Public Media Arts Hub

Broadway composer John Kander on how his latest musical is a love letter to New York


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Broadway's big night, the Tony Awards, will be held this Sunday.

The new show "New York, New York" is a top contender, nominated in nine categories, including best musical.

The composer of its music, John Kander, is separately being honored with a special award for lifetime achievement in the theater. Quite a life, extraordinary achievement, which continues.

Jeffrey Brown joined Kander at the piano in his New York, New York, home for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The new Broadway musical "New York, New York," set shortly after World War II, opens with a song called "Cheering For Me Now," in which we meet characters who've come to New York with uncertain futures, but big dreams.

The show is a love letter to a city. And for its 96-year-old composer, John Kander, it captures the wonder of working with others to create something new.

John Kander, Composer: I have lived a long time. And one of the good things I can tell you about living a long time is that you keep finding out things and learning things about not just your own life, about life itself, or what really matters.

And I found myself, at the end of the workshop of "New York, New York," saying to the company, in thanking them, that one of the greatest pleasures in life was making art with your friends.

Jeffrey Brown: Kander, who grew up in Kansas City, was himself one of those people who came to postwar New York to make it. He did big time, and it was through the collaborative process, as half of one of musical theater's greatest teams, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, creators of such blockbusters as "Chicago," which premiered in 1975.

A 1996 revival is now the longest-running show on Broadway. Another classic, "Cabaret" from 1966, later a film starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. They wrote 16 Broadway musicals in all and thousands of songs, including a certain anthem that pretty much everyone on the planet must have heard and most can sing along with.


Jeffrey Brown: It was originally written for the 1977 film drama "New York, New York" directed by Martin Scorsese. And, as the story goes, when star Robert De Niro didn't much like the first version Kander and Ebb brought them, the two went off and did what they did best, sat at the piano and got to work.

John Kander: We went home pissed off.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, about -- about what...

John Kander: Yes.


Jeffrey Brown: That De Niro didn't like your song.

John Kander: It is true. And we went into this little room where we work with Freddy and sat down and said, well, let's do it again.

And my hands, while -- probably what we were talking, went...


John Kander: And with Fred, immediately inside of that vamp is...

Jeffrey Brown: The first...

John Kander: And produced then the very first lines.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Kander says, music is always playing in his head even as we talked. His job, improvise until he finds the good parts, while Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, was doing the same with an endless string of words.

John Kander: She could -- and this is brilliant. Haven't been a lot of people -- I don't know a lot of people who can do this. He could improvise in rhyme and meter in the same way that I could do...


John Kander: Without thinking, seemingly without thinking.

Jeffrey Brown: So, you're writing -- you're improvising at the keyboard and he's improvising with the rhymes in his head. And, somehow, it comes together.

John Kander: Right. It is mysterious, because it's -- I think it is so deeply unconscious for us.

Jeffrey Brown: The new "New York, New York" musical, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, another longtime Kander collaborator, is loosely based on the earlier film, with new characters and storylines.

At its heart, a young musician, played by Colton Ryan who lost his brother in the war, and a singer played by Anna Uzele facing racial discrimination as she struggles for opportunities. Many of the songs are older ones by Kander and Ebb. Seven were written with a new partner and friend, contemporary Broadway giant Lin-Manuel Miranda, who joined the cast and production team in a rousing 96th birthday song for Kander.

John Kander: We have a good time working together, and it reminds me a little bit of Freddy, because he is -- Lin is very fast, and I'm very fast.

Jeffrey Brown: Fast as, like, the ideas are coming quickly?

John Kander: Yes, it's -- and, again, the ideas can be terrible.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

John Kander: And nobody is a bad person because they have it, but so you write it, and then you change it.

Jeffrey Brown: So, there is a lot of craft to songwriting, right?

John Kander: Yes. That is the word. I think we are all carpenters.

Jeffrey Brown: Knowing how to put it together.

John Kander: Yes, it is one thing to want to make art. It is another to do it, and that is craft. You get better at it, hopefully, as you work, or not.

The rehearsal room is for me the safest place in the world, because you can do anything. You can be so terrible. But it is private.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

John Kander: And, eventually, you end up in the rehearsal room with something that's as close as you can get to what you intended.

Jeffrey Brown: Even with "New York, New York" now on Broadway, Kander, who lives with his husband, Albert Stephenson, was about to leave after our talk to join a workshop session for a potential revival of the Kander and Ebb 1990 musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman." He is very much still at it.

John Kander: My mother had a great phase, which no -- none of us understood until later in life. She said, you do the best you can. A horse can't do any better.

Jeffrey Brown: A horse can't do any better.

John Kander: I understand now what that means. In other words, if you're writing a show, you do the best you can, sometimes without thinking of the ramifications.

Jeffrey Brown: You are 96 and still working. What is the secret?

John Kander: Well, are you supposed to stop doing the things that give you pleasure? Who wrote that rule?

Jeffrey Brown: No one wrote that rule, certainly not for John Kander.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York, New York.


Geoff Bennett: Wow.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.