A history of Kander and Ebb musicals on Broadway
John Kander and Fred Ebb are the songwriting duo behind one of Broadway's longest-running shows and many other theatrical classics that often get revived.
Razzle dazzle us! For 40 years, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb worked side by side to create a brand of Broadway musicals packed with beauty and biting commentary. Their shows leave you singing and thinking – a case in point is Chicago, one of the longest-running shows in theatre history.
The prolific duo is known for collaborations with various writers, directors, and actors, and their Broadway premieres continued even after Ebb’s death at age 76 in 2004. The latest is New York, New York, based loosely on Martin Scorsese’s same-named film, now playing at the St. James Theatre. It’s a perfect time to look back through the team’s illustrious career – which includes three Tony Award-winning scores – and all the Kander and Ebb musicals on Broadway.
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1965: Flora, The Red Menace
Kander and Ebb’s first Broadway collaboration is based on the novel Love is Just Around the Corner. Set in Depression-era New York, the romantically and politically charged musical lasted around three months. That was long enough for its star, Liza Minnelli, to win a Tony Award and begin a long collaboration with the pair.
A ratty club in Germany amid the Third Reich’s rise to power seems an unlikely musical setting, but countless audiences came to the cabaret. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s stories and the play they inspired (John Van Druten’s I Am A Camera), the show is a masterwork that earned the duo their first Best Score Tony win.
The musical, directed by Harold Prince, opened in 1966 and ran for nearly three years, later Willkommen-ing audiences back to Broadway in 1987, 2004, and 2014 revivals. Plus, the Cabaret film starring Minnelli and Joel Grey, who reprised his Tony-winning role as the emcee, dropped in 1972 and has since become one of the most celebrated movie musicals in history.
1968: The Happy Time
This bittersweet show starring Robert Goulet follows a globetrotting photographer who returns to his hometown in Canada to search for something missing in life. It earned Kander and Ebb a Tony nomination for Best Score, and the show’s happy time on Broadway ended after 286 performances.
Two months after their previous show closed, this dark-streaked musical, adapted from the novel Zorba the Greek, launched its 305-performance run. The songwriting duo’s attraction to edgy material continues here, including in the song “Life Is.” It matter-of-factly states that "life is what you do while you’re waiting to die.” The show came back to life in a 1983 revival.
1971: 70, Girls, 70
Ebb, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Kander were in a lighter mood for this work about senior citizens who steal and resell furs to finance the rescue of their retirement home. The show opened in April 1971 but made a quick getaway from Broadway, running for only 35 performances.
Regarding celebrity criminals and the true crime craze, this story of merry man killers Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly – roles originated by Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera – was way ahead of its time. Chicago was up for 11 Tonys, including Best Score and Best Book (co-written by Ebb), but the show went home empty-handed. Nowadays, the six-time Tony-winning 1996 revival is the second longest-running show in Broadway history.
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1977: The Act
Michelle Craig, a movie-star-turned Las Vegas performer played by Minnelli (who won a Tony), recalls her rocky career moves and romances in this show that opened in October 1977 and ran for 233 performances.
Among the tunes in the Tony-nominated score is “The Money Tree,” in which Michelle wises up about the guy in her life: “The day will come; he’ll come running to me the day the sun turns black and there’s a money tree.”
1981: Woman of the Year
The duo found creative inspiration for this Lauren Bacall star vehicle in the 1942 Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn comedy about rival reporters falling in and out of love. Bacall sings about that in the witty number “I Wrote the Book,” in which her character notes that she is up on everything – including how to lose a man.
Likewise, Kander and Ebb continued to show they wrote the book on songwriting, winning a Tony for their score. The show opened in March 1981 and closed after 770 performances in just under two years.
1984: The Rink
The songwriting team notched another Tony nomination for this score. The Rink takes place at a decrepit roller rink, where a mom and daughter (played by Rivera and Minnelli) deal with various challenges, including each other. The show opened in August 1984 and rolled along for 204 performances before calling it a day.
1992: Kiss of the Spider Woman
Based on the Manuel Puig novel about a prisoner in Latin America who escapes into a fantasy world, Kiss of the Spider Woman was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie before becoming a Tony-winning musical.
Kander and Ebb took home the Best Score Tony, one of seven prizes for the show, including Best Musical and Best Actress for Rivera in the title role. The show opened in May 1993 and had its last kiss in April 1995 after 904 performances.
1997: Steel Pier
Gritty settings and scenarios become Kander and Ebb. No wonder this show about lost souls in Depression-era Atlantic City appealed to them. Their score got a Tony nomination, but the show ran just 76 performances after its April 1997 premiere.
This backstage murder mystery musical comedy starring David Hyde Pierce opened in March 2007 – making it the duo’s first new show since Ebb’s death – and ran 511 performances. The Tony-nominated score featured “Show People,” an upbeat nod to theatre performers “who live in a world of their own” and who are “born every night at half-hour call.” Write what you know, they say – and Kander and Ebb knew actors.
2010: The Scottsboro Boys
“How about a musical about racism, rape, and Jim Crow?” New York Theatre Guide noted in its four-star review of The Scottsboro Boys. It added that “if anyone is going to handle” those topics, it’s Kander and Ebb, who are both credited for music and lyrics in their Tony-nominated score. The story recounts true events from 1931 Alabama, where nine young Black men were accused of raping two white women. The show, directed by Susan Stroman, was framed as a minstrel show, which inspired protests. It ran 49 performances.
2015: The Visit
A star vehicle for Rivera, this show about a scorned woman who engineers the ultimate revenge on her ex-lover is based on Friedrich Duerrenmatt's 1956 play. The show took 15 years of development to reach Broadway. The Visit was up for five Tonys but won none, and the musical closed after 61 performances.
2023: New York, New York
Listen up for Kander and Ebb hits including the title blockbuster and “But the World Goes Round” from Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film. The duo’s songs and the setting — 1946 New York — are the only carryovers from the screen, though. This musical features a new plot about artists seeking success in the city.
New York, New York also includes new songs by Kander and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, bridging old and new songwriting talents. You’ll want to be a part of this Kander and Ebb collaboration.
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Other Kander and Ebb Broadway credits
The above are the musicals the duo created together, but Kander and Ebb songs are so popular that they pop up in plenty of other Broadway shows. These include Prince of Broadway, a 2017 tribute to Harold Prince; Come Fly Away, a 2010 dance show built around Frank Sinatra hits; and Liza, a 1974 concert by Minnelli.
Photo credit: Chicago on Broadway. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
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