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Kander, John (b. 1927) and Fred Ebb (1932?-2004)  
 
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Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb are the musical poets of the . The stage (and, in two cases, subsequent film) versions of their commercially successful and critically lauded Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman glorify the creativity inherent in sexual ambivalence and celebrate the social renewal fostered by unorthodox forms of political action.

Surprisingly for many gay fans, however, neither man is willing publicly to discuss his own homosexuality. "I thought they made [a] spectacle of themselves, frankly," Ebb complained to interviewer Randy Shulman following the nationally broadcast kiss shared by song writing team and lifelong partners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman while accepting a 2003 Tony Award for Hairspray. "Your bedroom is not the screen. And it is also not the stage." Instead, Ebb asserts, any statement that he and Kander wish to make about homosexuality has been made through their songs.

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Life and Career

Kander was born March 18, 1927, into a music-loving family in Kansas City, Missouri. After studying music composition at Oberlin College and Columbia University, he settled in New York City, where he worked as an arranger, accompanist, and conductor.

Ebb, a native New Yorker, was probably born April 8, 1932, though family members and reference books have given the year of his birth as anywhere from 1928 to 1936. Having attended New York University, where he earned a B.A. in 1955, and taken a graduate degree in English from Columbia University in 1957, he wrote for nightclub acts, revues, and television (That Was the Week That Was), before being introduced to Kander.

In 1965 Kander and Ebb joined forces with emerging theater powerhouse Harold Prince and legendary director George Abbott on Flora, The Red Menace, which both established their professional reputation as a song writing team and made a star out of their close friend, nineteen-year-old Liza Minnelli.

A string of huge successes, some near misses, and the occasional flop followed: Cabaret (1966), The Happy Time (1968), Zorba (1968), 70, Girls, 70 (1971), Chicago (1975), The Act (1977), Woman of the Year (1981), The Rink (1984), And the World Goes 'Round (1991), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), Steel Pier (1997), and The Visit (2001). They contributed as well to the film scores of Herb Ross's Funny Lady (1975) and Martin Scorsese's New York, New York (1977).

In 2003, Kander (who has lived for 26 years with one man, a choreographer and teacher) implicitly addressed rumors concerning the nature of his non-professional relations with Ebb by describing the latter to interviewer Jeffrey Tallmer as "his 40-year partner in creativity but never in domesticity, much less romance."

Ebb succumbed to a heart attack at his home in New York on September 11, 2004.

Privileging Alternative Values

Kander and Ebb's songs make a powerful cumulative statement regarding the importance of alternative values, and are the more remarkable for making that statement in a theatrical form more easily given to escapism than to social comment.

"It's refreshing to meet someone odd for a change," Harry sings to Flora in Flora, The Red Menace, and Kander and Ebb's musical protagonists include such deviants from the social norm as a group of larcenous septuagenarian former vaudevillians surviving as best they can in a dilapidated residential hotel (70, Girls); an indifferently talented cabaret singer whose decadent sexual persona is her most successful performance (Cabaret); an effeminate window dresser imprisoned for "corrupting" a male minor (Kiss); "Chicago's own killer-dillers, those two scintillating sinners," Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, and the six other "merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail" (Chicago); "the loveable prodigal," Jacques, whose return to his native French Canadian village quickens his family members' hearts with as much anxiety as love (Happy Time); and, of course, the title character of Zorba, who proclaims in dance and song his freedom from every conventional expectation.

Kander and Ebb write music for characters who, like Flora, have learned, or are in the process of learning, to resist any pressure to conform, particularly when the social system exerting that pressure is itself corrupt ("You Are You").

Kander and Ebb's interest in persons who are barely on the margins of respectability, or who have been left behind entirely by the American Dream, drives them repeatedly to skewer the hypocrisy of social orthodoxy. This is why so many of their plays are set in the Depression era when, following the wide scale collapse of American optimism, those individuals who survived proved themselves by keeping their hearts open and their imaginations alive. In Flora and Steel Pier, respectively, Kander and Ebb found in that period's bread lines and dance marathons apt metaphors for the indignities heaped upon individuals that shatter their conventional expectations but nonetheless offer them an opportunity to refashion themselves in a non-traditional manner; prison proves a similarly apt metaphor in Chicago and Kiss.

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