For old chums, life is a cabaret Songwriting team Kander and Ebb receive Kennedy Center Honors tonight, but that won't slow them down. They open their 12th show, "Over & Over," next month in Virginia.

CATCHING UP WITH . . . KANDER AND EBB

December 06, 1998|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Fred Ebb's acerbic streak is showing. "Any time whatever you're winning has 'lifetime achievement' in it, you have this feeling it should happen at the end of your lifetime. So if you have any kind of class, you'd take the award and go out and get hit by a bus," he says.

Ebb is the lyricist half of Kander and Ebb, the Broadway songwriting duo that has written such hit shows as "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in more than 35 years of collaboration. The lifetime achievement award he is referring to is the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, which he and composer John Kander will receive in Washington tonight.

While both men use words like "thrilled" and "overwhelmed" to describe their reaction to the honors, Kander seems a bit taken aback as well. "I'm deeply, deeply honored and scared, and also, there's so much more work for us to do. To stop and be revered in some way is kind of strange," he says.

They are currently working on their 12th show - "Over & Over." A musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Skin of Our Teeth," it will have its world premiere at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., next month.

Like a number of their shows, "Over & Over" is about man's survival against the odds. And, considering how rare it is for Broadway songwriting teams to last for decades, survival is a theme that also applies to Kander and Ebb.

Odd as it might sound, one thing that has held them together is their differences - differences that range from musical tastes (Kander likes ballads; Ebb likes peppy, upbeat numbers) to thematic interests (Kander likes light themes; Ebb likes dark) to where they prefer to live. On the day of these interviews, for example, Kander, 71, a native Midwesterner, spoke from his country home in upstate New York; Ebb, 65, a born and bred New Yorker, spoke from his Central Park West apartment.

This apartment is where the songwriters work when they are writing a show - Kander at the Baldwin upright and Ebb at a manual Smith Corona. In the case of "Over & Over," that work has been spread over most of this decade, with various projects in between.

They've been at it so long that neither remembers which one suggested Wilder's 1942 play - or whether the suggestion came from the show's librettist, Joseph Stein, with whom they last worked 30 years ago on "Zorba."

Kander was an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio when he first saw "The Skin of Our Teeth," a play about the trials and tribulations of the Antrobus family of suburban New Jersey, from the Ice Age to modern times. He liked it so much, he saw it five nights in a row.

"I loved the circus-y quality of the play, the humanity of the play, and yet somehow or other in later years when I would see other productions, ... none of them have really succeeded popularly or critically," Kander says. "Maybe it's because the play is treated as a kind of icon, or thought of as terribly lofty."

Ebb worked at the hat-check concession so he could see the Broadway revival of "The Skin of Our Teeth." "It's a difficult ,, project," he says of the musical. "It's hard to have a take on the material because Wilder's voice in that particular piece is very assertively set forth. I think what happens when you do a musical adaptation of a work of that nature, you must ... take a whole different way of presenting the material, and finding that style was our principal problem, and I hope we have."

The style they've come up with is zany, farcical. Kander sums it up as " 'Hellzapoppin' ' meets the Old Testament." His score, he says, is "very American-flavored," complete with marches. And they've added some characters, including God, played by a woman.

"Over & Over" will be the first show Kander and Ebb have ever premiered at a nonprofit regional theater. They chose Signature largely on the basis of a revival of their 1984 musical, "The Rink," which was staged there in 1996 by artistic director Eric D. Schaeffer, who is directing "Over & Over."

"We ... would have followed him to the ends of the earth," Ebb says of the young director, who is fast gaining a national reputation, having staged the touring production of "Big" and the American premiere of producer Cameron Mackintosh's political musical, "The Fix."

Schaeffer believes "Over & Over" typifies Kander and Ebb's predilection for the new and different, whether that means setting a musical in a rundown roller-skating rink ("The Rink") or a Latin American prison ("Kiss of the Spider Woman"). "We're just as crazy as Thornton Wilder's play, but daring in other ways as well," Schaeffer says. "I really do think that's when Kander and Ebb are at the top of their form - when they're really pushing the envelope."

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