James Leve: Kander and Ebb (Yale Broadway Masters)

Yale University Press, 2009 (365pp)

3 November 2009 3.5 stars

Kander and EbbJames Leve's new book on the output of John Kander and Fred Ebb is a major contribution to the literature on the Broadway musical. As enthusiastic as it is thorough and as comprehensive as it is insightful, the 364-page volume deals with all the team's major shows together, as well as their lesser-known works and their activities apart from each other. Both informative and thoughtful, the book is a must-have for serious scholars of American musical theatre.

Since the start of the Yale Broadway Masters series, published by Yale University Press over the course of the past decade, the great challenge for the contributors has been how to control the material. Some have chosen to focus on one or two major works and support these analyses with broader chapters giving an overview of the composer's biography and general output; an example of this is series editor Geoffrey Block's excellent Richard Rodgers (2003). Others, such as Thomas Riis' Frank Loesser, have tried to deal with the composer's entire output. Leve follows Riis' example by attempting to cover almost everything Kander and Ebb ever did, which is perfectly understandable – it's such great music, after all, and what would one leave out?

But the completist aim of the book does have attendant problems. It comes as no surprise that the finest chapters in Leve's volume are those dealing with a single show in more depth – specifically, Cabaret (Chapter 2), Chicago(Chapter 3) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (Chapter 5). He's especially good, I find, on Cabaret, which is explored from every angle. The source material and its treatment by Kander and Ebb is explained with clarity, and there's generous quotation from cut material. The genesis of the show, in particular the score, is gone into in a lot of depth, and Leve examines the problems with putting song into the mouth of Clifford Bradshaw, the almost non-singing lead male character of Cabaret. The show's performance history is also painted vividly, and Leve argues persuasively for its significance in the Broadway canon.

What's both a strength and at the same time a weakness of the book is the fact that Leve was in close contact with Kander while writing it, and indeed studied composition under him in the mid-1980s. The scholar notes that he was given the key to the composer's house while researching the book, and it does indeed benefit from an extraordinarily extensive range of compositional sources, including early melodic sketches, unused material, juvenile works, and unfamiliar draft scripts and outlines for various of the shows. But at the same time, Ebb is often left in the background, a slightly anonymous figure for much of the text, and Leve seems to feel perhaps too much affection and admiration for Kander to be dispassionate about his subject.

For instance, while the artistic and commercial success of Cabaret and Chicagois indisputable, few of their other works can really claim to be both these things (indeed quite a few were neither). By Leve's estimation, Kander is rarely to blame, and when his music is criticised, it's usually because of difficulties with a third person such as a star performer, a book writer or a producer. Like it or not, though, there really are some disappointing scores amongst the Kander-Ebb shows – I, for one, don't often reach for The Woman of the Year or Zorba.

Then again, there are also some very fine achievements. The chapter on Chicago demonstrates the show's complicated genesis and compares, for instance, the original and final versions of the score. Leve finds musical roots for the show's darkness – over half of the musical numbers are in the minor mode and/or use blue notes – and explores the expressive potential of the vamp (a repetitive accompaniment figure), which is arguably Kander's most distinctive compositional tool. The seminal Broadway revival and subsequent film version are also discussed, and we learn in particular what a challenge it was to get the show transferred to the screen – and why Fred Ebb had his reservations about it.

Catherine Zeta-Jones in the movie version of 'Chicago'I sense that Leve's absolute devotion to Kander and Ebb's musicals has resulted in his determination to cram discussions of as many of their works as possible into his book. On one level, this is hugely welcome and useful, since there is no other reliable volume on their works currently in print, so far as I'm aware – though nobody will want to be without Colored Lights (Faber and Faber, 2003), a series of interviews with the composer and lyricist carried out by historian Greg Lawrence. The only real problem with Leve's approach is an organisational one: the shows aren't discussed in chronological order, so it's a bit difficult to keep up sometimes. Most of what's there is absolutely excellent, but we jump from Cabaret (1966) to Chicago (1975), to the collaborators' output without each other, forward to Kiss of the Spider Woman (1990/1992), then back to Flora the Red Menace (1965), and so on. A single chapter deals with Flora, The Red Menace, The Happy Time, Zorba, 70, Girls, 70, The Rink and Steel Pier, the connection between these works being that they were all flops. Fifteen pages are devoted to The Rink and only two to Steel Pier, so the level of discussion is strongly contrasted, but the more in-depth analyses are quite superb (for instance, the tonal structure of 'All the Children in a Row'). The jumping around, however, non-plussed me at various points – and it continues even in the appendix, which is a six-page discussion of films, revues and other shows and is almost substantial enough (and easily sufficiently interesting) to warrant a proper chapter – which is a shame, because the standard of scholarship is high.

Chapter 4 – 'Fred Without John and John Without Fred' – is a real eye-opener, and one of the most important sections of the book. It deals with Kander and Ebb's activities without each other, including Ebb's musicals with Paul Klein, his special relationship with Liza Minnelli and the additional material he wrote for Rodgers and Hart's By Jupiter (1967 revival) and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1997 TV movie). Amongst the material by Kander under discussion is his first song ('In a Manger', which is reproduced), his 1951 anti-war cantata Requiem for Georgie, his relationship with the Goldman brothers, A Family Affair and 'Letter from Sullivan Ballou', an aria he wrote for Renée Fleming. This chapter is an example of the bias in favour of Kander in the book – here he's given twenty-seven pages to Ebb's eighteen – but in light of the wider access Leve was given to Kander's materials, this decision is understandable.

The author's discussion of Kiss of the Spider Woman in Chapter 5 is emotive and highly personal, demonstrating how challenging and serious its portrayal of gay male relationships was in comparison to other shows of the same era such as La Cage aux Folles. On the other hand, for my taste he takes his queer reading of The Act and The Woman of the Year to an extreme in Chapter 7, entitled 'Divas or Anti-Divas?', in which the possibility that these shows might be about something other than gay diva worship doesn't seem to have been considered. This chapter's ten pages are also strikingly brief in comparison to all the others (Cabaret gets forty-two – with good reason, of course), another example of how the desire to cover absolutely everything can lead to compromises of content. I'd also have liked more discussion of the music here. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the final two chapters, which deal with 'Musicals Abandoned and Imagined' and Kander and Ebb's final four shows in enlightening detail.

The importance of Leve's project cannot be overstated: in comparison to most of the rest of the Yale Broadway Masters series, which deal with composers like Rodgers, Kern and Loesser, who have already received some attention from scholars, he's taken on an important but underrated team. It's a sign of the growth of the field that such a book is possible, as well as an indication of the developing appreciation of Kander and Ebb in recent years (would this have been possible before the movie of Chicago?). With a mixture of aesthetic, textual and performance issues, Leve gets to the heart of Kander and Ebb's output and paves the way for further discussions of their work.

By Dominic McHugh


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