by Peter Filichia
Forty-five years ago this week, a composer-lyricist team new to Broadway were terribly worried. The previous Tuesday, their musical had opened to decidedly mixed reviews. Their score was said not to “have zing” (Chapman, News) and that it didn’t “ring much” (Kerr, Herald-Tribune). While Taubman in the Times said, “The songs provide a little first-aid,” he then added “but not enough.” This week’s ticket sales weren’t good, and there wouldn’t be much of a boost from the following month’s Tonys®; the awards were still two years away from their first national broadcast.
And so, Flora, the Red Menace limped through eighty-seven ill-attended performances, and John Kander and Fred Ebb had their first flop together. For Kander, it was his second straight failure; three years earlier, he and two other writers wrote the music for A Family Affair, which closed after sixty-five performances. The pre-Kander Ebb hadn’t done even that well; he’d contributed lyrics to two Broadway revues in 1960 whose runs added together weren’t even half as long as A Family Affair’s.
Besides, both men weren’t kids any more. Kander was thirty-eight and Ebb possibly just as old or older. (Never mind what you read in official sources; Ebb was known to keep his age an enormous secret.)
What pain Kander and Ebb must have been enduring on July 24, 1965 — the closing night of Flora. How did they feel when they heard Liza Minnelli sing, “All I Need Is One Good Break” — knowing that they’d had had as good a break as one could expect: Harold Prince as producer and George Abbott as director.
On the other hand, perhaps they were inspired when Mary Louise Wilson sang, “You must do more. You must do much more.” What emotions were surging through their bodies during “Sing Happy”? In this eleven o’clock number, Minnelli stated, “Sing me a song about happy endings” – but there wasn’t one here for Kander and Ebb. When Minnelli sang, “There’s quite enough around me breaking my heart,” their hearts had to be breaking, too.
“Whoever gets a second chance?” Ebb would write three decades later in Steel Pier. But he and Kander got one, for the morning after Flora opened to lackluster reviews, Prince nevertheless commissioned them to write the score for another show: Welcome to Berlin. The renamed Cabaret opened 16 months later and ran until 1969. Only thirteen book musicals had run longer in the entire history of Broadway.
Kander and Ebb were on their way. They would go on to have the longest-running songwriting collaboration in musical theater history – ending only when Ebb died in 2004. The Cabaret Emcee and his two ladies were known to “switch partners daily,” but these two guys stayed true to one another. In the ensuing forty-five years, Kander and Ebb had a show on Broadway for at least thirty-five of them – partly in thanks to Chicago, Broadway’s longest-running revival of a book musical. (What’s in second place? Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret.)
Flora began with the voice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not the real one, mind you; he’d been gone for twenty years. His voice was provided by — of all people — Art Carney. After FDR gave an inspirational speech, some people in the depression were seen very depressed. But here was young Flora Meszaros feeling just the opposite way. Along with her high school graduating class, she staunchly proclaimed in a truly stirring anthem that they were “Unafraid.”
But the next morning, Flora had to start job-hunting – even though she didn’t expect to find anything in such a ravaged economy. After what seemed to be a fruitless interview, she met and was attracted to avowed Communist Harry Toukanian (Bob Dishy). The unemployed Flora was ripe for recruiting, but soon after she committed to the cause, she miraculously did get a job. The Communists couldn’t have been more thrilled – for now Flora can infiltrate this Big Corporation.
Some of that was pretty heavy stuff, but both bookwriters Abbott and Robert Russell wrote in a musical comedy manner. Ebb was in a particularly whimsical mood. Because Harry stuttered, he got a song in which he stuck pebbles in his mouth (a la Demosthenes), so that when he sang, the audience couldn’t understand a word. Ebb also wrote a song based on “Knock-Knock” jokes, and another that was a loping country-western song about a man’s pure love for his horse – his “Palomino Pal.”
But even in this first outing, Kander and Ebb showed that they could write a beautiful song; “A Quiet Thing” turned out to be the first of their many great ones. They also proved that they could write under pressure, for the excellent “Sing Happy” was a very late addition which they quickly wrote while trying out in Boston. Comrade Charlotte (Cathryn Damon) — Flora’s rival for Harry’s affections – had a nice seduction song, “Express Yourself (to Me).” (Might make a good FedEx commercial.)
One little-known fact: Ebb had Flora sing that her “home address (is) 307 West Fourth.” That was actually Kander’s abode at the time. Today, movies and TV shows offer phony 555 telephone exchanges out of fear that someone might call. Kander apparently wasn’t worried that a stranger would come knocking on his front door.
Flora may also have the distinction of being the only musical whose logo was designed by a future Tony®-winning playwright. Herb (Conversations with My Father) Gardner drew the not-flattering image of Flora in the style of his then-famous “Nebbish” cartoons. And has there ever been another musical whose first two people billed under the title would win Tonys®? For Liza Minnelli, it wasn’t much of a wait; 31 days after the opening, she got her prize. For Mary Louise Wilson, the delay was considerably longer: forty-two years plus. But at least she finally won for playing the ravaged Big Edie in Grey Gardens.
Since the 1960s, when Kander and Ebb first razzle-dazzled us, there’s never been a decade when one of their musicals hasn’t won someone a Tony®. Eighteen performers have held trophies as a result of their work. That an actress (Minnelli), supportng actor (Joel Grey) and supporting actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones) won Oscars® by singing Kander and Ebb songs in a time when movie musicals were out of fashion is noteworthy, too.
Kander and Ebb had to wait until Cabaret for their first Tonys®, but two more would come: In 1980 for Woman of the Year, and in 1993 for Kiss of the Spider Woman – although they shared the latter prize with Pete Townshend of The Who’s Tommy. Who in either the Broadway or rock world would have ever predicted that these three people would be standing on the same stage and getting the same award?
Arguably their most famous song is, alas, not from a Broadway musical: “The Theme from New York, New York.” That it didn’t win an Oscar® in 1977 for Best Song is not the most astonishing gaffe in Academy Award history; that it wasn’t even nominated is. And to think the winner was Joe (In My Life) Brooks’ “You Light Up My Life!”
No matter. “New York, New York” has become the unofficial anthem of all five boroughs, the last monster hit of Frank Sinatra’s career, and the song that’s still played at the end of at least eighty-one games a year at Yankee Stadium. It alone would have cemented Kander and Ebb’s reputation, but there was so much more.
So what’s the one conclusion I can bring this column to? Kander and Ebb have a song in Chicago that says, “But nothin’ stays.” Untrue, for their work has indeed stayed with us. In fifty years or so, it won’t change, you know. But who would have guessed that forty-five years ago this week?
You may e-mail Peter at [email protected]. He also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia