Scott Ellis, David Thompson, and I had such a wonderful time collaborating with Kander and Ebb on the Off-Broadway production of Flora, the Red Menace that we did not want it to end. In fact, it was Kander and Ebb who taught us the real art of collaboration in the musical theater. David (Tommy) Thompson had the idea of a retrospective of Kander and Ebb’s work. At this point, Kander and Ebb had an incredible body of work to pull from – Cabaret, The Happy Time, Zorba, Chicago, The Act, Woman of the Year, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman. They had also composed the scores for the films Cabaret, Funny Lady, and New York, New York. The material was dramatic, humorous, romantic, and show-stopping. Our difficult task was to find the right lineup of songs to make an evening feel rhythmically and emotionally satisfying. We wanted to create something that felt more sophisticated than simply light entertainment.
More than any other musical theater team, Kander and Ebb write specifically for their characters. As we worked on the lineup, it became clear each song was almost like its own play or short story. The songs we had chosen had backstories and rich character subtext. Each one had a beginning, a middle, and an end and could stand on its own.
If we could find the right cast, this would be a fantastic evening. Lucky for us we got the right cast – Jim Walton, Karen Ziemba, Karen Mason, Bob Cuccioli, and Brenda Pressley. They all handled Kander and Ebb’s material beautifully, with great wit, poignancy, and power. The actors were game to learn new skills and by the end of the show it looked like there was nothing they couldn’t do.
Our genius musical director David Loud created intricate vocal arrangements and combined various songs harmonically, which gave the show an impressive musical strength. He put together a tight jazz harmony version of “Cabaret” that made the song sound new and fresh. When Fred Ebb heard it, he said, “You made the old turkey gobble again.” David also created a combination of the songs “We Can Make It”, “Maybe This Time”, and “Isn’t This Better” – all three sung with soulful longing by Jim Walton, Brenda Pressley, and Karen Mason. It was a perfect mash up of Kander and Ebb that brilliantly highlighted each character’s plight.
When it came to staging “The Rink”, Scott Ellis had a big hand in making that particular production number land. Scott had actually performed in The Rink on Broadway – which meant he was a master on roller skates. It was definitely a group effort putting together this number. Scott taught the cast how to roller skate and they practiced every day. We assessed each actor’s skating talent and then constructed a choreographed number on skates with comedy that captured not only the heart of the original show, but the relationship these performers had with one another. It made for a terrific closer for Act One.
We knew “Me and My Baby” needed a new take that was different from how it appeared in Chicago. At this point in the show we needed a number for all five cast members. Jim Walton is not only an inspiring actor, but also a great musician. He happened to mention he played the banjo. The number easily lent itself to a banjo orchestration, so we decided to teach all five actors to play the banjo. They would enter the stage cradling a baby basket and singing about how much they love their baby. They would then lower the blanket and, to the audience’s surprise, pull out a banjo. The look of these five actors jamming together on the banjo delighted the audience.
The cast was constantly a source of inspiration. While we developed the sequences, we wanted to create a “Love Section.” Karen Ziemba and Jim Walton are fantastic dancers, so I choreographed a tap pas de deux for Act Two. Karen sings “Only Love” and Jim responds with “Marry Me”. She does not answer. Reluctantly, Jim leaves the stage. She then sings “A Quiet Thing” by herself (my absolute favorite Kander and Ebb song). When Jim returns, he sweeps her off her feet and they begin to dance in each other’s arms. I created a partnering dance that takes them through various emotions. I worked with our talented pianist Stephen Milbank to create a dance arrangement that used tunes such as “Sitting Pretty”, “Perfectly Marvelous”, and “Wallflower”. As they dance, the music supports the emotions we see – tentative, challenging, romantic. At the end, Jim hands Karen a ring. She finally says yes.
I also was in heaven choreographing the comic numbers such as “Arthur in the Afternoon”, “Sara Lee”, and “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup”. I have wonderful memories of laughing with the actors as they juggled boxes of Sara Lee and passed around coffee cups.
The witty set by Bill Hoffman was perfect for our staging. He placed the five-piece band across the back above the actors and covered the walls of the proscenium with a variety of words from the Kander and Ebb lexicon. These words were painted in different hues on torn pages – words like “collaboration”, “jazz”, “overture”, “vamp”, “Vaudeville”, “belt”, “rink”, “dance”. Three benches placed stage left, stage right, and center were all we needed to stage the show. At the end of the evening, two large seemingly hidden doors opened to reveal a big, beautiful Hirschfeld illustration of Kander and Ebb. It was a perfect button.
Our biggest challenge was how to sing their most famous song and make it fresh and inventive – “New York, New York”. We talked about that song, always referring to it as “universally loved” and “sung the world over”. Then the idea hits us – what if we heard that famous vamp and onto the stage entered a piano with a spinning globe on the top? The actors play a theater game, each one spinning the globe and stopping it with their finger. Whatever country their finger lands on, they sing the song in that language. We hear a bit of German, French, Japanese, Swedish, and finally English. Not only was it funny, it also took away the onus of having to sing the most celebrated song ever written about New York City.
And the World Goes ‘Round opened at Olympia Dukakis’ Whole Theater in New Jersey, and quickly transferred to New York. It opened to rave reviews at the Westside Theatre on March 19th, 1991 and stayed on the boards for more than a year. It was honored with the Lucille Lortel Award and the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical.
Our show is a revue that celebrates the music of Kander and Ebb, but really it’s much more than that. The evening begins with the incredible sound of Brenda Pressley singing the title song “The World Goes ‘Round” and its lyrics set up our entire evening:
THEN IT’S KICKS IN THE SHINS
BUT THE PLANET SPINS
AND THE WORLD GOES ‘ROUND AND AROUND AND ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND...
We all can relate to those words. And the show has gone on and on around the world – as have my deep and everlasting friendships with Tommy, Scott, and Kander and Ebb.
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Direction by Scott Ellis
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Bill Hoffman
Costume Design by Lindsay W. Davis
Lighting Design by Phil Monat
Sound Design by Gary Stocker
Musical Direction by David Loud