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'Fresh Air' Marks The 90th Birthday Of Broadway Composer John Kander


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.


TAYE DIGGS: Five, six, seven, eight.

BIANCULLI: Today, we celebrate the birthday of Broadway composer John Kander, who turns 90 years old tomorrow, with excerpts of two interviews he recorded with Terry. Along with his longtime lyricist, the late Fred Ebb, John Kander wrote the songs for such Broadway shows as "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Kiss Of The Spider Woman," and 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.


FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Start spreading the news. I'm leaving today. I want to be a part of it, New York, New York. These vagabond shoes...

BIANCULLI: 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," which was the occasion of Terry's interview with him in 2015. Many of the recordings are demos featuring Kander and Ebb performing. So here's the first draft of "New York, New York" with today's guest, composer John Kander at the piano and lyricist Fred Ebb singing. This demo was recorded in 1976.


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 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. Well, they...


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: 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." Martin Scorsese was directing it. And it 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 or 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 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? 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: 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 is in - 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: Yeah. The song is all about denial. Sally Bowles is 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. So this is you at the piano. And Fred Ebb is singing. This was recorded in 1965.


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 I guess that...

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. Once you write - start writing - you're not thinking extracurricularly - or at least for me. We're thinking about the moment in the theater. So if I went 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.

KANDER: Right.

GROSS: 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 to me very influenced by Kurt Weill, who, I would imagine, you, you know, 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 said 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.

GROSS: Right. 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.


LOTTE LENYA: (As Fraulein Schneider, 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? Grown old like me, with neither the will nor wish to run; grown tired like me, who hurries for bed when day is done; grown wise like me, who isn't at war with anyone - not anyone.

BIANCULLI: That's Lotte Lenya from the original cast recording of "Cabaret." Our guest, John Kander, wrote the music. His longtime late collaborative partner wrote the lyrics. We'll continue our celebration of John Kander's 90th birthday after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Composer John Kander turns 90 years old tomorrow. With his lyricist partner Fred Ebb, he wrote the music for the Broadway musicals "Cabaret" and "Chicago," as well as for the Martin Scorsese movie "New York, New York." The first time Terry Gross spoke with John Kander was in 1991, when she asked about the origins of his songwriting partnership.


GROSS: Now, you met your partner almost on a blind date, so to speak (laughter).

KANDER: It sounds like it, yes.

GROSS: Yeah, because you were basically set up by the music publisher Tommy Valando, who had been publishing both of you independently. And - what? - he suggested that you get together? Is - do I have the story right?

KANDER: He literally said, I think you two guys should meet each other. I think you'd like each other. And so since we always followed his advice, separately at the time, we did meet each other. We did like each other. And we started writing almost immediately. I don't know, we were just pregnant with song all the time, it seemed to me. And from then on, we've been one of those marriages in which you're pretty faithful to each other. Fred has done some material with someone else and I do an occasional movie score, as I am at the moment. But when it comes down to the hardcore of what we've written, we write together.

GROSS: What is your process of working together? Do you work together in the same room, at the same time?

KANDER: Right. We - Fred lives about four blocks from my house. And he likes to stay home to work, I like to go out to work. And at 10 o'clock or so in the morning, I'll go over to his house and we will sit around the kitchen table and have some coffee and gossip a little and then go to work. And we - if we're working on a moment in a show, for instance, we'll be talking about the characters and the situation that we're about to musicalize (ph). And Fred may have an idea or a phrase, and from that phrase maybe we'll develop a rhythm.

It's very hard to describe it after that except to say that we improvise together at the same time, in the same room. It's a kind of unique way of working for us. Most people do not work that way. Either somebody hands somebody a melody or - and - or somebody hands somebody a lyric. We - that never happens to us or almost never. And for the 26 or so years that we've been together, that's always been the way we work.

And it's always fun. I don't know how to say that without sounding goony, but it's true. Whatever else is going on in our lives, sitting together in a room and writing a song is always a good time, even when it's - even when our work is bad.

GROSS: Let me pick up on what you just said, even if the work is bad. Now, when do you decide that you don't like a song if you're going to tear it up? Do you know that right away? Or is it, like, three days later that you realize, God, that was a bad song?

KANDER: Sometimes you know it right away. Usually it takes about 24 hours. And then I'll come back the next day, we'll look at it, we'll both stick our fingers down our throats and tear it up and go to work again. But it's - that's never a terrible moment. I think it's very important - at least it always has been important for us to stay very loose, which allows you to write badly as well as to write well. But we write a lot and we tear up a lot.

BIANCULLI: John Kander speaking to Terry Gross in 1991. His songwriting partner, Fred Ebb, died in 2004. After a break, we'll return to her more recent interview with John Kander from 2015. Also, film critic David Edelstein will review the new movie "T2 Trainspotting" and I'll review the new Julie Andrews children's series for Netflix, "Julie's Greenroom." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


LIZA MINNELLI: (Singing) Everybody loves a winner, so nobody love me. Lady Peaceful, Lady Happy, that's what I long to be. Well, all the odds are, they're in my favor, something's bound to begin. It's got to happen, happen sometime. Maybe this time I'll win 'cause everybody, oh, they love a winner, so nobody love me. Lady Peaceful...

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of our salute to Broadway composer John Kander, who turns 90 years old tomorrow. Along with the late lyricist Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, he wrote the songs for such musicals as "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "The Kiss Of The Spider Woman," and for the film "New York, New York." When Terry spoke with John Kander in 2015, he had just released a double CD called "John Kander: Hidden Treasures." It collected many of his demo recordings as well as recordings of great songs from his shows that weren't hits.


GROSS: 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 - 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 or 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 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 a - 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 with - 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 - and I like them.

GROSS: So I want to hear - 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. I have to preface this by saying Freddy I wrote a lot. We were pregnant all the time. So the idea of writing a song...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KANDER: It's really true. We just wrote songs, and we liked 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 I met in 1962.

GROSS: So this was in the 1960s. That was a hit. This is a version that you recorded in 1973. I think that this was in performance at the 92nd Street Y.


GROSS: OK. So this is this is John...

KANDER: I think so.

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.


KANDER: (Singing) If you admire coloring books - lots of people do - I've 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 gray. 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. 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 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, 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?

GROSS: Yeah.

KANDER: And 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: 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.


GROSS: So what happened to this song? It's a beautiful song. Actually, let me play the song. And then we'll find out what happened to 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.


LINDA EMOND: (Singing) 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 laying 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.

GROSS: That's Linda Emond singing a song by John Kander and Fred Ebb. That's included in the new collection "John Kander: Hidden Treasures, 1950-2015."

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 an 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 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: John Kander, it's been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much.

KANDER: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: John Kander speaking to Terry Gross in 2015. The composer of the music for "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "New York, New York" turns 90 years old tomorrow. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "T2 Trainspotting." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.