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Kander, John (b. 1927) and Fred Ebb (1932?-2004)  
 
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Protesting Corruption; Seeing Things Differently

The corruption of power is lampooned in such songs as "A Powerful Thing" (Steel Pier) and "When You're Good to Mama" (Chicago), and the ruthless manipulation of the American legal system by its supposed protectors in "Razzle Dazzle" (Chicago). Social respectability is simply a matter of controlling the spread of gossip, Kander and Ebb chide in "Don't Tell Mama" (Cabaret), or of controlling the media ("Jailhouse Rag," Chicago).

The exploitation of buzz words by self-aggrandizing political activists is illustrated in "Sign Here" (Flora) where the professed aims of the Communist Party figure also as the American values that Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee claimed to be defending through their 1950s witch hunt for suspected communists: "democracy," "the rights of man," "everlasting peace," "milk and cookies for the kids," "a job for everyone," "do away with slums," and "save America." In Kander and Ebb's satire, anyone who sees a big-hearted eccentric like Flora as a "red menace" is as disturbed as the agitator Comrade Ada's much vaunted acts of disruption are senseless and petty.

Sponsor Message.

Little wonder, then, that when political institutions, the legal profession, the news media, and correction facilities are under the control of self-interested parties, Kander and Ebb's hero is the person who, because of his or her generosity, is relegated to the margins of respectability, if not persecuted outright.

A number of the pair's best songs dramatize different ways of "Seeing Things" (as photographer Jacques sings in Happy Time), including several that directly challenge the audience's unthinking acceptance of social stereotypes. "If you want to see old folks / You're in the wrong home tonight," a chorus of rowdy septuagenarians unexpectedly razzes the audience of 70, Girls as they break into raucous vaudeville routines after first enumerating (and seeming sedately to subscribe to) younger people's stereotypical expectations regarding the aged. And, waltzing genteelly with a tutu-wearing gorilla, the Emcee of the Kit Kat Club in 1930s Berlin (Cabaret) complains comically of society's inability to accept his unorthodox love relationship, only to turn to the Nazis scattered among the audience at the song's end and taunt them that "If you could see her through my eyes, / She wouldn't look Jewish at all."

Addressing the Darker Aspects of Social Experience

It is their willingness to address directly the darker aspects of social experience that distinguishes Kander and Ebb's music from that of their contemporaries. Jerry Herman's bright optimism easily wears thin, while Stephen Sondheim's wry irony often has the unanticipated effect of making his characters seem cold and distant. The darkness that colors Kander and Ebb's world, however, is tempered by their characters' willingness to make whatever accommodations are necessary for survival without growing bitter in the process.

No other Broadway score confronts the reality of aging and dying with such starkness as 70, Girls ("The Elephant Song"). Likewise, the chorus's opening song in Zorba--"Life is what you do / While you're waiting to die"--proved so troubling to audiences reared on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "cockeyed optimism" that the original production of that show failed. (A successful 1983 revival starring Anthony Quinn carefully altered the line to "Life is what you do / Until the day you die.")

Kander and Ebb parody American audiences' expectation of "Happy Endings" in an extended number by that name that, although filmed, was finally cut from New York, New York. More trenchantly, Molina's partnering Aurora with the same casual elegance as Fred Astaire danced with Ginger Rogers ironically figures his death in the aptly titled final number of Kiss, "Only in the Movies."

Significantly, Kander and Ebb recognize the appeal of escaping life's difficulties through "too much pills and liquor" (as, for example, in the title song from Cabaret or in "The Morphine Tango" from Kiss). But ultimately, they insist, immuring oneself from possible adversity only means that one is not living fully. As protagonist Ida instructs her friends in the concluding number of 70, Girls,

There's lots of chaff, but there's lots of wheat:
Say "yes"!
You might get mugged as you walk the street,
But on the other hand you might meet
That handsome stranger that you'd love to greet:
Say "yes"!

Life must be accepted in all of its weltering ambiguity if any of its possibilities are to be realized.

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