Kander and Ebb go 'round and 'round Songwriting duo has long list of musical hits

January 10, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

WASHINGTON — Washington--The setting is an auditorium at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On stage are an upright piano and two gentlemen who look like a pair of avuncular professors. The white-haired, dapper-looking one is at the keyboard; the other, gray-haired and rumpled, is standing and singing a song they say represents their philosophy of life:

Somebody loses and somebody wins,

and one day it's kicks,

then it's kicks in the shins,

but the planet spins

and the world goes 'round . . .

The singer starts out tentatively, but by the end, he's completely caught up in the song, cranking his arm in an Arsenio-like flourish on the concluding words, " 'round and 'round and 'round."

Although these aren't professional performers, much less stars, the crowd -- gathered for the final installment of a Smithsonian Associates' Campus on the Mall series on American musicals -- goes wild. They are cheering John Kander and Fred Ebb, composer and lyricist, respectively, of such musicals as "Cabaret," "Zorba" and the current London hit, "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

The song they have just performed says a lot about them. On the most obvious level, "The World Goes 'Round" is the title of an award-winning off-Broadway revue of their work that is currently on a national tour; it begins a one-month run at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.

On a deeper level, "The World Goes 'Round" is an uplifting testimony to this team's endurance against the tough odds of show business. Partners for three decades, Kander and Ebb have been collaborating longer than almost any other contemporary Broadway songwriting team. It's not surprising that to summarize their philosophy, they chose a song that celebrates survival. They are survivors.

Earlier in their one-day trip to Washington last month, Kander and Ebb spoke at length about not only the revue, but their life and work in general.

Even to someone meeting them for the first time, the differences between them are apparent. Ebb, 59, is the curmudgeon of the pair. A native New Yorker, he insists, "I'm strictly a city boy." In fact, not only does he prefer the city, he prefers to work in his own Manhattan apartment, where Kander, who lives four blocks away, joins him every morning between 9:30 and 10 when they are working on a show.

Ebb is also the tougher critic of the two. "I don't really like terribly much of what we write, you know, excessively so," he says.

"I do," Kander pipes up. "We write a lot of things that I like a lot." But then after a pause he adds, "I think we write a lot of junk, but we try to tear it up very fast."

One thing they agree on is that they hit it off instantly when music publisher Tommy Valando introduced them in the early 1960s.

And from the beginning, songwriting, which they do together -- music and lyrics at the same time -- has come easily to them. "The process of creation is not a tortured process for us," Ebb says. "I don't remember ever sort of agonizing over a song."

To the contrary, they once wrote a song in 20 minutes. "We were showing off," they proclaim in unison. Written at a dinner party between the entree and dessert, the song is called "I Don't Care Much." Barbra Streisand recorded it.

If their nearly symbiotic professional relationship seems in sharp contrast to their personal differences, it may be because the latter enhances their work. At least that's how Kander sees it. "I think out of two very different personalities, when we're working well together, we create a third," he explains.

Born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1927, Kander is the easygoing member of the partnership. Consider, for instance, his reaction when the creators of "The World Goes 'Round" -- director Scott Ellis, choreographer Susan Stroman and writer David Thompson approached him about assembling the show. "I just felt they were terrifically talented," he says of the trio, who had mounted a successful revival of Kander and Ebb's first show, "Flora, the Red Menace," in 1987. "And I thought we would have a good time."

"I didn't think of it as a good time," Ebb protests. Most of all, he says, he feared the critics. "I mean, can you imagine if they said, 'What on earth is anybody celebrating these guys for?' "

So, Kander and Ebb made one stipulation. "There was no point -- we said that clearly up front, too -- to doing an and-then-I-wrote type of musical, and they very heartily agreed that they would try to give each song a new take," Ebb explains.

The result includes a close-harmony rendition of "Cabaret" -- a noticeable change from the version by Liza Minnelli, the performer most closely associated with Kander and Ebb. Another of her songs, the title number from the 1977 movie, "New York, New York," is sung in a variety of foreign languages. (The revue's title song, incidentally, is from the same movie.)

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