John Kander’s Most Unexpected Birthday Gift By Peter Filichia
Have you ever received a 42-page birthday card?
John Kander did in March, when he hit The Big Nine-Five and the “card” arrived in his mail.
Quotation marks surround the word “card” because Richard Seff actually sent Kander a little book. He called it COME HEAR THE MUSIC PLAY, which he did with Kander’s music much earlier than the rest of us.
In the late 50s, when Seff was a talent agent, he went to see a presentation of an adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s THE ENCHANTED. James and William Goldman provided the book and lyrics, and Kander the music. At this point, if Kander was known at all, it was for composing dance music for the Broadway productions of GYPSY and IRMA LA DOUCE.
Once the presentation concluded, no producer thought the musical worthy enough to seek the rights. How that must have devastated the trio. Little did they know that the three, independently of each other, would give the world CABARET, CHICAGO, FOLLIES, THE LION IN WINTER, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN — all of which would win awards for themselves and others.
However, as hurt as they must have been after THE ENCHANTED enchanted no moneymen, they had to be buoyed when an impressed Seff offered to represent them all.
So, after they finished their original musical A FAMILY AFFAIR, Seff shopped it and got Leland Heyward, who’d co-produced GYPSY, to option it once Jerome Robbins said he’d stage it.
Then Heyward dropped it when Robbins decided he wouldn’t.
No producer could be found, so Seff enlisted a distant relative — so distant that he spelled his last name as Siff — who agreed to raise the money.
Word Baker was flying high as the director of THE FANTASTICKS, so he was hired — and fired. Seff suggested that Hal Prince take over — quite a suggestion, considering that he’d seen only one Prince production: THE MATCHMAKER.
Prince took over A FAMILY AFFAIR, ordered that the set be simplified and replaced the costumes with off-the-rack department store duds. He had no plans to replace leading lady Eileen Heckart, but she was inclined to leave. Carol Bruce, who’d been so mesmerizing in the 1946 SHOW BOAT (and would be just as marvelous in DO I HEAR A WALTZ? in a few years) was sought to take over for her. Then that didn’t happen: Heckart decided to stay.
Once the show arrived on Broadway, Seff took Fred Ebb to see it. The lyricist was despondent that he was already 32 and had no Broadway credits to show for it. To make ends meet, he even had to sell lamps in his uncle’s store. Upon hearing Kander’s music, he told Seff, “Yeah. I could work with him.”
Indeed, he could, en route to the longest-ever collaboration for a Broadway songwriting team: 40 years, till Ebb’s death did they part. But who knew that was coming when the songs Ebb wrote on spec for THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN weren’t accepted?
Nothing happened with their musical GOLDEN GATE, despite its fascinating premise: Angel has been planning to move to San Francisco for a long while and finally gets there – on the day after the 1906 earthquake. If it sounds like a great role for an in-her-prime Liza Minnelli, well, she thought so, too, for she recorded one of the show’s songs: “I’m One of the Smart Ones.”
At last, in 1965, Kander and Ebb had a musical on Broadway: FLORA THE RED MENACE, courtesy of producer Prince. The morning after four out of the six critics disliked the book (although two called the songs “bouncy” and “ingratiating”), Prince held one of his famous post-opening morning meetings to plan his next show. He had Kander and Ebb meet his SHE LOVES ME librettist Joe Masteroff to discuss the possibilities of musicalizing Christopher Isherwood’s BERLIN STORIES and John Van Druten’s I AM A CAMERA.
CABARET opened in Boston. Ebb liked that it was a three-act musical, but producer-director Prince (and Seff, for that matter) didn’t. Abridging it to two acts wasn’t the only disappointment that Ebb had in Boston; while in the men’s room at the Shubert Theatre, he encountered a vitriolic theatergoer who was outraged by a musical that included Nazis.
Don’t assume that Ebb forgot about it. “If there were one bad notice out of 15,” Seff wrote, “that’s the one that Fred would always find and remember.”
Nevertheless, CABARET provided Ebb with enough money to move to Central Park West; Kander had sufficient funds to leave 307 West 4th. (If you care to see the modest dwelling, get off at Sheridan Square; walk north, as Ebb’s lyric in FLORA’s “All I Need Is One Good Break” details and homages.)
Seff establishes that Kander is a most modest man. When they were in a San Juan airport, a live band was playing “Cabaret,” so Seff urged Kander to inform the musicians that he wrote it. When Kander demurred, Seff said he’d tell them — to which Kander replied, “If you do, I’ll pretend you’re some crazed stranger.”
On the other hand, Seff believes that if Ebb had been there, “he would have joined them in the tiny stage.”
That a 42-page book should serve as a card might have been surprise enough for Kander, but Seff had yet one more for him when he wrote, “I never told Fred and John what he said.”
Here Seff divulges that the “he” was David Merrick. When the so-called Abominable Showman heard their early songs, he told Seff, “They’re not up to Broadway. They’ll never make it big.”
And we thought that Merrick’s biggest mistake was BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. Notice, too, that once CABARET was a sensation, Merrick aggressively pursued Kander and Ebb for THE HAPPY TIME. It turned out to be their most tender and delicate score that starts with one of the best title waltzes in Broadway history. (ZORBA was supposed to come first but was delayed by rights issues. It was worth waiting for.)
Seff was somewhat responsible for Paul Aaron directing Kander and Ebb’s 70, GIRLS, 70, about senior citizens’ not-at-all-innocent escapades. Aaron had staged the Broadway production of Seff’s own play PARIS IS OUT! (co-produced by Donald Trump, whom Seff doesn’t mention at all). Because the director had done well by old-timers Sam Levene and Molly Picon, the feeling was he’d be good with a cast full of seniors.
Gertrude Niesen, who’d made a big impression in the 1944 smash hit FOLLOW THE GIRLS – and yet hadn’t worked on Broadway since – was recruited. “Play an old lady?” said the 65-year-old. “I should say not!” Perhaps she would have joined had the show been called 65, GIRLS, 65.
But Kander and Ebb found many Golden Agers who said, as the musical’s spectacular final song goes, “Yes.”
Alas, the heart attack and death of David Burns during the tryout cast a pall over the show; many have said that after that tragedy, theatergoers at the Broadhurst worried that someone they were watching would collapse mid-performance.
Another heart attack would scuttle the next Kander and Ebb show, at least for a while. Bob Fosse, who was to stage their CHICAGO, had one as well. Seff doesn’t mention what I will: CHICAGO’s year’s postponement wound up pitting it against A CHORUS LINE, which it couldn’t beat. Had it opened on schedule the season before, it would have wiped the floor with THE WIZ, which instead lucked out and won Best Musical and six other Tonys.
Seff recalls when he was on the phone negotiating with a CHICAGO producer who was in a hotel room where he’d been consorting with a married woman. When Seff said he’d have to get back to him over a certain point, the producer, fearing that the wife’s husband might find out where they were, refused to tell him at which hotel he was staying.
(This gives a whole new meaning to “Don’t call us — we’ll call you.”)
While waiting for Fosse to recover, Kander and Ebb wrote a night club act for Chita Rivera that was staged by Ronald Field. It was one of Seff’s proudest experiences, for he was representing all four. This early 1975 show was New York’s first opportunity to hear what would become Rivera’s signature song: “All That Jazz.”
Seff stopped agenting soon after, but kept in touch with Kander and Ebb, the latter until his death in 2004. That Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman scored with AND THE WORLD GOES ROUND pleased him; as for Lauren Bacall and WOMAN OF THE YEAR, he opined that she “had a good time until she didn’t anymore.”
(Luckily, the cast album was recorded when she was still enthusiastic.)
Of all the quotations Seff gives from Kander, this is the best of all: “We go into the workroom as John Kander and Fred Ebb,” he said, “but we emerge as KanderandEbb.”
And aren’t we glad they did?
Peter Filichia appears most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.