" is a song which has a general enough sort of narrative and implication to it that you can actually sing it, and an audience will understand.
GROSS: Right. How frustrating is it for you when a song as beautiful as that doesn't make it to Broadway and doesn't have a life?
KANDER: I - I don't know exactly how to answer that. I really don't want to sound phony on this. Most of the fun of writing is the fun of writing and rehearsing and hearing people sing it and working with that. What happens later, that includes going through to a complete Broadway production or whatever, is kind of secondary. I don't think I'm - I don't think I'm lying here. It's great when it happens. But the real fun is writing it and - or having Linda sing it. I think it would probably upset Fred more than me. I'm sad about it and a little bitter, but not overwhelmed because you just keep on writing.
GROSS: My guest is composer John Kander, who co-wrote the songs for "Cabaret," "Chicago," "The Kiss Of The Spider Women" and "The Scottsboro Boys." His new double CD is called, "John Kander: Hidden Treasures." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is John Kander, who along with lyricist Fred Ebb, wrote the songs for the musicals "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "The Scottsboro Boys and the film "New York, New York." His new album is called "John Kander: Hidden Treasures." Fred Ebb died in 2004 of a heart attack. How did you carry on musically after having collaborated with him for so many years?
KANDER: It's a hard thing to answer. We had been together for so long that it seemed sometimes things like somebody's death seems unlikely because for years and years and years, that person has been alive and part of your life. One of the main things, I think, that helped me out was that we had three shows which were incomplete. One was "Scottsboro," one was "The Visit" and one was "Curtains." And I don't know how long it was before my friends started needling me about do you want to continue with these pieces? Needling is not what I mean - they could not have been more supportive or more helpful. And I think I realized that I really did want to see these pieces to completion. And so for the next few years, finishing those shows felt like working with Fred so that it wasn't that kind of sudden break off of an artistic relationship. The songs that had to be written or the scores that had to be completed, I did the lyrics for them to the best of my ability and trying to sort of conjure Fred when I was working. And I think they came out all right. And so in that way, it wasn't until we finished "The Visit" that it was the end of our collaboration.
GROSS: And the three shows that you mentioned, "The Visit," "Scottsboro Boys" and "Curtains," all made it to Broadway.
KANDER: Yes, they did, and I like them.
GROSS: So you lost your songwriting partner in 2004, but in 2010, you were able to marry your life partner - your longtime life partner - Albert Stephenson, who is also a Broadway person, right - a dancer and choreographer?
KANDER: Yes, we had met in 1977 and had been together ever since.
GROSS: Can I ask you about before - like back in the '70s and '80s before as many people were out as are now, did you have to stay in the closet on Broadway? I mean, it's so absurd in a way because everybody knows there's a lot of gay people who've worked in Broadway over the decades. But it wasn't until recently that you could really bring your gay partner or spouse to the Tony Awards and actually act like you were a couple.
KANDER: I guess that's true. But the fact is, the theater - at least in all my years in it, which are a lot - was always an accepting place. So that business of hiding, certainly within the society of the theater, was not - at least in my memory - was not as restrictive as the rest of society. It's hard for me to go back and remember how I felt. But I do know that Albert and I have been together for 38 years, and it has never seemed unnatural.
GROSS: You're still writing and...
GROSS: I mean, like, you're 88 now, and you're still writing. And there are two recent songs from a show that was produced this year and that will have another production next year. It's called "Kid Victory." And you're now collaborating with a lyricist named Greg Pierce, who is the nephew of David Hyde Pierce, who starred in your musical "Curtains," one of the three musicals that you wrote with Fred Ebb and finished yourself after he died. And the two songs that are included on the new double CD of your songs are wonderful. Could you tell us a little bit about the show? And I'll say it's a story about a teenage boy who's abducted and tortured by a sexual predator - not your typical musical subject matter. What led you to write a musical about this subject?
KANDER: Actually that sounds much more sensational than the piece is. Greg and I have been writing together for a number of years now. And one of the things that struck us was press coverage on kids who were found and who had been abducted and the excitement within the families when that happens. And that would be written about but very little about what happened later about the struggle to get back into a real life that a kid like that must have. And that idea began to intrigue us, and so we found ourselves sort of messing around with that idea and going back and forth between the world that his parents expect him and want him to inhabit and the world that he - the experience that he's come from. And I think it's a true piece. It made me feel good when we wrote it. You know, when we were writing "Cabaret" and - or "Kiss Of The Spider Woman," people said, God, why would you want to write about situations like that? And isn't that, quote, "brave," or something like that. And the fact is it's much easier, at least I've found, to write about subjects which are full and nasty and life, and it's very hard to write a story about boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back on the subway train. That's really hard. But the moments in "Kid Victory" and "Spider Woman" and in "Cabaret" were easy to write.
GROSS: Well, I look forward to hearing more of your songs. John Kander, it's been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much.
KANDER: Thank you.
GROSS: John Kander's new CD is called "John Kander: Hidden Treasures, 1950-2015." The album is produced by Harbinger Records and The Musical Theater Project. Here's a song on that album from Kander's latest musical, "Kid Victory." This is "People Like Us" featuring Kander and Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE LIKE US")
KANDER AND ELLISON-GLADSTONE: (Singing) People like us got sponges for skin. We let it seep in, the sadness and suffering that makes the world spin. People like us, we got to stay proud. To well-behaved sheep-minded people, we're always too loud. People like us, we walk our own streets. While people like them are in slippers, we're here in our cleats. People like us will never belong. We sing our own song. To people like them, we'll always be wrong. People like us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.