Education Dramaturg Ted Sod met with composer John Kander to discuss his work on Cabaret.
Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When did you realize you wanted to write music for theatre and film?
John Kander: I was born in Kansas City in 1927. I found the piano when I was about four, and I had a good ear. I started playing at a very early age. I lived in a household where there were no professional musicians but music was an encouraged experience. My father had a big, beautiful baritone voice, and my grandmother and aunt played the piano, and my brother sang. My mother was tone deaf, but she had rhythm. I remember once my aunt put her hands over my hands and we made a chord together, the C Major Triad. I was overwhelmed that I could make that sound happen. I started piano lessons when I was six, and I listened a lot. There would be times when I would play and my father would sing, or my aunt would play and my brother would sing and my mother would march. I started listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts when I was seven. I grew up loving the idea that you can tell stories through music and singing. I just always assumed—and I think my folks did too—that music and theatre were going to be a part of my life.
TS: You studied music at Oberlin and Columbia—correct?
JK: Yes. I went to Oberlin and graduated with a major in music. I didn't go into the conservatory because I wanted to get a regular liberal arts education. I went to Columbia to get my master’s. While I was at Oberlin, we had a theatre group that I wrote musicals for. I had an internship at Columbia in the opera workshop, which meant I played for and coached a lot of singers. At the same time I was making a bit of a living coaching and accompanying singers at auditions. I ended up conducting in summer stock for three years, arranging music and conducting a couple of off-Broadway shows. Douglas Moore was the head of the music department at Columbia, and he was a very close friend. I was writing lots of theatre songs, but I was also writing so-called serious music at the same time. One night, Douglas told me that if he had it to do over again, he would write for Broadway, and that was the kick in the ass that I needed. From then on I focused on the idea of writing musicals. I was working with James and William Goldman who were my closest friends. The three of us wrote a musical called The Family Affair, and Richard Seff, who was an agent then, heard our work and made it his business to get the piece produced.
In those days, once you established yourself as a professional and people realized that you could actually be counted on, from then on you could pretty much get your work heard. I was part of that last generation –Jerry Herman, Fred Ebb, Steve Sondheim, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and a bunch of others—we really were allowed to fail and still work. There was a time when musicals didn't cost millions of dollars to put on. I met Fred Ebb, and we started writing together. Hal Prince got us involved doing the music for Flora the Red Menace. Flora was not a success, but several weeks before it opened Hal Prince said to us, “Whatever happens to Flora, we will meet at my apartment the Sunday after and we will get to work on the next piece.” And the next piece turned out to be Cabaret.
TS: What can you tell us about the famous Cabaret “What if” sessions?
JK: “What If” is a way of working that I continue to use today with my current collaborator, Greg Pierce. I gave it that name because most of it is talking. You sit around and you make a story with your collaborators. Sometimes you have a story that is already written, sometimes you have characters with no story or it is something you are starting from the very beginning, but it always begins with “What if?” What if Sally has an abortion? What if someone throws a brick through the fruit shop window? “What if” is a great game, at least in my experience; it is how you make a musical theatre piece, which is so collaborative.
TS: Did you know at the time you were working on Cabaret that you were breaking rules and creating something that would ultimately be called one of the first “concept” musicals?
JK: Of course not. We were just playing “What if.” I think we thought it was a curious subject—we certainly had never dealt with that material before, and neither had anyone else—but we were just trying to make a story. We found the form, again after playing “What if,” that allowed us to go in and out of the Kit Kat Klub with the Emcee. We wrote what we called Berlin songs—we originally wrote these songs so they could be sung at various points between scenes—and that's how the whole concept of the Emcee evolved. Some of those Berlin songs, as we called them, ended up being used in the show.
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2013-2014 Season, Cabaret, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage