Classic Conversations: John Kander

John Doyle, artistic director of Classic Stage Company and Tony, Emmy, Grammy, and Olivier Award Winning Composer John Kander talk about Kander’s path, his joy in music and his self avowed “luck.” Among other accomplishments, Kander wrote the score for 15 Broadway musicals, two of which were made into films, and the music to the song “New York, New York.”

“I’ve always been amazed and impressed that you’re still working,” Doyle begins. (Kander is 94.) “When Fred Ebb (Kander’s long time musical theater collaborator) passed, did you think about stopping?” “Why do we do it in the first place?” comes the rhetorical response. “It took me time to get my bearings, but why would I stop doing what makes me happy?” Doyle admits that he himself is surprised that doing less (directing) “doesn’t feel as bad as I thought it might.” The host continues to act in an executive capacity for CSC Theater and to teach at Princeton.

Kander is asked about his musical roots. Raised in Kansas City, Missouri, there were no professional musicians or theater people in the family. His parents had an interest in the arts however, exposing him and his brother to local theater, orchestras and touring opera. “This is gonna sound too cute by half, but sometimes after dinner, we’d go in the living room and just make music,” he recalls smiling. There were several good voices to combat his mother’s indulged tone deafness. Both he and his aunt played piano. The composer never had any sense he would pursue music as a living.

After National Service, twice (Kander spent a year in the Naval Merchant Marine, was told it didn’t count and spent another in the Army), he then attended Oberlin College. He and fellow student, Director Nico Socceropoulos started a theater. (Socceropoulos founded The Williamstown Theater.) “It was very self indulgent, but it was ours.” Graduate work followed at Columbia University during which time, Kander also worked in the opera workshop.

Doyle remembers collaborating with his guest and playwright Terrence McNally on the 2015 Broadway revival of The Visit (written with Fred Ebb). McNally and Kander would talk opera. Based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play about greed and revenge, this iteration starred Chita Rivera and Roger Rees. “How did it feel going back to the play after so many years?” he asks. “When a show is revived years later, and I think this is true of all my contemporaries, you look at it and think, did I write that?! So you go to work on it. A lot of people think others are responsible for changes. No, we did it.”

The men exchange war stories about getting a show up on its feet in a very short time. Both were accustomed to doing so, Kander in his own theater, Doyle at the beginning of his directing career in England. Having the experience, they agree, helps focus on what’s essential. “If someone says you have six weeks,” Doyle comments, “I think what am I going to do with all that time? I wasn’t raised in a world with table reads and workshops.”

The host notes that Kander began his life’s work on assignment for others’ shows. “This is the story of how I had a career at all,” begins the modest composer. He was working Off Broadway on the Noel Coward musical Conversation Piece with an orchestrator based in Philadelphia. West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim; directed by Jerome Robbins) was about to open there. Kander secured a ticket and invited by his peer, found himself at a huge after party.

When he was unable to get to the bar because of a crowd, “I’m not a very aggressive fellow,” a stranger in front of him offered to secure both their drinks. They talked. He was the pianist on West Side Story. The two kept in touch. Towards the end of the year, the pianist was going on a holiday and asked whether Kander would like to sub for him.

“I had three weeks and Ruthie Mitchell, the stage manager got used to me. She was starting a new show, Gypsy (Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim) and asked me to play auditions. By then, Robbins, who did the choreography for both shows, also got used to me. All he said was, and this is a literal quote, ‘Do you wanna do the show with me?’ I said, ‘Do you want me to?!’” (His voice cracks) “Because of that, I got a reputation for being a dance arranger.” Irma La Douce (Marguerite Monot/Alexandre Breffort) followed.

Doyle and Kander recollect a British revival of Irma La Douce directed by Peter Brook. “He was pretty young and me being an opera person knowing his work, we got to be friends,” Kander tells us. “I sat in the back row during one rehearsal with chaos on stage. One actor left in tears, but Peter was calm as a cucumber. I realized there was a considerable thermos of martinis beside him.” Doyle bursts into laughter and shares his own anecdote. While directing the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Patti LuPone delivered a mug of what she said was “coffee for Johnny” that was, in fact, pure gin. Apparently an efficacious solution under many circumstances.

“There wasn’t a lot of time between Gypsy and shows like Cabaret. Things must’ve escalated quickly,” Doyle comments. Kander was sharing a West Side apartment with James and William Goldman, with whom he’d grown up. Together they wrote A Family Affair in 1962. Directorial issues provoked the team to ask mutual friend Hal Prince to take a look. He stayed to fix the piece. “It was the first musical I had on Broadway and the first musical he directed,” the composer remarks.

Doyle asks how they were friends. “The community is very, very small. If you walk through the curtain as a professional, there was no producer who wouldn’t look at your material. It was a very easy life.” Can you imagine saying that to a young talent today when getting to any successful producer is an obstacle course worthy of Allied Intelligence?

“So tell me how you met Fred.” (Lyricist Fred Ebb – 1928-2004) It seems the two artists shared  a publisher who brought them together. “We started writing immediately, fast and a lot.” Doyle asks about collaboration. “Hal produced Flora (Flora the Red Menace 1965, Liz Minnelli’s Broadway debut). He was a terrific leader of collaboration. George Abbott directed. We talked and talked and talked. In the best experiences you start off at ground zero with everybody.”

“Just before the show opened Hal said, ‘Whatever happens to Flora, we’ll meet at my apartment the next day to start on the next one,” Kander continues, “and we did. We started work on ‘The Berlin Stories.’” (The composer is referring to Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin which became the John Van Druten play, I Am a Camera, and then Kander and Ebb’s 1966’s Cabaret.) “I really think it’s hard when that doesn’t happen…Hal was wonderfully inventive, a terrific captain.”

The host observes that Kander has unusual loyalty to performers, like Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, presumably writing with them in mind. “This is going to sound really corny, his guest responds. ” If it’s true, it’s because I was a family person and give all the insecurity in the art, I instinctively wanted to create with my friends. What we do is exciting, fun, scary, and sometimes very lonely, so when you find people like that, it’s my idea of a good time.”

Doyle closes by bringing up 1984’s The Rink, a show he wants to direct one day. (Kander and Ebb with Terrance McNally starring Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli.) He questions why it isn’t done more. The composer acknowledges terrible reviews, “though the audience responded and I loved it. I don’t know why some of the shows I did were successful and others not.”

“The biggest example of that is Chicago, a modest success with mixed reviews that took root on Broadway 20 years later.” (Kander and Ebb with Bob Fosse.) “There were even some critics who changed their minds about it!” The show originally opened in 1975 and ran two years. It was revived in 1996 and still running when shut down by the pandemic.

“Sondheim’s Road Show got a lukewarm reception downtown (at The Public Theater), but was successful in London at The Chocolate Factory,” Doyle adds, “perhaps because it looked at America cynically.” The artists concur there’s no accounting for it.

Disappointingly time is up. CSC should consider a Part II for more illuminating, entertaining conversation with this genial icon of the theater.

Opening Photo: Left John Doyle, Right John Kander courtesy of CSC

All Classic Conversations are archived and free.

About Alix Cohen (1053 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.