Lyricist focused on the relevant with grace, wit and guts
By Jerry Tallmer
Relevant. That is the word that comes into mind at the end of a long days thinking about Fred Ebb on the day after he died.
Fred Ebb and John Kander
I do not know what, even now, 38 years after the shows Broadway premier, 59 years after the death of Hitler, could be more relevant than the biting words Ebb wrote for the songs of Cabaret, including Willkommen, of course, and the pastoral-to-terrifying Hitler-jugend Tomorrow Belongs To Me, andas the grinning Kit Kat Klub emcee waltzes with his chimpanzee bed partner, If you could see her like I do
she wouldnt look Jewish at all.
Or what could be more relevant, for that matterwith that rotting old monster Pinochet still alive and unhandcuffedthan the fiery revolutionist defiance of Over the wall and If not today, then tomorrow and other hair-raising words by Ebb in the no less courageous Broadway musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman, that he and John Kander and Terrence McNally and Hal Prince (and, sublimely, Brent Carver and Chita Rivera) put together to hurl in the teeth of fascism and homophobia and obtuseness and brutality and prison cages everywhere in the world.
Not only that, but the adaptation of Manuel Puigs novel and Hector Babencos film into a Broadway show was Ebbs own idea. Spider Woman came from Fred, John Kander told this journalist a couple of years ago. He said the title to me one day. Just once. I said: Yes. That was it. No further conversation. We said the title to Hal Prince. He said: Yes. And everybody else said: A terrible idea.
It ran two-plus years on Broadway.
Whats even more interesting was that lyricist Ebb had thought Cabaret was a terrible ideato make a musical from John Van Drutens I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwoods Berlin Storieswhen Prince first proposed it to the two young men who had started out with him, and an even younger Liza Minnelli, on Flora, The Red Menace in 1965.
Ebb didnt see where the love interest was in the saga of Sally Bowles. He found out. In fact, he then gave its multiple love interests in twos, threes and various genders, song-language that wedded romance to irony to fatality.
Ebbs lyrics spoke openly and frankly about sexuality, but he was also a man of his times. Last year, after Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the songwriting team from Hairspray, celebrated their Tony with an onstage smooch, Ebb told Randy Shulman of Washingtons Metro Weekly, I thought they made [a] spectacle of themselves, frankly. Your bedroom is not the screen. And it is also not the stage. Anything he had to say about homosexuality, he continued, was in his songs.
Isnt it amazing that this man who could write with flame could also create something as flash as all that jazz of Chicago, as fresh-breeze fragile and heart-lifting as I met this perfectly marvelous girl / In this perfectly wonderful place, as blood-stirring as our own citys anthem.
I know that blockbuster has been exploited everywhere, even by the New York Yankees, and has been attacked as illogical, ungrammatical, intellectually banal, but I tell you, some years back when Frank Sinatras voice surged up in New York, New York just at the instant those Fourth of July fireworks burst over the East River, it was something to nearly swoon over, and remember.
I remember. Thank you, Fred. Thank you, John.
The two men were partners in creativity for more than 40 years, but never in domesticity, much less romance.
Hes gone now, Fred isas ever, as always, much too soon. Deep in the New York Times obit one came across this: In off hours, the young Mr. Ebb [just out of college] took in musicals, a form of which he was not especially fond. They made me crazy, he said in 1976.
I know just how he felt. For most of my life, as for most of my mothers instructive theatergoing life before me, the dopiness and shallowness and, well, total irrelevance of all but the barest handfulPal Joey, Johnny Johnson, My Fair Ladyof Broadway musicals that I was forced to grow up with bored the bejeezus out of me.
Fred Ebb, as I said Fred Ebb, lyricist implanted relevance in that peculiar art form. And, indeed, made it art. With grace, with wit, with brains, with guts, with inventiveness to match, oh . . . Ira Gershwin. Larry Hart, Cole Porter.
Not long ago, on a last visit to Cabaret, I bumped between the acts into Karen Ziemba, the vital, dazzling star of And the World Goes Round, Kander & Ebbs 1991 Off-Broadway scrapbook. Fred Ebb, said Karen Ziemba as we stood there, is a great American poet.
Thats about the size of it.