Broadway composer John Kander is a living legend: With his songwriting partner, the late Fred Ebb, he created the scores for the smash hit musicals Cabaret and Chicago, as well as the enduring anthem "New York, New York."
Now, at 86, Kander has a new writing partner — and a new musical, The Landing, opening off-Broadway Wednesday.
"Life Goes On"
For a guy with such an illustrious history, Kander isn't terribly nostalgic. He's a writer, and he likes to write. And despite the pain of losing a collaborator of more 40 years, he knew the time had come to move on.
"Fred and I had a wonderful long time together, and it was a huge part of my life, but life goes on," Kander says. "And I never thought about living in the past. I just don't."
So a few years ago, Kander called up Greg Pierce, a young playwright and short-story author he'd been mentoring, and asked him if he wanted to work on a small-scale musical.
"The idea was to have four actors and four instruments, and have it be very, very, very, very, very small," he says.
And that was OK with Pierce.
"When I got that phone call from John, I mean — that was one of the most exciting phone calls I've ever gotten," he says. "And the thought had crossed my mind that maybe we could work together. I would never have asked him, because of, you know, where I was and where he is. [But] it's just been a real joy. Every work session has been a joy."
And working with the 35-year-old playwright has made Kander approach composing with a new vigor.
"Working together as we do has made me write in a different way," he says. "And it's been a great adventure."
Everybody Wants Something
The Landing is an evening of three small musicals that play like short stories. Each one has a narrator, and each ends with a surprising plot twist.
In the first story, a bright but lonely boy befriends a carpenter and learns about the constellations and the mythology behind them, as well as some painful life lessons. In the second, a woman who loves gangster movies buys a brick from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and it comes to life, with comic and crazy consequences. In the third, a gay couple adopts a boy who seems too good to be true — and it turns out he is.
"In these pieces," Pierce says, "someone wants something really badly, and they don't know what they're in for!"
Walter Bobbie, who directed the hit revival of Kander and Ebb's Chicago that's still running on Broadway, has staged The Landing, eliciting finely etched performances from the tiny cast of four, each playing multiple roles.
"The consequences to everybody's desires in each of these stories is remarkably different — and sometimes, both simultaneously sad and romantic," Bobbie says. "There's kind of a lyric quality to these pieces that I found beautiful."
A Whole New Kind of Collaboration
Bobbie says he was also drawn to the new writing partnership.
"It is immediately a different collaboration," he says. "It is not 'Kander and Ebb Lite' — it's Kander and Pierce, completely. And that caught my ear and attention. You know, the show very often doesn't have songs, and yet the music continues. And all of a sudden, someone will sing the next line of dialogue, and then they'll go back to talking. It's just so surprising."
Regardless of what the critics say after The Landing opens at the Vineyard Theatre Wednesday, Kander has two more projects he's working on with Pierce. He's counting on them to help keep him busy and in the present.
"As far as I'm concerned, without dwelling on my age — every once in a while I think to myself, I'd better hurry up!" he says.