Co-writer with John Kander of the scores for 'Cabaret' and 'Chicago'
Tuesday 14 September 2004
Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics for some of the best-known shows and songs of the last 40 years. With the composer John Kander, he wrote the scores for
Chicago, and the number that has become an anthem of Manhattan, "New York, New York". Phrases such as "Life is a cabaret, old chum" and "If I can make it there, I'd make it anywhere" have become part of the lexicon.
Fred Ebb, lyricist: born New York 8 April 1928; died New York 12 September 2004.
Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics for some of the best-known shows and songs of the last 40 years. With the composer John Kander, he wrote the scores for Cabaret and Chicago, and the number that has become an anthem of Manhattan, "New York, New York". Phrases such as "Life is a cabaret, old chum" and "If I can make it there, I'd make it anywhere" have become part of the lexicon.
The team was particularly associated with Liza Minnelli, who starred in their first Broadway musical Flora, the Red Menace in 1965, their later shows The Act and The Rink, and the films Cabaret and New York, New York. They also wrote a television special for her, Liza with a Z, for which their songs included the witty title number, based around the common mispronunciation of "Liza" as "Lisa", plus one of Minnelli's signature numbers, "Ring Dem Bells". Ebb even gave Minnelli away at her 1974 wedding to Jack Haley Jnr. The team's other leading ladies included Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon and Lauren Bacall. Two of their early songs were recorded by Barbra Streisand and they wrote the songs for her film Funny Lady (1975).
An engaging, witty couple who delighted in performing their own material, Ebb and Kander specialised in urban subjects, often with a cynical slant, and Ebb was noted for his droll humour and the well-turned phrase. His other shows included a paean to active old age, 70, Girls, 70, in which Dora Bryan had a personal triumph in London, and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Fred Ebb was born in New York City. He was, according to the director Scott Ellis , "sweetly vague" about his age, but his family state that at the time of his death he was 76. He attended New York University, graduating with a BA, and Columbia University, where he received a master's degree in English literature. He became interested in musical theatre as a youth, and all his life was an avid collector of show albums.
A short-lived revue, From A to Z (1960), included Ebb's first material performed on Broadway. Woody Allen and Jerry Herman also made their Broadway débuts as writers on the show, which lasted for less than three weeks. Ebb next contributed lyrics for another revue which flopped, Vintage '60 (1960), and he wrote two new scenes for a hit off-Broadway revival of The Boys from Syracuse (1962).
It was Ebb's publisher, Tommy Valando, who introduced Ebb to Kander, and the result was the song "My Coloring Book" (1962). Introduced in cabaret by Kaye Ballard, it was then sung on television on the Perry Como Show by Sandy Stewart and became a major hit, with best-selling recordings by Stewart, Kitty Kallen and Barbra Streisand. Ebb's touching lyrics took the colouring-book theme and made it a plaintive ballad of lost love: "These are the eyes that watched him as he walked away, Color them grey . . ." with its concluding lines, "This is the man, the one I depended upon, colour him gone."
The first musical the couple wrote, Golden Gate, failed to find a producer, but the score was heard by Harold Prince, who hired the team to write the songs for Flora, the Red Menace, which began their association with Liza Minnelli, then 19 years old. The story of a young art student who becomes involved with Communism during the Depression, it was a personal triumph for the star, who won that year's Tony Award, and Variety commented of the score, "The songs indicate that Broadway may have an able new tunester team."
The critic Martin Gottfried disliked the show but conceded, "Fred Ebb's lyrics were a cut or two above the Broadway average." The songs included a wistful love song for the star, "A Quiet Thing", which was to become one of Ebb's personal favourites, and a show-stopping song of optimistic defiance, "Sing Happy".
The following year Kander and Ebb wrote their masterwork, Cabaret, based on John van Druten's play I am a Camera, which was itself based on Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin. Harold Prince, who both produced and directed the show, first had the idea of translating Druten's adaptation as a musical. The librettist Joe Masteroff later described his reaction when Prince suggested Kander and Ebb to write the score. "I thought it was a terrific idea because I thought, and still think, that the score of Flora, the Red Menace was sensational."
The show underwent drastic changes during its composition. "Hal thought the show should open atmospherically and that we should do a mélange of songs taking place all over Berlin to set up where we were, what was going on at the time," Ebb said:
We wrote five songs - one of them was called " Wilkommen" and was sung by a little man in a night-club. Then we had the idea of using this little man as a thread for the entire musical.
The little man became an MC, brilliantly played by Joel Grey, and his songs became ironic comments on the action. Ebb called the character "the amoral bawdy sensuality behind which we play the terror of the coming Nazi regime", and the MC's exhortations to forget the worries of the world and just have fun echoes the attempts of the show's characters to ignore the troubling events of the era.
In a superb piece of casting, Kurt Weill's widow Lotte Lenya played the landlady Fräulein Schneider, who falls in love with a Jewish boarder. Her songs of resignation and survival, "So What?" and "What Would You Do?" were highlights, but one critic referred to her material as "watered-down Weill", prompting her to reassure Kander and Ebb, "No, it is not Kurt. When I walk out on the stage and sing those songs, it is Berlin."
Other songs included the celebrated title number for the character of Sally Bowles, a touching hymn to wedlock titled "Married" ("How the world can change, it can change like that, due to one little word, married . . ."), and what seems like an innocent expression of optimism, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me", which later becomes a sinister anthem of Nazi youth.
The team courted trouble with one song, "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes", in which the MC danced with a gorilla while defending its appearance, concluding with the line, "If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn't look Jewish at all." Conceived as a chilling demonstration of anti-Semitism, it initially had the desired effect. "It got an amazing reaction from the audience, because they laughed, and then they kind of realised what they were laughing at, and they would stop laughing," Ebb said:
It made them very nervous and that's what Hal wanted. But towards the end of the Boston run we started to get letters. One was from a rabbi who said that the graves of six million Jews were pleading for us not to do this. And on the second night of previews in New York a lady accosted me and asked if I was the lyric writer. She said that the line at
the end of the gorilla song had to be changed or pressure groups would be after us.
Since the brewing storm over the line could have seriously affected bookings for the show, the term " meeskite" (used to convey unattractiveness) was substituted. (In the film version, Fosse reverted to "Jewish" but had it spoken with no music under it so that it could easily be re-recorded had there been objections.) Cabaret ran for over a thousand performances and won eight Tony Awards, including ones for the song-writers.
In the West End production of 1968, Judi Dench played Sally Bowles, with Lila Kedrova as Fräulein Schneider, though London failed to appreciate the show as much as New York had. The film directed by Bob Fosse in 1972 differed considerably from the show, eliminating the sub-plot featuring the landlady along with several character songs. Sally's "Don't Tell Mama" was replaced by a new song, " Mein Herr", and a new "Money Song" was duetted by Minnelli and Grey. A Kander-Ebb ballad, "Maybe This Time", recorded earlier by Minnelli, was also interpolated into the score. Subsequent revivals of the show, including the Donmar production staged by Sam Mendes in 1993, have incorporated elements of the film.
Kander and Ebb followed Cabaret with The Happy Time (1968), based on the reminiscences of Robert L. Fontaine and his adolescence in a small French-Canadian town. The stars were Robert Goulet as the boy's wandering photographer uncle, and David Wayne as his jaunty grandfather. Though it had the distinction of being the first musical to lose $1m, its failure was blamed on its libretto, with Ebb and Kander's work winning praise, the critic of the Morning Telegraph hailing "Fred Ebb's imaginative and poetic lyrics".
Zorba (1968) had one of the team's finest scores, though it was only a modest success. Based on the novel and hit film, it had an ambitious score in which Ebb could exploit two of his favourite themes, transience (in a haunting number called "The Butterfly") and nostalgia, with the dying coquette Hortense reliving her 16th birthday in the song "Happy Birthday", with its lines, "My mother says, she looks at me and she remembers . . . she envies me the love I'm just about to see, But she was yesterday, and I'm tomorrow, Happy birthday to me!"
70, Girls, 70 (1971) was based on Peter Coke's play Breath of Spring (filmed as Make Mine Mink) about a group of pensioners who form a gang of fur thieves. With a cast of veterans, it lasted only 35 performances on Broadway, but it had an enjoyable score which emphasised survival and resourcefulness. Highlights included a complaint about the pace of modern life ("The trouble with the world today, it seems to me, is coffee in a cardboard cup") and Mildred Natwick's song advocating optimism and affirmation, "Yes", later performed and recorded by Liza Minnelli.
Kander and Ebb had formed a close professional relationship with Minnelli, and in 1972 Ebb won an Emmy Award as producer of the television special Liza with a Z. Among the songs written for the show was "Ring Dem Bells", the story of a wallflower who visits Dubrovnik where she falls in love with a man who turns out to live in the same apartment building in New York, the song's moral being not to sit indoors moping, but "hurry out in the hall". It was a typically playful Ebb lyric, and became a show-stopper for many of Minnelli's stage performances.
Ebb's next show was Chicago (1975), based on the play about a floozie named Roxie Hart, who shoots her lover, then exploits her prison sentence, to gain fame. Directed by Bob Fosse as a vaudeville show, it starred Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, but its sardonic, cynical mood and an ugly production deterred audiences, though the show was given a boost when Verdon became ill and Minnelli (then at the peak of her fame) substituted for her. The show was to find its greatest success years later when produced as part of the "Encores" series of concert revivals in New York in 1996.
That production is still running on Broadway, and for several years it has also been one of London's greatest successes. Its songs include the drily humorous "Cell Block Tango", in which a group of murderesses assert their complete innocence, a lawyer's advice to "give 'em the old razzle dazzle", and a Bert Williams-style number of self-effacement, "Mr Cellophane". Its biggest hit, "All That Jazz", includes lines that could only have been written by Ebb, such as, "Hold on, hon, we're gonna bunny hug, I bought some aspirin down at United Drug, In case we shake apart and want a brand-new start, To do that jazz!" The 2002 film version of Chicago won the Oscar as Best Film.
In 1975 Ebb and Kander contributed songs to Funny Lady, a sequel to Funny Girl, with Barbra Streisand again playing Fanny Brice, and introducing the songs "How Lucky Can You Get?" and "Isn't This Better". In 1977, Ebb and Kander wrote for Minnelli again when they did the songs for Martin Scorsese's overblown musical New York, New York. The title song was to be one of their greatest hits, particularly after it was recorded by Frank Sinatra.
The following year, Ebb and Kander wrote another show for Minnelli, The Act. Though dismissed by critics as virtually an extended cabaret act, it featured at least three outstanding numbers, "Bobo's", "Arthur in the Afternoon", and another of the star's trademark numbers, "City Lights", a song beloved by all of us who will take the city over the country any time: "New-mown hay gives me hay fever, there's the rooster, where's my cleaver . . ."
Their next show, Woman of the Year (1981) was mediocre, but ran on the strength of Lauren Bacall's star quality. It was followed by The Rink (1984), which starred Minnelli and Rivera as an estranged daughter and mother who are reunited when the family business, a roller-skating rink, is about to be demolished. It was a little too downbeat for wide popularity, but proved a good showcase for its stars, with "Colored Lights" and "Head Cook and Bottle Washer" among its songs.
The team had another modest hit with Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), but their last Broadway show, Steel Pier (1997) had only a short run. In 2001 Chita Rivera starred in a Chicago production of The Visit, but it failed to reach Broadway. At the time of his death, Ebb was working on Over and Over, a musical version of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, plus a murder- mystery musical entitled Curtains.
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