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.
CITY CENTER: You and Fred Ebb wrote so many shows that deserve to be heard again. Why Steel Pier?
JOHN KANDER: It’s terrible to fall in love with your own work, but I really did with Steel Pier. (laughs) I look back at that piece with a lot of satisfaction. It’s the Orpheus story turned upside down—somebody dead is given a chance to come back into the real world to fix something—and that idea, which is very hopeful, very romantic, touched something in me. Freddy and I were at our best, I think, and working with people whom we loved: [librettist] Tommy Thompson, [choreographer] Susan Stroman, and [director] Scott Ellis. The final run-through in the studio before we went into the Richard Rodgers Theatre remains one of the best times I’ve ever had in the theater. Steel Pier was just so personal.
Karen Ziemba in a biplane fantasy sequence from the original Broadway production of Steel Pier.
What do you mean?
It was a vivid reminder of a time I’d actually lived through: the days of dance marathons, when any sign of hope was desperately needed. When I was six years old, I even went to the Steel Pier a number of times, at the exact period that the show takes place. You know how when you’re a little kid, certain things happen that you never stop being able to visualize? The ambience of that place stayed with me.
The score of Steel Pier beautifully captures that era; so many of the songs sound like things that Harry Warren would’ve written if he’d had a little more depth. Can you talk a bit about the process of creating songs like “First You Dream” and “Everybody’s Girl”?
Freddy and I always wrote in the same way: we would find a moment that we wanted to write, and we’d thoroughly talk about the scene, the characters. Then we went into his little workroom and started to improvise. A phrase or two would happen; a thematic idea would happen. I’d say 95% of everything we wrote was written that way. It wasn’t a matter of sitting down and saying, “At this point, we have to have this happen.” It was almost always from the inside out: we tried to be as truthful as we could.
The show was developed as a dance vehicle for Karen Ziemba, right?
Yes, KZ was very much a part of our intention, and there’s scarcely a moment in her performance that I wouldn’t happily return to. We had Debra Monk, who was really extraordinary. Of course, we also had a discovery in that show: Kristin Chenoweth, who played Precious McGuire, the terrible wife. I remember chatting with Kristin early in rehearsals—after I’d really heard that voice and what it could do technically—and it was almost as if I was trying to talk her out of doing the show. (laughs) But I’m an opera nut, and her voice had such incredible operatic potential.
Luckily, your pep talk didn’t work.
No! (laughs) She pretty much explained it to me then. We kept adding more and more stuff for her. At the beginning of rehearsals, her part was very small—and she was so wonderful that we built the part up and gave her new material, all of which was quite legitimate. There were all kinds of wonderful things that happened in the making of that piece.
The bedraggled marathon dancers in the original Broadway production of Steel Pier included Jim Newman, Kristin Chenoweth, Valerie Wright, and Debra Monk.
And yet Steel Pier only ran 76 performances on Broadway. You later called it one of your biggest disappointments.
We weren’t savaged, but we were dismissed. The show didn’t quite work, somehow—at least on Broadway. Part of that was because while the show was in previews, we were encouraged to reveal everything about the backstory of the leading man so that the audience wouldn’t be confused. It made the show too literal, and it was a mistake. We’ve rectified that since. In college productions, we’ve gone back to the original concept, which was that he just appears.
Late in his life, Fred Ebb was asked about Steel Pier. He said, “I don’t have a hell of a lot of affection for that show.”
Fred was in love with Steel Pier. I know it. I have the image of him watching the show in tears. But if something didn’t work commercially or critically, he had a tendency to—not turn on it, but to lose interest in it.
So he was a creature of public opinion.
Yes. I mean, we all are. But Fred was to a greater extent.
Daniel McDonald and Karen Ziemba in the original Broadway production of Steel Pier.
Steel Pier opened the same season as the Chicago revival, and the two shows ended up duking it out at the Tony Awards in a few categories. Was that bittersweet?
Of course it was bittersweet—and kind of bewildering. Listen, we were very grateful about what happened with Chicago. It continues to be a remarkable element of my life. But that night of the awards was strange, because we had divided excitements.
Did the resurrection of Chicago give you hope that nothing is lost forever, that any show can be rediscovered?
Chicago was a miracle, certainly. But even though we’re talking about the past in this conversation, I really live very much in the present. I’m happy to be working a lot right now, and that’s where my head is.
You’re working on another musical about a girl and a ghost, aren’t you? The Enchanted, based on Jean Giraudoux’s play?
Right! The Giraudoux play takes place in French society between the wars. It’s a very romantic piece with a slightly melancholy cast, about a girl who’s in love with death. I like Giraudoux very much, though a lot of people don’t. The world that he creates is just five feet off the ground; you’re looking at reality without it being real. I’ve been in love with The Enchanted forever. When I came to New York in the fifties, James Goldman and I wrote stuff for it and tried to get the rights to it. Of course, we were very easily dismissed [by Giraudoux’s estate]. Later on, I mentioned the idea to Fred, but he just couldn’t connect with the piece.
And now you’ve finally written The Enchanted, with your current collaborator Greg Pierce.
We have a pretty full draft and are ready to do a workshop; we just need to get rid of our other commitments first. I’m also working on a piece with Stro and Tommy Thompson that’s sort of in the form of Contact—a piece with dance and speech and music. It’s all waltzes. In November we had a four-week workshop of that, in February there’s Kid Victory at the Vineyard, and Greg and I have also started another piece. So there are things to get through, but then we’ll come back to The Enchanted. Seeing as how I’m going to be ninety on my next birthday, we’d better hurry up. (laughs)
Is it true that you and Greg Pierce write together on your iPhones, using the Voice Memos app?
It’s the next best thing if you can’t be in the same room at the same time, like Freddy and I were. Greg and I talk a lot beforehand, and it’s usually together—but once we start writing, it’s possible to work by phone. He’ll improvise something, and I’ll immediately set it to music so he can hear it, and we’ll talk, and he’ll get back to me with new lyrics. It’s a goofy way of working, but it’s worked for us.
John Kander and Lin-Manuel Miranda in conversation after a 2015 performance of The Visit, photographed by Jessica Fallon Gordon.
Last question: Lin-Manuel Miranda said that he wrote “The Room Where It Happens” as a love letter to Kander & Ebb.
Ah! I treasure that. We are friends, and he’s a wonderful, loving, brilliantly talented man.
Do you know what he meant?
I don’t, exactly. Every once in a while somebody would say, “We just wrote a real Kander & Ebb song.” They’d play it for us, and we never had any idea what it was about. (laughs) A lot of people talk about a recognizable style that we had, but neither of us knew what that was.
Matt Weinstock edits the publications at New York City Center.