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Let's Hear It for the 'Boys'

January 19, 2012 By:
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Razzle-dazzle 'em? Who better than John Kander.

The Chicago composer has always thought of Broadway as his kind of town.

Now, it may be Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org has bagged some major bragging rights in bringing The Scottsboro Boys -- a critically acclaimed theater piece that nevertheless got the audience's heave on Broadway in December 2010 -- to the city, where it is being staged from Jan. 20 to Feb. 19 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

This musical minstrel-style societal mea culpa about the victimized black "boys" of the title -- whose sham of a rape case in 1931 Memphis was a lynching of American arrogance and jurisprudence -- did not necessarily sit well with Broadway audiences, who found its off-color theatricality off-putting and its seditious strutting, jarring.

Perfect, avows its 84-year-old composer. "Yes, the audience felt uncomfortable -- and they should be," he says triumphantly, cherishing the thought that social injustice can make people squirm in their seats and squint at things they don't want to see.

It definitely wasn't the first time for Kander, who for more than four decades was half of the incandescent "Kandernebb" combo. (Lyricist Fred Ebb died in 2004.)

"We did it in Cabaret," in which the so-called German jingoistic Tomorrow Belongs to Meactually belonged to the composers, despite the fact that at-first angry audiences wondered how the twosome could include an actual Nazi "fight-song" in their score.

And, of course, there was Chicago, in which the Windy City referred more to the hot air the lead characters blew up the backsides of the media and the courts to stave off the electric chair.

Just two electrifying examples of how Kander and Ebb -- whose successful string of musical hits began with Cabaret in 1966 -- took shots at society's chin while chuckling at how caustically their knockouts came.

Indeed, discomfiting others fit right in to the music men's game plan, right down to where the Boys are -- where not all is black and white but Jewish, too. "There is a blatantly anti-Semitic song we wrote for a southern attorney aimed at the Jewish New York lawyer brought in to defend the boys," notes Kander.

Up-and-at 'em, ADL? Again, he stresses, "it's all right to be uncomfortable."

Sticking fingers in society's eyes brings out the boy in him -- or at least the adventurer: "Boldness in theater," says the multiple award winner and member, with Ebb, of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, "always turned me on."

Turn back to the early days, when this Kansas City star-to-be from the Show Me State of Missouri missed out on few opportunities to show his musical talent at home.

Indeed, it was Aunt Rheta who placed her hands atop his at the piano and helped her little nephew pluck out a chord that was "about the most thrilling thing that ever happened to me," he recalls of his boyhood.

And while the family was in the poultry and egg business, Kander had free range to explore his musical muse, "with the piano sitting right there in the living room for me to play."

Black and white and a wide-eyed boy: "We were a very happy family," the composer says of his parents and brother.

Not that Ebb and Kander couldn't be dark knights, dazed at the machinations of a mean-spirited society: Indeed, who knew that the two could one day bring an audience to its feet even as they razzed societal cruelty?

She got her wish, concedes Kander, who earned his first "big bucks" when staging shows at summer camp, beginning at age 10 and continuing for several years. At 13, he got the biggest Bar Mitzvah gift imaginable. "At the end of the year," he recalls, "the camp director gave me 50 bucks." The kid's response: "You mean you can get paid to do this?"

It's paid off big time, in the collection of Oscars, Tonys and Grammys for scores of musicals -- alongside the applause of such Broadway notables as Lauren Bacall and stars/friends Liza with a Z and Chita with a ca-ching.

What good is sitting alone in your room? For Kander, candidly, life as a child was no cabaret but one filled with illness that still managed to place a song in his heart.

As Kander admits in Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz, the colorful bio about him and Ebb, a bout with tuberculosis had him living in a closed-off room as a toddler, which forced the youngster to open his ears to the sounds around him, attuning him to, well, all that jazz that drifted by.

The arena of aural stimulation made him appreciate the tones that speech and even footsteps tapped out, he says.

He's been tuned in ever since.

But the day the music died, he says, was the day when Ebb passed away on Sept. 11, 2004.

Holed up together in a room composing like alliterative Alices dropped into their own wonderland, they didn't socialize outside the Broadway beat.

But theirs was a coupling of compliments from music lovers and complementing each other's personalities. "We were very, very different people," says Kander.

But is it all that different now? "In a way, we still work together," Kander says of still "consulting" with his longtime professional partner even though he is, for the first time, collaborating with another writer, Greg Pierce, working on a new piece called The Landing, that they will bring out this spring.

He very much misses his late friend and colleague. "It has been a long transition," he offers.

Indeed, his old pal and writing compadre would get a big kick out of how their Scottsboro Boys burrowed into the subconscious of the Broadway crowd. "He'd be pleased," Kander says of his similarly cynical partner who shared his belief that "everybody's culpable in a corrupt society."

And as he talks of a recent concert version of their musicalization of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit -- in which a wealthy outsider (portrayed by Chita Rivera in "the climactic performance of her career," states Kander) revisits her hometown to seek revenge against the man who once betrayed her, Kander stops to marvel that "once again, and I hadn't thought of this until you brought it up, we're talking of corruption in society."

The evil that men do lives after them, the good interred with their bones? The Visit pays a visit on the most corrupt of human nature, with the welcome mat pulled out from under the feet of the most gullible, who, maybe, had it comin'.

But then, roars Kander, "We all have it comin'!"

 

The Chicago composer has always thought of Broadway as his kind of town.

Now, it may be Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org has bagged some major bragging rights in bringing The Scottsboro Boys -- a critically acclaimed theater piece that nevertheless got the audience's heave on Broadway in December 2010 -- to the city, where it is being staged from Jan. 20 to Feb. 19 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

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