THEATRE / Now for one cell of a musical: Only a brave man would make a musical out of 'Kiss of the Spider Woman'. Robert Cushman meets two - Kander and Ebb

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The Independent Culture
WHAT could be jollier than a musical about a revolutionary and a homosexual facing torture and death while sharing a prison cell in South America?

The show is Kiss of the Spider Woman, already familiar as a novel, play and film, and due soon at the Shaftesbury Theatre after a try-out in Toronto. Fred Ebb, the lyricist, had the idea for the show after seeing the film. His rationale was simple: 'It's a romantic piece.' Ebb and his composing collaborator, John Kander, both in their early sixties, are leaders of what seems fated to be the last great generation of Broadway songwriters. If Kiss goes to New York it will be their 10th show there. Their words-and-music partnership, stretching back to 1965, is the longest in Broadway history. Their personalities, as well as their skills, are complementary. Liza Minnelli, who has sung more of their songs than anyone ('Cabaret', 'New York, New York'), once summed them up with: 'Fred can make you laugh . . . John can make you smile.'

Harold Prince directs Kiss, reunited with Kander and Ebb for the first time since the Sixties when, in their words, 'he invented us', putting them together for Flora the Red Menace, which flopped, and Cabaret, which did not. Prince compares them more elaborately: 'Freddy's quiet, reflective, a little acid; John is bouncier, takes a lot of pleasure in serious music. Every Friday, whatever happens, he's off to his place in the country. Fred is much more showbiz, much more New York.'

In conversation, Ebb jabs and Kander flows. While his friend is wired up for a television interview, Ebb clowns affectionately: 'I'm thinking of getting rid of him . . . I hear Cy Coleman wants me.' The joke works because separation is so unlikely. What they like about working together is, simply, working together. When directors nervously ask them for last-minute rewrites, they could not be more delighted. They leave the rehearsal room, in their own description, 'like schoolboys skipping down the hall'.

Ebb prefers writing comedy, Kander likes love songs. In their most successful shows, Cabaret and Chicago, it is the gritty, sardonic Ebb style that has dominated. Kiss of the Spider Woman seems a natural for the same treatment, and has, in fact, turned out to be one of their most melodic and emotional scores.

It centres on Molina, former windowdresser and eternal movie-buff, who lives on memories of his favourite films and relays them to Valentin, his Marxist cell- mate. The two move from mutual distrust - or, on Valentin's part, revulsion - to love. (This is never going to be the favourite musical of the Republican right.) The upshot is tragic, but there is also, to quote the closing number, 'an optimistic ending'. And though there is irony, it is irony without cynicism.

Ebb sold Kander the idea, and they both sold it to Hal Prince. 'Hal's always the first director we think of if you're stretching the form - if he'd turned us down we'd really have been discouraged.' They first tried it out two years ago on a New York campus: it seemed a lot more realistic and a lot less real. Sets were heavy, the staging laborious and there were (Prince winces at the memory) 'graphic torture scenes'. The key to making the show speedier and more allusive was getting the designer Jerome Sirlin, a projection wizard who turned the Toronto stage into living photo-montage.

Kander and Ebb, meanwhile, revised the score. 'We thought we were being very clever by not allowing Molina and Valentin to sing to each other. We were patting ourselves on the back for our sophistication. But nobody noticed.' One crucial new number was prompted by the original author, the Argentinian Manuel Puig. He loved having his story turned into a musical (according to Ebb, Puig really was Molina) but he insisted that, when the two men made love, their motives should be seen to be ambiguous. 'They're using one another,' he said. 'You've got to take the risk.' Kander was 'worried', Ebb was 'passionately for it'.

Then there is the Spider Woman herself: Molina's favourite movie star doubling as a symbol of death. In the first version her numbers were satirical, 'feeble take-offs' of actual Hollywood archetypes. Now they are 'dead serious' - part of the narrative and a commentary on it. Chita Rivera, with her smoky, shimmering bravura, helps. Playwright Terrence McNally, author of Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune, who wrote the libretto, thought of her for this 'mythical goddess role' and Ebb, who has worked with her twice before, 'can't think of another person in the American theatre who communicates like her'. Balancing this diva playing a diva is the cast's one Canadian. Brent Carver, best known as a classical actor, plays Molina and is, by general consent, sensational.

For Kander and Ebb, the show, with its multiple threads of plot, theme and style, is 'the biggest juggling act we've ever attempted. It would be dead wrong to make it a Brecht-Weill score. These are two people of rather pure feeling; we would not want to mock them. It is not just the love story that makes this a passionate piece; their view of the world - politics, movies - is romantic. And death - the Kiss of the Spider Woman - is compassionate'.

'Kiss of the Spider Woman' previews at the Shaftesbury Theatre (071-379 5399) from Thurs and opens on 20 Oct.

(Photograph omitted)