John Kander, photographed by Carolyn Cole for the Los Angeles Times in 2015.
John Kander has debilitating stage fright—which is ironic, given how many Kander & Ebb musicals have focused on the lives of spotlight-hungry stage creatures. (Roxie Hart! Velma Kelly! Sally Bowles!) But Kander’s songs are not him. “I don’t play in the show-business pen very much,” he explains. Years ago, when he was introduced to Shirley MacLaine at a party, she eyed him beadily and said, “You’re not in show business, are you?” Kander, knowing what she meant, replied, “I guess not.”
The truth is that—at 89—Kander is more devoted to the theater than ever. He’s juggling four new projects, including Kid Victory (soon to be seen at the Vineyard) and an all-waltzing musical that Susan Stroman is developing. We spoke with Kander as part of My Dream Encores! Show, a series of conversations with artists about the neglected musicals they love. His pick: the 1997 Kander & Ebb show Steel Pier, an ethereal fable about a stunt pilot who returns from the dead and enters a Depression-era dance marathon.
December 22, 2016 by
New York City Center
The playwright John Guare, photographed by Paul Kolnik.
In My Dream Encores! Show, artists talk about forgotten Broadway musicals that they’re yearning to see again. Playwright John Guare may be the poet laureate of yearning; so many of his characters are possessed by an absurdly specific nostalgia—whether it’s an old biddy longing for her dead lover’s toupee or a mobster lamenting how much better the Atlantic Ocean used to be. As far as nostalgia goes, Guare himself was an early bloomer. “I was 16 in 1954, and I missed the twenties so much,” he says. “All the time I thought, Oh, if only I had been born in the twenties, it would’ve been great.” But Guare’s dream Encores! show isn’t an actual 1920s musical. Written in 1953, Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend takes place in a fairyland 1920s where girls are always carrying hat boxes, every messenger boy is a millionaire in disguise, and the cure for heartbreak is to “keep on dancing.” The musical also marked the American stage debut of a 19-year-old Julie Andrews.
CITY CENTER: Why The Boy Friend?
JOHN GUARE: After you called and asked if I would pick a musical, I starting thinking, Well, what will I pick? I was walking down the street, and I ran into Edward Hibbert, the actor. His father was the original Lord Brockhurst, and he was conceived and born during the run of The Boy Friend. We always talk about it. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and it just came out of my mouth—I didn’t even say hello. I sang:
I don’t claim that I am psychic
But one look at you, and I kick
Away every scruple
I learned as a pupil
In school, my dear.
Edward and I stood in the middle of 12th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenue, and sang the score of The Boy Friend. We didn’t say anything else. And I thought, Oh, I know what I’ll talk about. It amazed me how a show that I hadn’t heard in years was still so accessible to me, and so alive to me. The power of that show…I just remember it had a purity and a clarity that outdid every other musical I ever saw.
April 5, 2016 by
New York City Center
Andy Mientus calls himself “the Cathy Rigby of Spring Awakening”—and he’s not wrong. A die-hard fan of the musical, Mientus moderated Spring Awakening’s official Facebook fan page during college and eventually joined the first national tour in 2008, playing the manipulative Aryan sexpot Hänschen. After starring in “Smash,” “The Flash,” and Les Misérables, Mientus returned to Hänschen’s britches last fall for the acclaimed Deaf West revival. But Spring Awakening isn’t the only incendiary rock musical that has his heart. When we asked Mientus to talk about his dream Encores! show, he selected Taboo, Boy George’s autobiographical 2003 musical about friendship, drugs, and decadence in the New Romantic club scene of the 1980s.
CITY CENTER: How did you discover Taboo?
ANDY MIENTUS: I went to see it when I was in high school. I had a driver’s license, and Pittsburgh is not close to New York, but not too far, so my parents somehow let me drive to New York City to see shows on the weekend. (laughs) Usually I would see Rent and something else. I would try the Rent lotto and see whatever else I could get into. I had read about Taboo on theater websites, and it sounded so fringy and poppy. Usually I would drive into New York City with friends—but for Taboo, I definitely went on a trip by myself when I was in high school and saw it. I think I rushed; I can’t quite remember.
January 14, 2016 by
New York City Center
John Lahr, photographed by Graham Turner for The Guardian.
In My Dream Encores! Show, artists discuss little-seen Broadway musicals that they’d like to see revived by City Center’s Encores! series. John Lahr is a biographer, Tony Award-winning librettist, and the former chief drama critic for The New Yorker, where he still contributes the occasional profile. Lahr’s wonderful new book Joy Ride covers everyone from Mike Nichols to Susan Stroman, but in selecting his dream Encores! show, the critic reached all the way back to the zany 1951 revue Two on the Aisle. A defiant anachronism in the age of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Two on the Aisle starred Lahr’s father, the comedian Bert Lahr, and marked the first collaboration of Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green.
CITY CENTER: Why Two on the Aisle?
JOHN LAHR: I’d just love to hear it again, because I don’t think Comden and Green are quite given their props today. The songs were terrific and lively, it had some classic sketches, and it had a send-up of Wagner that was howlingly funny. There were two hits that came out of it: “If,” which is still covered by people like Kristin Chenoweth, and “Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me.” Neither song is a classic, but Comden and Green were terrific craftsmen. There’s one song in there that Dad sang called “Catch Our Act at the Met,” which is a satire of celebrities crossing over into opera, and the lyrics are just amazingly witty. The one that I love is “Look at what a hit they made of Fleidermaus / Variety says, ‘Maus packs house.’” (laughs) That flavor has unfortunately gone out of the musical. And the flavor isn’t just wit and contemporaneity; it’s joy. The musical revue had that. I have a lot of nostalgia for both the form and for this particular score. It’s lost to history, really, and it’s too bad, because anybody who discovered it would discover a great deal of wit in the lyrics. Musically, it’s very vivacious—the kind of melodies that people don’t write now. Jule Styne was amazing, and this particular score is lost in his legend too, really.
November 23, 2015 by
New York City Center
Cynthia Nixon, photographed by Maarten De Boer.
Tony and Emmy Award winner Cynthia Nixon has played everyone from Jean Brodie to Eleanor Roosevelt, but the role that got away was Agnes Gooch. “I’m too old now, but I always really wanted to do Gooch,” she says. “Because if she sings badly, it’s fine, you know?” If the third lead in Mame seems like an unlikely Everest, keep in mind that Nixon is obsessed with musicals. She and Sarah Jessica Parker used to sing showtunes during long nights on the set of “Sex and the City,” and these days she still listens mostly to cast recordings. For her dream Encores! show, Nixon selected The Golden Apple, Jerome Moross and John Latouche’s exquisite, brainy “opera for Broadway,” which retells the Greek myths of Helen, Paris, Ulysses, and Penelope through the lens of American folklore. Although the 1954 musical closed on Broadway after four months, it has since acquired a merry, fanatical band of admirers.
CITY CENTER: How did you discover The Golden Apple?
CYNTHIA NIXON: My mother. I was very immersed in musicals growing up—which is what Steve, the play that I’m directing at The New Group, is so much about: people who live for musicals, and live through musicals. I certainly fit into that category, and I’ve done it to my children. (laughs) I’ve also done it to my wife, who was not a musical comedy person at all before she met me. My mother steeped me in musical theater, and we used to play the Golden Apple record. Then I was lucky enough to see a production of it, which is unusual, at the York Theater [in 1978] when I was still a kid. I knew the show inside out by the time I saw it.
November 13, 2015 by
New York City Center