- By Richard Seff, NY Theatre Buzz columnist
- The YMHA Tribute to Fred Ebb, and Parlour Song
- [Editor’s note: Richard Seff was agent to Kander and Ebb and has remained a long time friend.]
Though Ebb and Kander were so very different in their temperaments, interests and life styles, their working relationship was much like a good marriage, though they never socialized together and had separate friends. One loved travel, one did not. Ebb loved city life, Kander escaped it at least once weekly and often on adventurous odysseys, yet as he has observed: “I’d arrive at Fred’s house to work as John Kander, he would appear as Fred Ebb, we’d talk a while about our individual lives, then we’d go into his studio and hours later we’d emerge as Kander and Ebb.”
Fred Ebb, whose birth date was somewhere between 1928 and 1935 with an accent on the former (only his birth certificate knows for certain), left us in 2004, so the mid-February Lyrics and Lyricists YMHA tribute I attended was devoted to his work exclusively. Of course Fred Ebb had only three other collaborators in his long life. One was Norman Martin with whom he wrote some specialty material for club acts and TV specials. Only two numbers in the long tribute were composed by someone other than Kander. One, an amusing character song called “Think!” had a tinkly tune by Paul Klein, his first theatre collaborator. It’s from the score of “Simon Says”, one of four musicals he wrote with Klein in the twelve years before he met Kander. Another song, “Heartbroken,” written in 1953 with Phil Springer, his first collaborator, was commissioned for Judy Garland.
But most of the evening, under the artistic direction of the gifted Rob Fisher (of Encore! acclaim), knocked us out with song after song from the first Kander collaboration (“Flora, The Red Menace”) to one of those from a musical that has yet to reach New York (“Over and Over.”)
The range is staggering. Funny songs like “Ring Them Bells” from “Liza With a Z”, a television special, and “Class” from “Chicago” to moody love songs (“Sometimes A Day Goes By” from “Woman Of The Year”) to the “screechers” (as Kander calls them), like “Maybe This Time” from the 1972 film of “Cabaret” to the great vamp songs like “Wilkommen” from “Cabaret” and “New York, New York” from the film of that name. Just as Fred Ebb begins to be classified as a writer whose voice is colloquial and tough and cynical, along comes a simple ballad like “A Quiet Thing” from “Flora” or “Seeing Things” from “The Happy Time” to declassify him just as quickly.
It took decades for this team to have proper acknowledgement. The early successes were always identified with others. “Cabaret” was known as Hal Prince’s breakthrough success (Prince directed it), “Chicago” was Bob Fosse’s (he directed, choreographed and co-wrote the book with Ebb.) “The Happy Time” was Gower Champion’s near-miss. Even later, “The Kiss Of The Spider Woman” was Chita Rivera’s and Hal Prince’s hit more than theirs. Then came the sensationally successful and long running revivals of “Cabaret” and “Chicago” in the 1990s and suddenly their names were on everyone’s lips, followed by the Theatre Hall Of Fame, the Kennedy Center Honors, a dozen tributes, and a zillion productions around the globe. While Fred relished all the acclaim, John has tried his best to flee from it. With Fred gone, John has to appear at all the functions, always looking a little like a deer caught in headlights.
In the agency days of my career, I represented John and Fred separately and together, and I knew them well. Whenever I encounter John these days, at events like a benefit at the Country Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut which honored him, or at the recent last show of the five performance Ebb Tribute at the YMHA, he puts on a brave face and faces the adoring crowds. And adore him they do. After that exciting final night, John was off to the DC area for a look at the Signature’s production of “Kiss Of The Spider Woman” before he jetted off to Anguilla for a much needed time out. Fred would have spent a month or three in Washington, I’m certain, thoroughly enjoying the Signature’s season of three of their musicals, climaxing in what is hopefully the pre-Broadway look at “The Visit” which will be coming your way in May.
I was blessed to have the privilege of working with these two very special men for my entire agency career of twenty plus years. These two gifted artists represent the best of what Broadway can offer to those who want a life in the theatre. They’ve had more than their share of frustration, disappointment, even failure, but all of it was pungent, close to the edge and scary but life affirming. And the excitement in the air of the green room after the Monday night tribute concert, confirmed that all the clichés about the rewards of a life spent doing what one truly loves, are absolutely on the nose. There were the living colleagues from the past, and the reminders of some who couldn’t be present, and the ghosts of many who’ve passed over. What permeated the room was the scent of love. Ebb put it nicely in “Zorba.” “Love, give me love, only love, what else is there?”
I can’t say for certain, but I don’t think Fred Ebb ever really knew unconditional love – maternal, fraternal or romantic love in his lifetime. Clearly though, his work fulfilled him, for how else could he have come up with words of such tenderness? The enormous photo of him, smiling down on the cast of performers singing his songs, said it all. “Well done!,” it seemed to say. And a cozy feeling spread over us all, suggesting that he was still thoroughly enjoying it.
As March crept in like a lamb (it was almost 60 degrees outside), I dropped in to the charming Atlantic Theatre’s home base on West 20th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea district to see a Sunday matinee of a new play by Jez Butterworth, “Parlour Song.” A playwright from Britain, he’s had three plays mounted at the Royal Court in London. The Atlantic has produced two of them, “Mojo” and “The Night Heron.” Neil Pepe directed both, and is back for this one too. Two Brits, Jonathan Cake and Emily Mortimer join American Chris Bauer to play out Mr. Butterworth’s triangle as man, wife, and best friend, living next door to each other on a small suburban British street. But don’t think “Meet Me in St. Louis” or “The Boy Next Door”. In this one, Ned, Joy’s husband, is a working demolitions man. He’s very much in love with his wife, but she would appear to be trapped in a marriage that gives a lie to her given name. Cake, playing “Dale,” the dude next door, is a hot and hunky third ear to both of them, and acts as a catalyst in this crisp, efficient and absorbing ninety minute one-acter.
Director Pepe has said “I think it’s really about a couple that’s reached their early to mid-40s and wake up to realize they don’t really know how they’ve become what they’ve become. It’s about people trying to claim the life they thought they were going to have. They wonder, how do I get back to the thing I really wanted? And the two different ideas of that, where the wife and husband don’t really meet up, that’s where the drama lies.” Butterworth reveals a world where all is not what it seems, when a demolitions expert suspects his wife is stealing from him.
The author leaves a lot of the conclusion up to us, the audience. I never like that, and I didn’t like it here. Was it all a dream? Did she really steal from him, as Mr. Manningham stole from his wife Bella in “Angel Street” to hasten his collapse? I’m certain the ending was clear to most, if not all of the audience, but it left me hanging about, feeling a tad foolish. Pity too, because the dialogue crackled, the performances were on the button, Pepe added Pinteresque to the adjectives describing the mood of the evening. I’d heard good things about “Mojo”, and this new play clearly shows a playwright with talent, but I’d prefer a little more assistance from him next time out.
Next time: a visit in the rain to see Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry expose their very happy marriage in a musical evening, plus a visit to another type of marriage, a disturbed one, in a bright and innovative musical called “Next To Normal”. The New York season continues to offer variety, provocation and entertainment, so come on along and listen to — well, you know what.