The Kennedy Center

Fred Ebb


Fred Ebb
(lyricist, born April 8, 1935, New York, New York; died September 12, 2004)

For nearly five decades, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have been one of Broadway's preeminent songwriting teams, the longest-running music-and-lyrics partnership in Broadway musical history. They are the Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein of the second half of the twentieth century. They've given the world some of the great creations of the American musical stage: Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman and nearly a dozen more, ranging from The Act to Zorba. Their scores have a breathtaking ability to capture the flavor of a specific time and place, with gutsy music brimming with vitality and brilliantly droll, penetrating lyrics. They've tackled serious, challenging subjects--Nazism, abortion, murder, capital punishment, prison torture, greed, corruption--with an originality and fearlessness rarely seen in popular entertainment. "Kander and Ebb combine razzrmatazz with a political conscience, and make brazen spirits seem a kind of moral courage," said David Richards in The Washington Post. They've been rewarded with Tonys on Broadway, Oscars in films, and Emmys on television. They've written for the great musical performers of our day: Lauren Bacall, Joel Grey, Gwen Verdon, Frank Sinatra, Robert Goulet, Chita Rivera, and Barbra Streisand. "The greatest thing about Kander and Ebb, you sing their songs and you feel good," says the team's most inspiring muse, Liza Minnelli, a feeling analyzed by Richards in the Post: "Their signature tunes -'Cabaret,' 'New York, New York,' 'How Lucky Can You Get,' 'Maybe This Time,' 'All That Jazz,' -- are big, brassy, upbeat, numbers, usually about going out into the world and grabbing a piece of the action before it's too late. Kander and Ebb are arguably Broadway's foremost advocates of the power of positive songwriting."

John Kander began his career in 1956 as the pianist for The Amazing Adele, during its pre-Broadway run and for An Evening with Beatrice Lillie in Florida. Soon he was preparing dance arrangements for the musicals Gypsy and Irma la Douce. With A Family Affair in 1962 he made his Broadway debut as a composer. The show flopped, but it introduced his talents to the show's young producer, Harold Prince. That same year Kander met Fred Ebb.

Ebb had been writing material for nightclub acts, revues , and for the satirical television show, "That Was the Week That Was." By the time he met Kander, he too had experienced the agony of a musical flop: Morning Sun, for which he wrote the lyrics, had closed after eight performances. "We came to each other fresh from our failures," Ebb recalled. "Our neuroses complemented each other. It was a case of instant communication and instant songs." That same year they enjoyed their first success, the song "My Coloring Book."

Kander and Ebb then wrote Golden Gate, which never opened, but that score induced Harold Prince to hire them for Flora, The Red Menace, a satire on 1930s radicals and Greenwich Village bohemianism. Though not a hit, Flora solidified Kander and Ebb as a team, learning, under the tutelage of the legendary George Abbot, who wrote the book, the essence of collaboration. Also, it made a star out of a teenagers Liza Minnelli, in her Broadway debut.

It was their next collaboration with Prince in 1966, on a musical that deals with the evils and seductive nature of fascism in pre-war Berlin, that catapulted Kander and Ebb to the Musical Theater Hall of Fame. A major critical and box office success, Cabaret had a Broadway run of 1,166 performances and captured the Tony Award as the season's best musical. The original cast recording won a Grammy Award, the 1972 film adaptation won a fistful of Academy Awards, and this year's sensational Broadway production was recently honored with another round of Tony Awards, including Best Revival.

The team's other musicals include The Happy Time, Zorba, 70 Girls 70, Chicago (whose original production in 1975 was overshadowed by A Chorus Line, but whose current Broadway revival has become one of the most lauded productions of the decade), The Act, Woman of the Year (which earned four Tony Awards, including one for its star, Lauren Bacall, and another for Kander and Ebb), The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman (another Tony Award winner for its star Chita Rivera and for the songwriting duo), and Steel Pier. They are currently working on a musical adaptation of Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth.

Kander and Ebb's writing for films has been no less notable. In 1975 they wrote five new songs for Streisand's Funny Girl sequel, Funny Lady, including "How Lucky Can You Get," and "Let's Hear It for Me." One year later the title song for the film musical New York, New York, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Minnelli and Robert De Niro, became their biggest hit since "Cabaret." Introduced by Minnelli and popularized both by her and Sinatra, it became an instant standard, a global phenomenon, and replaced Leonard Bernstein's song with the same title as the unofficial theme song for New York City.

In 1967, Ebb produced "Liza with a Z," a television special starring Minnelli. The telecast won an Emmy and its soundtrack a Grammy. Another Emmy followed with "Gypsy in My Soul," starring Shirley MacLaine. Ebb has also produced "Goldie and Liza Together" and "Baryshnikov on Broadway."

Throughout their long, fruitful careers, Kander and Ebb have never had an argument or a falling out, and their differences seem to complement each other. "When we're at our best, we sound like one person," says Kander. They exult in writing songs that stand out on their own even while adhering to the storyline for which they were created. "And their collaboration isn't just with each other," says David Thompson, Steel Pier's author. "It's with the book writer, choreographer, director, actors -- and ultimately, with the audience." Harold Prince sums up the talent of Kander and Ebb nicely: "They write Broadway -- in the best sense."

Image for Fred Ebb