by Alix Cohen
Willkommen! And bienvenue! Welcome!/Fremder, étranger, stranger…Today’s entertaining session with Harvey Granat begins not with traditional introductions, but rather the opening to Kander and Ebb’s musical Cabaret. Sharp-edged and white-gloved, Bob Spiotto ushers us into the world of today’s honorees with beeoodeefol pronunciation and in your face aspersion. (In fact, among Spiotto’s own shows is one on Joel Grey)
Today’s guest is the accomplished Larry Maslon, Author/Radio Host-Producer: From Broadway to Mainstreet/Associate Chair/Arts Professor at the Graduate Acting Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“For two decades,” our host begins, “John Kander and Fred Ebb were leading writers for stage, film, television and nightclubs.” Kander was born into a Missouri family who highly valued the arts, exposing the kids to theater and John to opera for which he had particular appreciation. Fred Ebb was a Manhattanite with the arts at his front door. He graduated with a degree in English literature.
“They were opposites in many ways,” Maslon tells us. “John had that perennial, Midwestern calm. He worshipped Jerome Kern. Fred was a fiery New Yorker with special admiration for Frank Loesser. Sometimes collaborators have wonderful alchemy.” These two apparently worked together, not one before the other.
The team were introduced by music published Tommy Volanado. Among other efforts Kander had already written dance arrangements for Irma la Douce and the musical A Family Affair; Ebb had penned songs for Carmen MacRae and Judy Garland. Their first hit was “My Coloring Book.” These are the eyes that watched him/As he walked away/Color them gray … Granat’s rendition is palpably wistful.
Maslon relates the song was written for Kaye Ballard to sing on The Perry Como television show, but given to Sandy Stewart who made it a hit. “They had this wonderful duality of writing specific material but also slam bang entertaining songs.”
In 1965, the two wrote their first Broadway musical, Flora the Red Menace, in which young Liza Minnelli made her debut cementing a lifelong personal and professional relationship. She won a Tony but the show closed after 87 performances.
Producer Hal Prince took notice and hired Kander and Ebb to create Cabaret based on John Van Druten’s play which itself derived from Christopher Isherwood’s novel (I Am a Camera.) They were instrumental in getting Minnelli hired to play Sally Bowles who had been a blonde Englishwoman in earlier iterations.
The story (for those of you living under a rock), takes place in 1929/1930 Berlin when the Nazis were coming to power. Granat sings the title song. “How do you explain the enormous success of such a dark musical?” he asks Maslon. “In 1966, after Fiddler, America was ready for something darker and more relevant,” comes the response.
Here’s a tidbit: It turns out that “Maybe This Time,” which was written for the film and only later went into Broadway revivals, didn’t originate with Cabaret, but was meant for Kaye Ballard to compensate for losing My Coloring Book years before. She didn’t get to perform that either. When Bob Fosse needed a hopeful song for movie Sally, the two had it ready. Granat offers a hopeful, determined interpretation.
Minnelli credits Kander and Ebb with much of her early success. The two also wrote The Rink for Minnelli and another of their regulars, Chita Rivera, as well as Liza’s show The Act. Rivera starred in 1975’s Chicago (with Gwen Verdon), Kiss of The Spider Woman and Kander’s The Visit (after Ebb passed in 2004) “They always knew how to tailor material to performers,” Maslon comments. Lauren Bacall, Robert Goulet and Ben Vereen received bespoke attention.
Granat saw Chicago at City Center and knew, he tells us, it should go back to Broadway. He felt the same way about Finian’s Rainbow. “I hope you put your money in Chicago, not Finian,” Maslon quips. (The latter failed.) Apparently Kander and Ebb didn’t pay attention to the production as they were busy with Steel Pier. Then one day they wandered in and were shocked how people reacted. Open since 1996, it’s the longest running revival on Broadway.
The talented Spiotto returns with “Mr. Cellophane,” a lament by Roxy’s schlubby, cuckolded husband, Amos. Shambling in front of us eyes down in a crumpled pitch-perfect hat, he delivers the song with priceless, excuse-me-for-bothering-you expression. At one point accompanist David Lahm goes off on a tangent while Spiotto repeatedly attempts to start the next verse. “David I’m singing here!” he protests. ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you,” Lahm responds. Nifty.
We hear Granat’s sprightly version of “How Lucky Can You Get” with Lahm’s virtually dancy accompaniment (the film Funny Lady) and Spiotto’s adorable, vaudeville “Sara Lee” (The Act; The World Goes Round) Sara lee/ Sara lee/Your brioche just fractures me/Give me a taste of your cherry danish/I love my mother but/You can’t compara/Not with Sara Lee…
“Were they more prolific than any other songwriting team,” our host asks Maslon. “I suspect Rodgers and Hart probably wrote more songs, but I always come back to how flexible John was as a songwriter.” The work varies widely in era and location. “They were musical storytellers,” he adds.
Granat asks Maslon how the collaborators dealt with failure. “I know writers like Frank Loesser went into deep depression.” “They were spunky,” the guest responds. “ Flora was directed by George Abbott. The three read less than positive reviews in his office. As John and Fred left, Abbot said, Fellas, I hope you’ll think of doing another show with me one day. That was their mantra, get to work the next day. I think they felt, how lucky can you get?”
In closing, the audience joins Granat in a rousing “New York, New York,” written for the Liza Minnelli/Robert DeNiro film of the same name.
A splendid afternoon with Harvey Granat’s infectious interest, Maslon’s articulate expertise, Spiotto’s showmanship, and Lahm’s plum line talent.
Harvey Granat Songs and Stories: On Kander and Ebb
Raconteur Host/Vocalist Harvey Granat
Special Guest Larry Maslon
Pianist David Lahm
Guest Vocalist Bob Spiotto
92Y at Lexington Avenue https://www.92y.org/
May 23, 2019
NEXT: June 13 Harold Arlen with Special Guest, Arlen biographer Walter Remler
Next Fall: Marvin Hamlisch Part II, Sinatra and Cahn, Comden and Green, Hammerstein Before Rodgers.