Friday, 2 November 2007

I Miss The Music

Well, how lucky can you get? 2007 has been a particularly lucky year for John Kander and Fred Ebb. Chicago celebrates its tenth birthday in London, and continues it’s successful Broadway run, as well as various productions worldwide. Rufus Norris’ production of Cabaret continues to thrive at London’s Lyric and Sam Mendes’ take on the show has had its run extended at Paris’ Folies Bergere. Last, but by no means least, the duo have a brand new show successfully running on Broadway – the musical murder mystery Curtains. However, it’s somewhat ironic – and more than a little sad – that this event has occurred without Fred Ebb, who died in 2004.

The combination of Fred Ebb’s lyrics and John Kander’s music have been razzle dazzling audiences since the early sixties. Their first Broadway show, 1965’s Flora, The Red Menace was also the debut for their muse Liza Minnelli (one of two ladies forever associated with their work). Liza’s career has been inextricably linked with Kander and Ebb’s ever since. The team have written much special material for Liza over the years, including songs such as Liza With A Z and Ring Them Bells. She has appeared in their stage musicals Chicago, The Rink and The Act, as well as the movie version of Cabaret, and they wrote songs specially for her movies Stepping Out and New York, New York. Apart from those with Liza Minnelli connections, other Broadway shows included The Happy Time, Zorba, Woman Of The Year, 70 Girls 70, and the triumphant Kiss Of The Spider Woman which starred Chita Rivera - the other lady. Then of course they wrote some original songs for Barbra Streisand’s second time out as Fanny Brice in Funny Lady. By 1991 their place amongst the Broadway greats was assured as they were paid the ultimate tribute with the compilation show And The World Goes Round.

Despite the late nineties seeing revivals of their classic shows flourishing, by this time, new product wasn’t nearly as successful. 1997’s Steel Pier wasn’t successful on it’s Broadway debut, and the later adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth (titled Over And Over at some points in it’s development) didn’t even make it to the coloured lights of the great white way. When their musical The Visit , written for Angela Lansbury, also failed to get to New York we could have been forgiven for thinking that the chances of a new Kander and Ebb show were over for ever. However, as I have already established, that’s not quite the case.

Curtains journey to Broadway has possibly been more convoluted than many other shows. The story began back in the early seventies when writer/director Abe Burrows began collaborating with Kander and Ebb on Tango Mogador an homage to romantic adventure movies based on the French Foreign Legion. Despite work being well under way on this project it was abandoned due to the ill health of Burrows. Fast forward to 1981 and celebrated writer Peter Stone comes on board to write the book, but decides that he would be more interested in the piece being about a group of performers putting on a show about the Foreign Legion – but with a murder mystery at its centre. For the next twenty years the project was on and then off again. The title changed to Who killed David Merrick before finally becoming Curtains. The Foreign Legion idea vanished to be replaced by a Commedia dell’arte company in wartime Paris, and later a contemporary setting, but the murder mystery became a constant. Director Scott Ellis, who had a long standing connection with Kander and Ebb, came on board and it started to look like production of the show was going to happen when, in 2003, Peter Stone died.

For a replacement the team looked to Rupert Holmes. Thanks to his musical The Mystery Of Edwin Drood and a couple of mystery novels Holmes was a good choice for the project. Of course the show was to change further as Holmes put his stamp on it. The setting was changed to the late fifties – the golden age of Broadway musicals, and all that jazz – and Holmes began reworking the book. The show as it is was very much taking form when the shock of Fred Ebb’s death was announced. Maybe this time, it would have been no surprise if it was curtains for Curtains. But the world goes round and John Kander wanted the show to go on, so (as a noted songwriter himself) Rupert Holmes signed on to complete Ebb’s work as lyricist.

Finally a successful Los Angeles production of Curtains debuted and the show was scheduled for a Broadway run. It opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in March 2007 and has been running there ever since. The show stars Frazier’s David Hyde Pierce (Tony award winner) in the central role of a musical comedy loving detective, and Debra Monk, ably supported by Kander and Ebb regular Karen Ziemba, and a host of well known Broadway performers. Despite the murder mystery aspect of the plot the show is, above all, an affectionate love letter to the Broadway musical. It’s delightful score is very much one from a bygone age containing Broadway anthems such as Show People and in the “show within a show” Robbin’ Hood authentic tunes that could be from any fifties show in the same way that The Drowsy Chaperone so comically spoofed the thirties. Given Ebb’s death though, I think the highlight of the score is possibly Jason Danieley’s touching rendition of I Miss The Music. Somehow I think this song says it all.

The cast album of Curtains of course. For Kander and Ebb in general then almost any of Liza Minnelli’s live albums. If you are not a Liza devotee then seek out out The Kander And Ebb Album by Brent Barratt, which features a rare recording of the title song from The Skin Of Our Teeth.

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