Understanding Kander and Ebb, composer and lyricist of ‘Chicago’

Robert Hite

I was always curious about John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composer and lyricist of “Chicago,” playing this week at Wichita State. Each have long careers as writers of Broadway musicals. 

I knew they had some hits like “Chicago,” “Cabaret” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” I also knew they had some flops.

James Leve’s 2009 book “Kander and Ebb”, part of the Yale Broadway Masters Series, answered some questions. 

“Chicago” has an interesting history. 

The original cast starred Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach and Gwen Verdon, and almost never started because choreographer Bob Fosse suffered a heart attack after rehearsals started, and reviews were devastating.

Leve did give details about the musical/drama technique of using vaudeville (a satirical musical style from the 1880s to the 1930s) to serve as a metaphor for the American justice system in which performance persuades the media and the jury. Kander used minor musical chords which “implicit ethnic associations, which lie just beneath the surface of the story.” It first reached Broadway in 1975 and ran a couple years. 

Leve did not describe much about how the revival of Chicago came about in 1996 except to say that it did and has been a great success. I wish he would have noted the musical business, which is as important as the music, lyrics, choreography, staging, lights and other elements of theater. However, that may not be the intent of the Yale Broadway series. The show continues to be performed in New York City and has become the secondlongest running musical in Broadway history. 

Cabaret did not run long after opening in 1965, either, but it also had two revivals, one in 1987 and another in 1998. Leve said it was Kander’s (born 1927) and Ebb’s (born 1932; died 2004) first musical in which they began to find their unique voice that was a risk for two young writers without a hit. The plot is based on “The Berlin Stories” by Christopher Isherwood. It was published in 1945 and explores the rise of Nazi attitudes during Adolph Hitler’s assent to power. 

Kander and Ebb use the cabaret as a metaphor to demonstrate a place where Germans could escape the daily life while the entertainment developed from innocence to Nazi propaganda. 

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” is one musical that Leve does comment about the business aspect of a developing musical. This show became an award-winning musical for music, book and score after facing a “bumpy road” premiering at Purchase College in Purchase, New York. They rewrote and rewrote for a couple years before it made it to New York City in 1993.

The progress of these three musicals makes this book worth reading if you are interested in Kander and Ebb. All three tackle different topics, as do the flops they wrote.

Overall, Leve tells the story of two people working together monogamously for more than 40 years through success and failure. It took persistence, such as writing a number of songs for a musical that in end probably only needed about 15.