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'A Perfect Balancing Act'

August 6, 2009 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

Lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander were not only collaborators for more than 40 years -- longer than any songwriting partnership in Broadway history, notes their biographer James Leve -- but also fast and inseparable friends for those four productive decades. It seems that only something as sudden and definitive as Ebb's death in 2004 could have put them asunder.

But despite their long years of creativity and 12 Broadway musicals to their credit, only two of the works will live on beyond them. But the shows with staying power happen to be Cabaret and Chicago, what many consider to be two of the most imaginative and influential musicals in the history of the form.

Leve's book, called simply Kander & Ebb, and published by Yale University Press, considers these two masterpieces, as well as the 10 other works: some of them flops, some middling successes, others worth another look, as well as projects the duo abandoned along the way.

While there's lots for Broadway aficionados to enjoy in this rich volume, general readers should be forewarned that Leve, an academic, provides detailed musical analyses, with an emphasis on notes and staffs and such. But those who don't happen to read music can skip over this material and return to the author's words, which they will doubtless find rewarding.

On a purely biographical level, which Leve tackles in his first chapter, the two men couldn't have been more different from one another. Ebb was born on April 8, sometime between 1928 and 1936, in New York City. (The lyricist was always secretive about the exact year.) A graduate of New York University, he earned a master's degree in English from Columbia University in 1957. Kander was born in Kansas City, Mo., on March 18, 1927. A graduate of Oberlin College, he earned an M.A. from Columbia in composition.

Growing up in the Midwest set the tone for Kander's life and personality. He came from a Jewish family that had lived in Kansas City for a number of generations. They were Jewish, as he would readily admit, but not neurotically so -- not like East Coast Jews. And his family encouraged his interest in music, which Ebb clearly envied, since that had not been the case in his childhood household.

Kander said that he always associated music with fun since that's the way his family treated it. Leve writes that the composer's "fondest recollection of his childhood was of the time his 'Aunt Rheta [put] her hands over my hands on the keys. That made a chord, and as a boy, it was about the most thrilling thing that had ever happened to me.' "

Ebb had no such exposure. Leve says that he was the only male child in a dysfunctional and undemonstrative lower-middle-class family. "His parents never took him to the theater or a concert. His first exposure to musical theater came in the form of cast recordings. When he was old enough he started attending theater on his own, and it became his escape. Later Ebb turned to his friends and the theater for the approbation he felt he never received at home."

Despite these differences, the two men managed to make extraordinary music together, although they insisted that they couldn't define what constitutes a "Kander & Ebb tune" even if they tried.

On the subject, Leve writes: Their "portfolio of songs includes recurring harmonic progressions and exhibits preferences for certain stanzaic structures, but what best defines their voice is the contradictory nature of their collaboration: The composer and lyricist have strikingly different artistic temperaments, the former demonstrably sentimental and lyrical, the latter campy and cynical. Their collaboration is a perfect balancing act."

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