American composer John Harold Kander, born in Kansas City, MO on March 18, 1927, is the musical partner of the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who together created a stream of hit Broadway shows, FLORA THE RED MENACE (1965), CABARET (1966), CHICAGO (1975), KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (1993), THE VISIT (2001) and CURTAINS (2007) plus 14 films and TV specials over their forty-year association.
Much of John Kander’s childhood in Kansas City was spent singing and making music with his parents and brother. He took piano lessons from age six. He attended Westport High School, before transferring to the Pembroke Country-Day School
During the 1940s, John joined the United States Merchant Marine Cadet Corps. After completing his training in California and sailing between San Francisco and Asia, John was stationed in Shanghai in 1945 until January 1946, and told me that he attended the infamous Shanghai Canidrome events there. He said he also played piano in a Russian brothel in Shanghai for 3 days — “it was the warmest place in Shanghai because there were no radiators and everybody aboard his ship was there” he said. He left the Corps on May 3, 1946.
While a college student studying music at Oberlin College he wrote the music for 3 shows, and after graduating in 1951 he earned a Master’s degree from Columbia University in New York. During the summers of the mid-1950s John conducted and directed the chorus at the Warwick Musical Theatre in Rhode Island.
He got his start on Broadway as a substitute rehearsal pianist for Leonard Bernstein’s WEST SIDE STORY. At his next ‘gig’, playing for the auditions for GYPSY, he met choreographer Jerome Robbins who suggested that Kander write the dance music for the show. In 1960 he did some arrangements for IRMA LA DOUCE, and in 1962, his first musical, A FAMILY AFFAIR with a book by James Goldman and William Goldman (both of whom were living with John at the time), lyrics by James Goldman and John Kander, and music by Kander, was produced but did not do well, despite Harold “Hal” Prince coming onboard making his debut to direct it.
Independently John supplied the scores to many films, including Something For Everyone (1970), A Matter of Time (1976), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Still of the Night (1982), Blue Skies Again (1983), Places in the Heart (1984), I Want to Go Home (1989) and Billy Bathgate (1991). Kander and Ebb collaborated for one of their most famous accomplishments, New York, New York (1977). The duo also wrote music for the films Cabaret (1972), Funny Lady and Lucky Lady (1975) and French Postcards (1979).
Kander and Ebb also collaborated on many TV specials. In 1974 they won an Emmy award for their work on Liza with a Z’ and the soundtrack also won a Grammy Award. They won another Emmy in 1993 for Liza Minnelli in London, Steppin’ Out. The partners also worked with Minnelli on Goldie and Liza Together (1980), Standing Room Only: Liza in London (1986), Liza Minnelli: A Triple Play (1988), and Liza Minnelli Live! From Radio City Music Hall (1992). Additionally, the duet created music for Shirley MacLain’s Gypsy in My Soul (1976), Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980), Breathing Lessons (1995) and The Boys Next Door (1995). Kander and Ebb also wrote music for two Academy Awards presentations in 1988 and 1993.
Kander & Ebb: synonymous with Broadway
John owes his introduction to lyricist Fred Ebb in 1963 to music publisher Tommy Valando (Tommy had also introduced Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock together). Fred, too, had recently had an unsuccessful Broadway debut. Their very first common project, the song “My Coloring Book,” was recorded by Barbra Streisand on her 2nd album (1963) and nominated for a Grammy Award.
Their first full-scale theatrical collaboration, GOLDEN GATE, did not make it to the stage, but in 1965, along with playwright David (“Tommy”) Thompson, the two put together FLORA THE RED MENACE, introducing Liza Minnelli appearing for the 1st time on Broadway – and winning a Tony Award. Though it was not a hit, FLORA THE RED MENACE served to cement life-long relationships among Kander, Ebb, Minnelli, and producer Harold Prince.
John Kander: master of collaboration
The pair’s next collaboration, following the opening night of FLORA THE RED MENACE began the development of CABARET, with a book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood, produced by Harold Prince, opened on November 20, 1966, at the Broadhurst Theatre and ran for 1,165 performances. In 1968, it won 8 Tony Awards including for Best Musical, and established fame worldwide for Kander and Ebb. One of the most successful musicals of all time, features the songs ‘Wilkommen’, ‘Don’t Tell Mama’, ‘Mein Herr’, ‘Maybe This Time’, ‘Money’ and the title number ‘Cabaret’. The 1972 film adaptation starred Liza Minnelli and won several Oscars. The show was revived on Broadway, in 1987 and in 1998, when CABARET won another Tony Award for Best Revival, 3 Tonys for actors, and 7 more nominations. It has been revised multiple times throughout the world. Winning a record-breaking 7 Olivier Awards, a hit London revival production opened in 2021 at the Playhouse Theatre starring Eddie Redmayn.
“They write Broadway – in the best sense” – Hal Prince
After more musicals, including ZORBA in 1968, and 70 GIRLS 70 in 1971, the duo had another major hit, CHICAGO, in 1975 with the help of Bob Fosse, running for 898 performances. It starred Gwen Verdón, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach, and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, but Marvin Hamlisch’s A CHORUS LINE – swept up all the Awards.
Kander and Ebb’s second Tony was awarded in 1981 to WOMAN OF THE YEAR with a book by Peter Stone and initially starring Lauren Bacall, later replaced by Raquel Welch and Debbie Reynolds. John considered this musical to be too ‘craftsmen-like’, and was his least proud composition.
In 1984 the duo worked on THE RINK at the Martin Beck Theatre, which starred Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera. While it did not do well on Broadway, John considered it one of his favorite musicals because the songs were very emotional.
In 1985 their song “New York, New York” became the official anthem of New York City.
When CHICAGO was revived on Broadway in 1996 with an adapted book by David Thompson, it became a huge hit. This record breaking revival is still alive. A replicate production of CHICAGO was mounted for London.
KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, starring Chita Rivera was produced in Toronto in 1990 and then at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London in 1992. It made its Broadway debut on May 3, 1993, at the Broadhurst Theatre where it ran for 906 performances and won him another Tony Award in 1993.
Their musical revue AND THE WORLD GOES ‘ROUND conceived by director Scott Ellis, choreographer Susan Stroman, and librettist David Thompson, opened on March 18, 1991 Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre, and closed on March 8, 1992.
In 1997 along with playwright David Thompson they wrote STEEL PIER, about a dance marathoner during the depression.
Next came THE VISIT, a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Fred, and music by John, based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 satirical play about greed and revenge Der Besuch der alten Dame, originally developed as a vehicle for Angela Lansbury intended for a Broadway opening on March 15, 2001. It had been scheduled for a try-out in Boston for December 2000–January 2001. However, in July 2000 Lansbury withdrew due to the illness and subsequent death of her husband. Chita Rivera was signed as Lansbury’s replacement and the musical, directed by Frank Galati and choreographed by Ann Reinking, was staged with Chita Rivera and John McMartin by the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, opening on October 1, 2001. Galati said that because of the September 11, 2001 attacks the show did not move to Broadway. Another remount was staged at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia in 2008.
The partnership came to a sudden end when Fred died of a heart attack at home in New York City on September 11, 2004. At the time, they were working on 4 new incomplete musicals, THE VISIT, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, the musical adaption OVER AND OVER, based on THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH by Thornton Wilder and CURTAINS, the latter show is about a series of mysterious deaths during the production of a Broadway musical; coincidentally, 2 other members of the project’s team died while CURTAINS was ongoing). A new lyricist, Rupert Holmes, was brought in to help John continue and finish the work, which ran for 511 performances, winning a Tony for David Hyde Pierce, 2 Drama Desk Awards, and 7 more Tony nominations.
The musical THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS with a book by David Thompson, originally produced in New York City, February 2010 by Vineyard Theatre; further developed at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre, opened on Broadway, directed by Susan Stroman at the Lyceum Theatre in October 2010. Based on the true story of nine young men in a landmark case of the 1930s in which a group of African-American teenagers were unjustly accused of attacking two white women, and the boys’ attempts to prove their innocence, which helped give rise to the civil rights movement and changed history, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS was John’s favorite and proudest experience.
John’s first musical without Fred in many years, THE LANDING, with book and lyrics by Greg Pierce, premiered Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre on October 23, 2013. The musical, which was a series of 3 “mini-musicals” was directed by Walter Bobbie and starred David Hyde Pierce and Julia Murney.
Then in 2014, a one-act version of THE VISIT
appeared at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, running from July 31 to August 17, 2014 The cast featured Chita Rivera, Jason Danieley, Judy Kuhn and Roger Rees. Broadway previews of THE VISIT
began on March 26, 2015 and premiered on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre on April 23, 2015. Chita Rivera and Roger Rees (in his final stage performance) starred, directed by John Doyle. THE VISIT
was nominated for 5 Tony Awards including Best Musical. The production closed on June 14, 2015.
John’s musical KID VICTORY, with book and lyrics by Greg Pierce, had its world premiere February 28, 2015 at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. KID VICTORY premiered Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre on February 1, 2017 in previews, and opened officially on February 22, 2017. Directed by Liesl Tommy, the cast featured Jeffry Denman and Karen Ziemba.
John and David Thompson (lyrics) wrote an original new work with John’s waltz-inspired instrumental score titled THE BEAST IN THE JUNGLE which opened Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2018. The play was directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, and featured Tony Yazbeck and Irina Dvorovenko.
In 2023, John collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda on a new Broadway musical, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, inspired by their hit title song from the 1977 Martin Scorsese film and featuring music and lyrics by Kander & Ebb, written by David Thompson & Sharon Washington with additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and directed by Susan Stroman.
Together since 1977, John married dancer and choreographer Albert Stephenson in Toronto in 2010.
John’s grand-nephew, Jason Kander, was formerly the Missouri Secretary of State.
“The theatre is a swell place to live” – John Kander