Fred Ebb's acerbic streak is showing. "Any time whatever you're winning has 'lifetime achievement' in it, you have this feeling it should happen at the end of your lifetime. So if you have any kind of class, you'd take the award and go out and get hit by a bus," he says.
Ebb is the lyricist half of Kander and Ebb, the Broadway songwriting duo that has written such hit shows as "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in more than 35 years of collaboration. The lifetime achievement award he is referring to is the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, which he and composer John Kander will receive in Washington tonight.
While both men use words like "thrilled" and "overwhelmed" to describe their reaction to the honors, Kander seems a bit taken aback as well. "I'm deeply, deeply honored and scared, and also, there's so much more work for us to do. To stop and be revered in some way is kind of strange," he says.
They are currently working on their 12th show - "Over & Over." A musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Skin of Our Teeth," it will have its world premiere at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., next month.
Like a number of their shows, "Over & Over" is about man's survival against the odds. And, considering how rare it is for Broadway songwriting teams to last for decades, survival is a theme that also applies to Kander and Ebb.
Odd as it might sound, one thing that has held them together is their differences - differences that range from musical tastes (Kander likes ballads; Ebb likes peppy, upbeat numbers) to thematic interests (Kander likes light themes; Ebb likes dark) to where they prefer to live. On the day of these interviews, for example, Kander, 71, a native Midwesterner, spoke from his country home in upstate New York; Ebb, 65, a born and bred New Yorker, spoke from his Central Park West apartment.
This apartment is where the songwriters work when they are writing a show - Kander at the Baldwin upright and Ebb at a manual Smith Corona. In the case of "Over & Over," that work has been spread over most of this decade, with various projects in between.
They've been at it so long that neither remembers which one suggested Wilder's 1942 play - or whether the suggestion came from the show's librettist, Joseph Stein, with whom they last worked 30 years ago on "Zorba."
Kander was an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio when he first saw "The Skin of Our Teeth," a play about the trials and tribulations of the Antrobus family of suburban New Jersey, from the Ice Age to modern times. He liked it so much, he saw it five nights in a row.
"I loved the circus-y quality of the play, the humanity of the play, and yet somehow or other in later years when I would see other productions, ... none of them have really succeeded popularly or critically," Kander says. "Maybe it's because the play is treated as a kind of icon, or thought of as terribly lofty."
Ebb worked at the hat-check concession so he could see the Broadway revival of "The Skin of Our Teeth." "It's a difficult ,, project," he says of the musical. "It's hard to have a take on the material because Wilder's voice in that particular piece is very assertively set forth. I think what happens when you do a musical adaptation of a work of that nature, you must ... take a whole different way of presenting the material, and finding that style was our principal problem, and I hope we have."
The style they've come up with is zany, farcical. Kander sums it up as " 'Hellzapoppin' ' meets the Old Testament." His score, he says, is "very American-flavored," complete with marches. And they've added some characters, including God, played by a woman.
"Over & Over" will be the first show Kander and Ebb have ever premiered at a nonprofit regional theater. They chose Signature largely on the basis of a revival of their 1984 musical, "The Rink," which was staged there in 1996 by artistic director Eric D. Schaeffer, who is directing "Over & Over."
"We ... would have followed him to the ends of the earth," Ebb says of the young director, who is fast gaining a national reputation, having staged the touring production of "Big" and the American premiere of producer Cameron Mackintosh's political musical, "The Fix."
Schaeffer believes "Over & Over" typifies Kander and Ebb's predilection for the new and different, whether that means setting a musical in a rundown roller-skating rink ("The Rink") or a Latin American prison ("Kiss of the Spider Woman"). "We're just as crazy as Thornton Wilder's play, but daring in other ways as well," Schaeffer says. "I really do think that's when Kander and Ebb are at the top of their form - when they're really pushing the envelope."
It was Schaeffer's suggestion - after he directed a workshop production of "Over & Over" in New York in June - that the show debut at the 136-seat Signature Theatre. The idea especially appealed to Kander. "We knew that we did not want to open on Broadway and preview and have everybody staring over our shoulder," says the composer, who feels his last show with Ebb, "Steel Pier," might have benefited from an out-of-town tryout. A musical about marathon dancing, "Steel Pier" closed on Broadway after only 76 performances.
Although Ebb is hesitant to speculate about the prospects of "Over & Over," Kander admits he hopes the show will go to Broadway next season. And Broadway certainly appears to be a possibility, given the people involved. Besides the high-powered creative team, the production stars Bebe Neuwirth (a Tony Award winner for her role for the 1996 revival of Kander and Ebb's "Chicago") as the seductive maid, Sabina; David Garrison (a star of the Broadway production of "Titanic") as Mr. Antrobus; and Dorothy Loudon (a Tony winner for her portrayal of Miss Hannigan in "Annie") as a new character named Lulu Shriner, a rival of Sabina's.
"Over & Over" is not all the pair is up to. A murder-mystery musical called "Curtains" has been in the works even longer. In addition, they've agreed to do a musical based on Friedrich Durrenmatt's "The Visit," with a book by Terrence McNally and starring Angela Lansbury. And, the national tour of the 1998 Tony Award-winning revival of "Cabaret" opens in Los Angeles in DTC February. (It comes to the Warner Theatre in Washington in July and is expected to play the Mechanic Theatre next season.)
Neither Kander nor Ebb, however, holds out much hope for the proposed movie of "Chicago," which was to star Madonna and Goldie Hawn. "From what we hear, there's been a lot of strife among the producing element," Ebb says.
Their track record with stage shows, over which they have more control, is impressive. Only one of Kander and Ebb's finished musicals has not been produced - their very first effort, "Golden Gate," about the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake. "I don't know if it would hold up today," Ebb says. But he admits, "I would love somebody to look at it and see. So far nobody's come forward."
With easily more than 1,000 songs to their credit - including such hits as "New York, New York" and the title song from "Cabaret" - Kander takes pride in the fact that there's no such thing as a typical Kander and Ebb song. "Every once in a while a composer will say to me, 'We wrote a real Kander and Ebb song,' and I have never had the slightest idea of what that meant," he says.
The reason for the diversity probably goes back to their basic differences. But it's their respect for those differences that makes the combination succeed. "When we work in that room at the same time, we can say anything to each other," Kander explains.
Ebb elaborates: "At no time do we threaten each other. It creates a freedom of expression. I'm helped when Johnny doesn't like something, because it makes me go back and do it better. I think he feels the same way."
"It's great to see them bounce ideas off each other, because Fred will approach it from one side and John will approach it from the other side, but they'll both end up with the same solution," says Schaeffer.
And, after all these years, Kander and Ebb have never had a major falling out. "We can argue all the time. We have never ... had a war," Kander says. "It's such a piece of luck. That's one of the major things that's kept us together all these years - it never affects our pleasure in working."
Kander and Ebb
What: Kennedy Center Honors (other honorees: Shirley Temple Black, Bill Cosby, Willie Nelson, Andre Previn). Tonight's sold-out gala will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Dec. 30 on CBS (WJZ, Channel 13).
What: "Over & Over"
Where: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, Va.
When: Jan. 6-Feb. 21
Tickets: $28 and $30. (Run is sold out, but standby tickets go on sale one hour before performance.)
Pub Date: 12/06/98