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Fred Ebb


Fred Ebb

by Kenneth Lyen

Today I mourn the passage of Fred Ebb, a great lyricist of the American musical theater. He was 76 years old.

Born in New York City, he became enthralled with the theater from a young age. He graduated from New York University and did a Masters degree in English Literature at Columbia University. His major interest was in theater and he attended as many performances as opportunity would entertain.

In 1962 Fred Ebb was introduced to John Kander by his music publisher, Tommy Valando.

One of their first successful songs was "My Coloring Book" which became a hit for Barbra Streisand. They auditioned for George Abbot’s 1965 musical "Flora the Red Menace," and were invited to write the songs. While working on Flora, they were introduced to 19-year-old Liza Minnelli, who was keen to perform the lead role. Kander and Ebb persuaded Abbott to cast Minnelli, and the production became her Broadway debut. It was also the start of a lifelong relationship between Minnelli and the songwriters, who have created some of their best materials for her. While Flora was not a hit, it was a praiseworthy inauguration for Kander and Ebb.

In 1966, Kander and Ebb had their first major success. Harold Prince, who produced "Flora," invited them to collaborate on a musical adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s "Berlin Stories." The result was "Cabaret," which became a hit and ran for 1,166 performances on Broadway. It earned Kander and Ebb the Tony Award for Best Score and won several Tony’s, including Best Musical. Its concept was innovative, and the production was stylized. It also carried a political message as it was set in Weimar Germany during the rise of the Nazi party and showed scenes of antisemitism. A few years later, in 1972, Cabaret was made into a movie, and although it was not as politically sharp-edged as the stage production, it nevertheless won 8 Academy Awards.

In 1968, Kander and Ebb wrote "The Happy Time," but unfortunately the show failed commercially. Their next two shows, Zorba the Greek and "70, Girls, 70" were also not commercial successes.

Then came "Chicago," directed by Bob Fosse and starring Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon premiered in 1975. The show was based on Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 1926 play about two murderesses, Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. It included many hit numbers, including "All That Jazz," and the dances choreographed by Bob Fosse were absolutely stunning. The show ran for 898 performances, and although it garnered 11 Tony nominations, it did not win a single one. That year, "A Chorus Line" walked off with 9 Tony’s. However, in 2002, Chicago was made into a film. The screenplay tells the story through Roxie’s eyes, and the musical world becomes a fantasy in her imagination. I prefer this approach to the stage version. The film won 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

In 1977, Kander and Ebb wrote the title song for Martin Scorsese’s film "New York, New York," sung by Liza Minnelli. It is now considered the theme song for New York City.

That year they staged "The Act" starring Liza Minnelli, but it was a flop. In 1981, they wrote Woman of the Year" featuring Lauren Bacall. This show gave them their second Tony award. "The Rink" was another vehicle for Liza Minnelli, and was staged in 1984.

The next big hit was "Kiss of the Spider Woman," based on the novel by Manuel Puig. It reunited Kander and Ebb with director Harold Prince. It opened in 1993 and ran for 904 performances. The story was about the relationship between a political prisoner and a gay window dresser obsessed with movies. It won 7 Tony Awards including Best Score for Kander and Ebb, their third Tony.

In 1997 they wrote "Steel Pier," their last original musical to open on Broadway, but it was a flop and closed after 76 performances.

Kander and Ebb occupy a unique place in the history of musical theater. Fred’s lyrics are are intelligent, provocative, and he is not afraid to tackle controversial themes. They will always be remembered for their hit songs like "All That Jazz" and "Cabaret." Luckily there is a record of them singing their own songs in the Songwriters series. This is a must watch video for all Kander and Ebb aficionados. The partnership has survived almost five decades, making it the longest in Broadway musical history. Fred was inducted into The Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983.

"Life is a cabaret," Fred wrote. A cabaret that entertains and enriches our lives. I will miss you, Fred. Rest in peace.

11 September 2004