It’s been 50 years since the debut of “Flora, the Red Menace,” the first Broadway musical from composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.
Over time came Tonys, Emmys and Grammys for songs, films and more than a dozen additional musicals, among them “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Scottsboro Boys.”
FULL COVERAGE: Tony Awards 2015
Ebb died in 2004, but Kander, 88, likes to say he channeled Ebb in completing this year’s Tony-nominated musical, “The Visit,” a dark tale of romance and revenge starring Chita Rivera as wealthy widow Claire Zachanassian and Roger Rees as Anton Schell, her ill-fated former lover.
Kander and Ebb have taken us from pre-war Berlin in “Cabaret” to a South American prison in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to 1930s Alabama injustice in “The Scottsboro Boys.” What attracted you to Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play about a Swiss village after World War II?
Dürrenmatt’s play was a scathing attack on Swiss society about their greed during the war. But there’s no point in taking a play and saying, ‘That’s a good play, let’s put songs in it.’ Our interest was in the two main characters. We thought it would be interesting to open their relationship and learn more about them. With [librettist] Terrence McNally, we began to examine that relationship.
You were well into this project when Fred Ebb died in 2004?
Our first production was in 2001 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago with director Frank Galati. Fred was sick during a lot of our time in Chicago, though he was trying to disguise the fact he had oxygen at rehearsals.
John Doyle directed the production we’re seeing now on Broadway. How did he change the musical you’d worked on earlier?
He felt it should be just one act, and that meant a lot of cutting. It was mainly tweaking — tightening the text and readjusting music, adding underscoring. We have just nine instruments, but every once in a while, you can take a limitation and make it work to your advantage. We have no brass and very few strings. Instead, we have a lot of percussion and plectrum, or plucking, instruments, including a zither, partly to give it a central European feeling.
Did you write new songs for the Doyle production?
Chunks of songs. My main concern was to not let the listener feel there was any difference between what Fred and I wrote and me, myself.
You also wrote some new lyrics for “The Scottsboro Boys,” which began before Fred Ebb’s death as well. You once told me that with “The Scottsboro Boys,” you would “channel” Fred Ebb.
I still do that. Fred and I sat in the same room writing together, and we’d create lyrics together too. The lyrics I’ve written after Fred died are an extension of what we were doing in that room.
Describe the way you and Fred Ebb worked all those years.
Fred lived four blocks from me. I liked the idea of going to work, and he liked the idea of not. So we’d sit around his kitchen table, then eventually go into a small room with a piano where most of the work was done. It was almost always about character and what is musically and lyrically true for that character. Fred had this amazing ability to improvise in rhyme and meter the same way I do at the keyboard.
So you wrote a great deal more than you used?
Fred and I both wrote fast. Some of it was really terrible, but we allowed ourselves to do that. We would rip it up fast so nobody ever saw it. If you keep the pipe open, you have a chance of actually finding the right moment.
Did you do that on “The Visit?”
With “The Visit” and other later pieces, we probably wrote less. Maybe after all those years of working together, we began to recognize the junk earlier. You didn’t have to get though a whole song with three choruses to recognize that it was lousy.
Do you have a similar process working with Greg Pierce, the young playwright with whom you’re now written two musicals?
Greg lives downtown, so we’re not in the room at the same time as often as Fred and I were, but the actual outline of the way we work is not so different. We’re in constant communication when we’re on a project. We can call one another, set the phones down and improvise. We work very closely, and we’re now on our third piece together.
You’ve been working in the theater a very long time. How would you characterize the theater business then and now?
Producing theater is so much more expensive today. Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock — we were all part of a generation that was allowed to fail. A week or two before “Flora, the Red Menace” opened, our producer Hal Prince said we’d meet the day after it opened and talk about our next show. “Flora” opened, and it wasn’t a success. But the next day, we met and started talking about this thing called “Cabaret.”
Have your own feelings about your profession changed over time?
If anything, I am more in love with writing for the theater than I ever was. For me, the rehearsal room is the safest place in the world. You walk into a room full of talented, hardworking people, and you spend the entire day trying to make some kind of art. You can’t do better than that, really.