After 42 years of working side by side nearly every day with lyricist Fred Ebb to create such Broadway blockbusters as "Cabaret," "Chicago," "Woman of the Year" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," composer John Kander says he had no idea what to do with himself when Ebb died in 2004.
"We had several unfinished projects. I didn't know if I could do lyrics. I didn't even know if I wanted to finish them. But after more than 40 years of working exclusively together, I decided to give it a shot," says Kander, now 83. "After such close collaboration, I realized I could step into his mind like he could step into mine. It gave me confidence I didn't know I had."
The result is "Curtains," a 1950s backstage murder mystery musical that opens Wednesday as the final offering of the 39th season for Music Theatre of Wichita. The 2006 show, which was nominated for eight Tony Awards, will be a Wichita premiere. And Kander, a Kansas City native, will be in Wichita to see it.
Directed by Mark Madama, "Curtains" stars New York actor Larry Raben (last year's Leo Bloom in "The Producers") as Lt. Frank Cioffi, a mild-mannered Boston homicide detective who secretly loves theater. When he is called in to investigate the murder of the leading lady of a Broadway musical getting an out-of-town tryout, he is delighted because it combines his two passions: detective work and showbiz.
What the officer quickly discovers is that everybody connected with the show is a suspect. All had motives and opportunity to do in the arrogant, airheaded Jessica Cranshaw (Wichita actress Karen L. Robu, in a cameo).
Among them are tough-talking producer Carmen Bernstein (Paula Leggett Chase, who was in the Broadway original), the divorced song-writing team of Georgia Hendricks (Darcie Roberts, also in the original) and Aaron Fox (Claybourne Elder), flamboyant and acid-tongued director Christopher Belling (Jody Cook), and the producer's stagestruck daughter, Bambi (Kimberly Faure).
That show-within-a-show will have special meaning for MTW audiences because it's an "Oklahoma!" -type spoof called "Robbin' Hood of the Old West," which is set in "Kansasland" with a grandiose production number about Wichita, the Arkansas River and a fateful steamboat chase.
"It's a huge challenge to do a show-within-a-show so you can distinguish one from the other," says Madama, faculty member from the University of Michigan, who is directing his 36th show in 22 years for MTW. "It's a very dense show with lots of story lines and elements. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle."
A subconscious surprise
Kander's music pays homage to classic Broadway, ranging from bouncy and brash to romantic ballad. One song, "I Miss the Music," written after Ebb's death to serve as a lament for one of the divorced song-writing pair, turned into a subconscious surprise for Kander.
"Everybody but me realized that I had essentially written it about Fred. I had no idea. But it allowed me to move forward," Kander said during a phone conversation from his New York home.
Kander got to Broadway via Oberlin and Columbia, where he was mentored by noted opera composers Douglas Moore and Jack Beeson. He grew up loving both the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts and his family's annual vacations to see Broadway shows. While studying classical, he made extra cash by playing piano for summer stock.
He said he might still be an unknown pianist if he had been more aggressive about getting a drink at one fateful party. When he couldn't get the bartender's attention, he was befriended by the pit orchestra pianist for "West Side Story," who would later recommend Kander as his replacement. Suddenly, his career was decided.
"The theater community is very small. Once you pass through a curtain which lets people look at you as a professional, you can really get to just about anybody. There's only one or two degrees of separation," says Kander, who quickly went on to shows like "Gypsy" and "Irma La Douce" before being introduced to lyricist Fred Ebb in 1962. The two clicked immediately.
"We were very fast and very prolific. Fred could improvise rhyme and meter in the same way I could improvise music. We would work in the same room and bounce ideas off each other constantly. That's the secret," he says. "We did it without editing or censoring ourselves. ... We were lucky to find each other."
Duo scored 4 films
Early on, Barbra Streisand recorded two of their songs. Their first musical, "Flora the Red Menace" (1965), provided the Broadway debut for Liza Minnelli, who would remain close and do more of their work, including the 1972 movie version of the 1966 Tony-winning "Cabaret."
They worked with Lauren Bacall in "Woman of the Year" (1981), providing a star vehicle for an iconic actress who never considered herself a singer. And they formed a special relationship with Chita Rivera, who graced their "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1992).
All told, Kander and Ebb wrote nearly 20 musicals and scored four films, including "New York, New York," which gave the Empire State its indelible anthem.
Ebb's death left four unfinished projects. "Curtains" was the first to reach Broadway. Two others have since been finished and given out-of-town tryouts: "All About Us," based on Thornton Wilder's zany "The Skin of Our Teeth," and "The Visit," based on a macabre Durrenmatt play.
The fourth, "The Scottsboro Boys," about the wrongful imprisonment of nine young Alabama black men in the 1930s, is headed to Broadway this fall after a successful off-Broadway run. That wraps up the Kander-Ebb catalog.
"About six months ago I looked around and asked myself what I feel like doing now. I don't want to retire because the theater is where I live. I decided that I wanted to try something really tiny," says Kander, who is composing three chamber pieces based on short stories by Greg Pierce.
"They will be done with just four instruments and the same four actors in all three stories. And they will be small enough to be done in a living room. After all those big projects I did with Fred, this feels right for me for right now."
If you go
What: Wichita premiere of 2006 Tony-winning musical and final show of season for Music Theatre of Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
How much: Tickets $20-$55 evening, $18-$47 matinee. Call 316-265-3107 or go online at www.mtwichita.org.