(March 18, 2007)

Facing “Curtains,” Without Fred Ebb

This is the eighth and final installment in the “Broadway Bound” series looking at “Curtains.”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

As Broadway composer John Kander celebrates his 80th birthday today, four days before the opening night of his latest show - a backstage murder-mystery musical comedy called "Curtains" - he admits to mixed emotions.

It will be the first opening of a show written by Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb - the architects of Broadway hits such as "Chicago" and "Cabaret" and the anthem "New York, New York" - since Ebb died Sept. 11, 2004.

"It's really strange," Kander said. "It's really hard to describe. In great part, along with the sadness and the lack of confidence which pours over me, there's also the fact that life goes on. And this is a new chapter in my own life."

He got to this chapter, he's grateful to say, with a lot of help from his friends, his theater family.

"Part of it - and I don't know how to say this without sounding really gooey and sentimental, but ... this whole company, this whole experience, is so loving," he said.

Director Scott Ellis makes no apologies for sounding gooey or sentimental. The atmosphere at "Curtains," from the readings through its out-of-town tryout in Los Angeles to its New York rehearsals and previews, has been designed with Kander in mind.

"When I was putting this together," Ellis said, "I felt that with Kander, after Freddy's death, I wanted to make sure he was surrounded by people who loved him, who really were supportive, and that was important to me."

Ellis first met Kander and Ebb when he was performing in their 1984 show, "The Rink" - at the same theater on West 45th Street where "Curtains" opens this week. Then it was the Martin Beck. Now, it's the Al Hirschfeld.

Before long, he had pitched them the idea of reviving their first show, "Flora the Red Menace," and they agreed. Ellis directed, his first outing in that regard, and brought in choreographer Susan Stroman and book writer David "Tommy" Thompson, who would become members of "the family," too.

The family would go on to work on Kander & Ebb's "Steel Pier," adding actors Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba and Jim Newman and musical director David Loud, all of whom are involved in "Curtains."

"We all tend to like to work together," Kander said.

Still, the newly minted octogenarian is a bit stunned by the level of talent Ellis has assembled at the Hirschfeld.

"It's a gilt-edged cast," he said. "Not just David (Hyde Pierce), who's an angel, and Deb, who's very close. And Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley. On and on, down the line. You look at that stage and you think, 'Who is there left to be in a musical?' "

"Curtains" hasn't had an easy road, losing its original book writer, Peter Stone, in 2003, followed by Ebb's death 17 months later.

Set designer Anna Louizos has etched their names on the set piece that makes up the back wall of the theater.

Rupert Holmes ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood") joined the project in 2003 and did a complete rewrite, using many of Stone's characters and heightening the mystery.

"Curtains" is about the out-of-town tryout of a western musical called "Robbin' Hood" in 1959 Boston. The show is in trouble, largely because of a problematic leading lady. When there's a murder backstage, Boston detective Lt. Frank Cioffi (David Hyde Pierce) is called in to investigate.

Cioffi happens to be a huge musical-theater fan who sets out to solve the murder - and the musical's problems at the same time.

"This is the closest thing to an old-fashioned musical comedy that Fred and I ever wrote," Kander said. "There's no mean subtext to it. The piece is about three feet above the ground all the time, but its heart is on its sleeve.

"And it's funny. Rupert is funny. I don't know how you do that. He's done a brilliant job. I'm in awe of him."

After Ebb's death, the show had no lyricist.

"Somehow, with Scott's and Rupert's encouragement," Kander said, "I got brave and set out to do the lyrics to the new songs that had to be done. Some I did alone. Some I did with Rupert. They were both so supportive and energetic that I'm very glad I did."

The composer speaks glowingly about the work Ebb did on "Curtains," in particular a second-act number sung by Debra Monk called "It's a Business."

"It's a quintessential Fred Ebb lyric, terrific, funny and tough," he said. "Deb and Fred were very close friends, and I think her performance is kind of a tribute to Fred every night when she does that song."

If history is any indication, the next four days before opening will be half-empty and half-full for Kander.

"Your feelings before every one of these things are consistently excited and negative," he said. "You start writing the bad reviews in your head already. And sometimes they prove true."

After Kander & Ebb's "The Happy Time" opened in 1968, the composer was in an airport in the Caribbean awaiting his connecting flight when he found a newsstand. About to pick up a copy of Time, he recalled that the magazine's critic had hated "Cabaret" and likely would not have kind things to say about this new musical.

His plane delayed, Kander circled the newsstand again.

"I said to myself, 'I'll open the magazine and if it says 'Theater,' then I won't buy it. I opened to the table of contents and that week - I swear, just especially for my benefit - they had capsule reviews of movies and theater surrounding the table of contents.

"The sentence right above the word 'Contents' was, 'Songs so undistinguished they scarcely deserve to be sung out loud.'

"I had to laugh, because I thought, 'You just did it to yourself,'" he said.

Kander said he doesn't read reviews for the most part. From a business standpoint, he needs to know whether a review is good or bad, "but you don't have to read an entire article that says you should never have been born. At that point, it's not going to help your character."

How will he spend the next four days?

"I'm writing the bad reviews in my head. Quotes like: 'In spite of the exhilaratingly funny book by Rupert Holmes, and stalwart direction and choreography by Scott Ellis and Rob Ashford, the dankness of the third-rate Kander & Ebb score sinks the piece upon arrival.'

"I can do better than that, but those are the things that go through your head."