(b. 8 April 1936 in New York City; d. 11 September 2004 in New York City), lyricist whose collaboration with the composer John Kander over more than four decades resulted in some of the most innovative and provocative musical plays in the American theater.
Ebb was the youngest of three children of Harry Ebb, a clothing salesman, and Anna Evelyn (Gritz) Ebb. In 1955 he graduated from New York University with a BA in English literature; he then earned an MA in English literature from Columbia University in 1957. Starting with his early years, Ebb demonstrated an enthusiasm for the theater, and he began writing lyrics. In 1962 he met a composer named John Kander. Kander and Ebb quickly meshed as a team in what Ebb later described as “a case of instant communication.” They wrote songs for every available outlet, including cabaret showcases, nightclub acts, and the pop charts.
The producer-director Harold Prince recognized their talent, and he assigned the team to write their first Broadway musical, Flora, the Red Menace (1965). A satire of 1930s radicalism, the musical was cowritten and directed by the legendary George Abbott and starred a young Liza Minnelli in her Broadway debut. It opened in May 1965, but despite respectable reviews, it closed after only eighty-seven performances. Minnelli, however, became the youngest actress to receive a Tony Award, for Best Actress in a Musical.
With their next musical, Cabaret (1966), produced and directed by Prince, the team not only scored a huge success but also broke new ground in musical theater. Adapted by the writer Joe Masteroff from Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood and from the 1951 stage adaptation, I Am a Camera (filmed in 1955) by John van Druten, the musical brilliantly evokes the hedonism, the virulent anti-Semitism, and the encroaching Nazism of prewar Berlin. Ominous events are reflected in the prism of a tawdry nightclub called the Kit Kat Club, where a leering master of ceremonies (Joel Grey) and an amoral young American singer named Sally Bowles (Jill Haworth) perform their cynical songs. The musical touches on Sally’s relationships with the expatriate writer Isherwood (Bert Convy) and with German citizens, but the play’s bold approach issues from such musical numbers as “The Money Song,” “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” and the title song, performed in the Kit Kat Club. Largely welcomed by the critics and embraced by the public, Cabaret won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score, and ran for 1,165 performances. The 1972 film version earned eight Academy Awards, including Best Actress (Minnelli), Best Supporting Actor (Grey), and Best Director (Bob Fosse). Minnelli’s popularity extended to television where, in September 1972, she starred in the Emmy Award–winning Liza with a Z, written for her by Kander and Ebb. Cabaret itself enjoyed several reincarnations. Grey repeated his role in a 1987 revival, and a much-revised 1998 version enjoyed a lengthy run.
After the triumph of Cabaret in 1967, Kander and Ebb were less successful for a time, creating musicals that won admirers but did not enjoy extended runs. The Happy Time (1968), derived from the play by Samuel Taylor and a novel by Robert L. Fontaine, centered on a French-Canadian family in the 1920s. The book by N. Richard Nash and the Kander-Ebb score had considerable charm, but Gower Champion’s production overpowered the frail story, and The Happy Time expired after only 286 performances. Nevertheless, Champion received Tony Awards for his direction and choreography.
Later that same year (1968), Kander and Ebb created Zorba, a musical adaptation of the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis and the 1964 film version, Zorba the Greek. Herschel Bernardi played the lusty Greek peasant Zorba, who teaches a young visitor to Crete how to enjoy life. The book by Joseph Stein and the Kander-Ebb score captured the exuberance of the play’s central figure, but despite some favorable reviews and several Tony nominations, the musical was not a success. A 1983 revival starred Anthony Quinn in the role he had originated in the film version. Kander and Ebb’s next musical play, 70, Girls, 70 (1971), was even less successful, eking out a mere thirty-five performances with its story (book by Ebb and Norman L. Martin, from a play by Peter Coke) concerning a group of feisty oldsters who turn to shoplifting.
The next Kander-Ebb musical, Chicago (1975), with a book by Ebb and Fosse, was as audacious as Cabaret, but despite a lengthy run and Fosse’s assured direction, it was not as well received. Based loosely on the 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, the musical takes place in the cheerfully corrupt world of 1920s Chicago. The publicity-seeking murderesses and their blatantly manipulative lawyer are not depicted conventionally but as song-and-dance performers in an extravagant vaudeville show. Prison is a setting for fierce musical competition among the shameless inmates, and a courtroom turns into a setting for lavish musical numbers. The concept pleased many critics and theatergoers and irritated others, but such numbers as “Razzle Dazzle” and “All That Jazz” were exhilarating displays of Fosse’s artistry. More than two decades later Chicago enjoyed a second life when a 1996 revival received enthusiastic reviews and settled in for a lengthy run, and a stunning 2002 film version, directed by Rob Marshall, became a huge success, winning an Academy Award as the year’s best film.
After Chicago, Kander and Ebb decided to create a vehicle for Minnelli, now a certified star due to her triumph in Cabaret. The result was The Act (1977), a musical play about an out-of-work film actress (Minnelli) who tries to reclaim her success with a nightclub act. The film director Martin Scorsese was chosen to direct, but when he proved to be wrong for the show, he was replaced by Champion. That same year (1977) Minnelli costarred with Robert De Niro in the film musical New York, New York, in which she introduced Kander and Ebb’s title song, which became a virtual anthem for the city.
Kander and Ebb did not return to the theatrical scene until Woman of the Year in 1981. Loosely adapted from the 1942 film comedy, the musical marked the second Broadway appearance of the film actress Lauren Bacall. In the book by Peter Stone, Bacall played a TV morning show hostess who falls in love with, marries, and clashes with a cartoonist (Anthony Franciosa). Although the musical enjoyed a decent run, it clearly leaned heavily on Bacall’s star power for its audience. Kander and Ebb returned three years later with The Rink (1984), yet another shaky vehicle for Minnelli, this time as the estranged daughter of a woman (Chita Rivera in a Tony Award–winning performance) who owns a roller-skating rink. Despite the drawing power of its stars, The Rink closed after 204 performances. There would be no new Kander-Ebb musical until March 1991, when a musical revue entitled And the World Goes ‘Round displayed many of their best songs at an off-Broadway theater for 408 performances. Their songs were also often used in nightclub acts and solo stage shows by Shirley MacLaine and other performers.
When Kander and Ebb reappeared on Broadway in 1993, they did so with one of their most offbeat efforts. Kiss of the Spider Woman had originally been a novel and a play by the Argentine author Manuel Puig and then a 1985 movie. Kander and Ebb’s musical adaptation, with a book by Terrence McNally, combines commentary on totalitarian repression with gaudy fantasy in its story of two men, a political rebel named Valentin (Anthony Crivello) and a gay window dresser named Molina (Brent Carver), who share a cell in a brutal Latin-American prison. To retain his reason, Molina fantasizes about old movie musicals, especially about Aurora, the B-movie actress who once played the role of the Spider Woman (Chita Rivera), the sinister creature whose kiss means death. After a difficult gestation period, Kiss of the Spider Woman finally opened on Broadway in 1993 to general acclaim and seven Tony Awards. Too grim for general audiences, the musical nevertheless managed to sustain a run of 906 performances. No such luck, however, was possible for the final Kander-Ebb Broadway musical, Steel Pier (1997), which centered on the marathon craze in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the Depression years. A weak book by David Thompson diluted the score, and the musical lasted for only seventy-six performances. Ebb died of a heart attack. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
Ebb’s contribution to the American musical theater cannot be separated from that of his longtime collaborator Kander, and as an illustrious team they were duly celebrated in later years. In addition to their many Tony Awards and nominations, they were jointly honored at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 1998. In April 2005 the Fred Ebb Foundation, in conjunction with the Roundabout Theatre Company, initiated in honor of Ebb an annual award to aspiring musical theater songwriters. Lyricists in musical theater have always contributed their wit, their rhyming ability, and their keen perception of human foibles to the songs they create. Ebb contributed all these—and more. With Kander he took the musical play into a new dimension where cynicism exists side by side with optimism and where dark shadows sometimes blot out the sun. Somewhere, at any time, Sally Bowles, Roxie Hart, and the Spider Woman are still thumbing their noses at morality and good behavior to the sharp-edged lyrics of Ebb.
Fred Ebb and John Kander, with the assistance of Greg Lawrence, discuss their lives and careers in Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz (2003). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Sept. 2004).