Key industry, as theatre practitioners have to invest

Key practitioners in musical
theatre are writers, composers, lyricists, choreographers, directors and many
more, they are all part of the process of putting a show together and getting
it up on its feet. However, Tony Kushner argues that ‘there’s such a difference
between a really great composer and a really great theatre composer’ (Evan,
2014:53) which is relevant to many other practitioners in the industry, as
theatre practitioners have to invest time into the piece so that the music
relates to the book, the lyrics and the style etc. In this case study, it will
explore why John Kander (a composer) and his partner Fred Ebb (a lyricist) are key
practitioners. This will discuss different critical accounts on a selection of
musicals they have worked together on; Cabaret,
Chicago and The Scottsboro Boys. In
Americas Songs it states that ‘In the
flamboyant yet conservative world of the Broadway musical, John Kander and Fred
Ebb wrote hit shows that were startlingly, dazzling innovative’ (Furia and
Lasser, 2008:292-293). This comment states clearly that they are able to write
hit shows whilst still having a deeper meaning to what you would normally see
in a ‘boy-meets-girl’ musical. Their work is discussed by many writers on what
a great team they were, before Ebb passed away, and how they take true stories,
and real life events, whilst highlighting specific problems; the Civil Rights
Movement in Cabaret, vaudeville in Chicago and minstrelsy in The Scottsboro Boys.

A key feature of their work
is that a lot of their material is dark, yet this is what makes their pieces so
‘Kander and Ebb’ as they liked to
work with rich material, full of problems and emotional  implications because they found it easier to
write about such problems over a regular ‘boy meets girl’  scenario. Along with all these pieces being
dark, they are all set in the early Nineteenth Century, a different time period
to what their audiences’ are in. In an interview on Front Row, in 2014, John
Kander made a comment on how he thinks using distance from a different time the
audience is living in, can make them enjoy it more, as musical theatre is not
what life is. He states ‘maybe that’s why Cabaret
wasn’t a big hit at the time’ (Front Row, 2014) as the audience were not ready
to become socially aware to it all.

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Cabaret
was
one of Kander and Ebb’s first hits, set
between 1929 and 1930, which aided in them becoming ‘arguably the most
subversive practitioners of the concept musical.’ (Leve. 2015:4), indicating
they have had a huge impact on the changes in musical theatre, going from the
integrated musical to the concept musical. The concept musical would ‘comment
on the story metaphorically rather than advance it in dramatically expressive
songs.’ (Furia and Lasser, 2008:286) however
they were not fully there and only used part of the feature; it had the
non-linear side in the ‘Kit Kat Klub’
whilst still having the traditional book musical style throughout. Harold Prince
was the man who took this on as a project as he was interested in the Civil
Rights Movement, he could see the parallel between ‘”The spiritual bankruptcy
of Germany in the 1920’s and our country in the 1960’s”‘(Furia and Lasser,
2008:284).He wanted to make it contemporary and relatable to the audience. The
piece is based on ‘I Am Camera’,
which is Jon Van Druten’s adaptation of Christopher Irshwood’s ‘Berlin Stories’. Prince wanted to take
the important message from this book whilst still making it entertaining, he
wanted it to create “A musical that would be “more than a musical”” (Furia and
Lasser, 2008:284) which is the reason he asked Kander and Ebb to be part of the
creative team. Instead of writing a dark score, “they gave many of their
numbers a gay, glitzy patina.” (Furia and Lasser, 2008:285) making them very
upbeat, juxtaposing to the dark message the show was telling. When Sally sings
the song Cabaret; “What good is
sitting alone in your room?/ Come hear the music play;/ Life is a cabaret, old
chum” the lyrics are underscoring ‘her and much of Germany’s obliviousness to
the rise Nazism.” (Furia and Lasser,2008:286) that was going on in Berlin at
the time. Cabaret was headlined with;
‘A ‘Cabaret’ with fresh ways to make us squirm’ (Reid, 2017), backing up that
the way this is performed is quite shocking and the matter they discuss can be
disturbing to viewers, however it is still entertaining which supports them
being key practitioners.

Well-known features in John
Kander’s compositions are his use of vamps, described to be ‘among the most
recognizable vamps in the musical theatre repertory’ (Leve, 2015:25). Chita
Rivera says they ‘are part of what defines’ (Leve, 2015:25) their music and
makes it their own. The use of a vamp is a repeated musical feature in which
marks the start of a song to form the mood, and can ‘often define the rhythmic
and melodic profile of the song” (Leve, 2015:25). Kander started most of their
songs with a vamp, then inside the vamp found the beginning of the melody of
which the lyrics would be sung to. His music expands the harmonic palette and
is a ‘more inventive use of the mirror mode.” (Leve, 2015:28). Kander borrowed
harmonies shifting between a major and a minor key whilst increasing the dramatic
effect. The song ‘Maybe This Time’
uses the inner ascending line to form the harmonic progression, whilst taking
the counter line to the repeated theme in the vocals to help build up the
tension. This then makes the whole song develop and get stronger, both
musically and characteristically, showing the character Sally Bowles’s
happiness and self-worth of finally finding a meaningful relationship.

Through the years it had
been argued that “The work of Kander and Ebb has shown a consistent Brechtian
style…though their political impact is somewhat light”(Taylor and Symonds,
2014:59)showing how they have been influenced and morphed the idea into their
own. In the original production of Cabaret,
with Prince, he used ‘a huge mirror in which they found themselves reflected’
(Taylor and Symonds, 2014:61), making them part of the performance not just
viewing it. This is an example of Brecht’s theory of alienating the audience,
known as Verfremdungseffekt. The
audience are led into a false sense of security with the satirical show using
light entertainment on heavy subjects. Brecht once said ‘Art is not a mirror
with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.’ (Bbc.co.uk,
2018), which means that what the audience views on stage can be changed and it
is up to them to take action. This is seen in Cabaret involving the Civil Rights Movement, directly linking the Kit Kat Klub (which was an actual club
in 1920’s called Kit Kat Club) with
the white extremists ‘Ku Klutz Klan’.
Alsom this can be seen through their use of Cultural Materialism (‘historicizing a cultural text’ (Taylor
and Symonds, 2014:61)), by relating it to the treatment of someone or group, be
it by gender, race or religion. At the end of a production in the 90’s, the
character Emcee starts to remove his
costume revealing a concentration camp uniform with a yellow badge and a pink triangle
on. This signified the Jews and homosexuality, making the piece shape to
comment on a more contemporary issue bringing the impact of AIDS to light,
where as in the 60’s it represented racisms instead. In a 2006 production the
whole cast stripped down naked, revealing their “emaciated bodies vulnerably
awaiting extermination in the gas chambers” (Taylor and Symonds, 2014:64),
there is a clear portrayal to the context of the script here (the Holocaust).
This was also relative to the audience at the time, as the war with Afghanistan
was happening and it was literally telling the audience “It could happen here
too” (a line from the play) making their minds think about what they had just
seen rather than just being entertained.

A lot of Cabaret’s songs also have a deeper
meaning, for example in the song ‘If you
Could See Her Through My Eyes’, sung by Emcee, a novelty vaudeville, a
gorilla in a pink veiled hat and tutu appears as the soft-show rhythm is
playing, this duet links to racial issue in the 60’s and the ethnic tension in
the 20’s/30’s. Whilst trying to remind the audience that ‘love can happen
between people of difference” (Taylor and Symonds, 2014:63). Kander and Ebb
were portraying the Nazi’s views’ at the time, on how Jews are were closer to
the evolutionary chain, shocking the audience with the line ‘She wouldn’t look Jewish at all’. Cabaret
has been described as one of the musicals that still to this day “speak to the
heart of human experience- (Kendrick, 2017:255) which is highly supported in
this song as they show the overcoming of societal barriers. They also comment on other issues such as money in “Money makes the world go around”. It has
been discussed that Ebb was “capturing the crass cynicism of the cabaret but
also the hothouse environment of producing musical theatre on Broadway” (Knapp,
Morris and Wolf, 2013:351). This links to how much money can be put into the
show and how much money can be earned within a show, for example; the raise in
ticket prices every year at the box office.

In their stage show Chicago, adapted from Maurine Dallas
Watkins’ play Chicago, there are also
the use Brechtian techniques, such as breaking the fourth wall especially with the
character Roxie as a lot of her songs
are set in her mind, not in real world. They also have the band leader announce
every song just before it is performed which takes you out of the dramatic
action a touch. The musical is based on two 1924 murder cases; the murderers
were called Belulah Annan and Bleva Gaertner (who are Velma Kelly and Roxie Heart
in the show). The pair, in the show, get out of jail because of a man named
Billy who ‘transforms “justice” into “showbiz”‘ (Furia and Lasser, 2008:293).
Nowadays it is argued that it is relevant to a more contemporary audience as
the media still makes celebrities from criminals ‘while the public rebels
against attempts at legislating morality’ ( Miller, 1999) which is what happens
in this musical as the media was the way Roxie won over people with her lies
and is released from prison. The music at the time of this piece was very jazz
styled so Kander and Ebb listened to a lot of the music from the era, Kander
later describing the unconscious process of listening and ‘letting your brain
soak it in and then writing'(Furia and Lasser, 2008:293) much easier to actually
create a song, especially Chicago. The
music throughout aids in ‘the idea that jazz and its associated lifestyles have
warped Roxie'(Knapp, 2009:114),which is put forward quite cynically, and has
made Roxie a murderer and it is not
really her fault, trying to capture the public’s sympathy. Each song in the
show ‘was in a particular style associated with show biz’ (Furia and Lasser,
2008:293) at the time, Ebb capturing the language of vaudeville throughout all
the songs written to create the metaphor of show business as life (just like it
is in Roxie’s eyes). This was because
Bob Fosse (the choreographer for both Chicago
and Cabaret and who Ebb had collaborated
with on writing the book for this show) had
the idea of wanting to ‘play on a
vaudeville stage so that all musical numbers would be “justified”‘ (Gottfried,
2009:305) so Fred ‘made it vaudeville based on the idea that the characters
were performers’ (Furia and Lasser, 2008:293)and based them around someone else.
For example; Roxie was Helen Morgan, Velma was Texas Guinan, Billy Flynn was Ted Lewis, Mama Morton was Sophie Tucker. Ebb would
take on Fosse’s suggestions and then go home to test things out. For instance
he might suggest adding in a the slap in a scene Ebb had written, so Ebb would
try and rewrite the scene with a new action to see if it would work or not.  The original idea from Fosse for the closing
number was for there to be two solo songs, each for Kelly and Hart. The writers
wanted a ‘cheesy act in which Velma played the drum and Roxie saxophone’ (Furia
and Lasser, 2008:294) however even with this idea in mind, Kander and Ebb both
thought it neither of the songs written were working. So when Fosse asked them
to make only one song for the characters, they were delighted and they managed
to write ‘Nowaydays’ in an hour! In
this song they sing the line “There’s life everywhere” suggesting confliction
with showbiz in the idea that although it is quite sleazy, it is also exciting
and full on ‘life’.  The announcer
introduces the act is “Chicago’s Killer Dillers”, whilst stating that his
theatre is home to ‘family entertainment’. In an article on this musical it is
argued that this song can be made contemporary as it relates to ‘today’s
entertainment industry, as dozens of special interest groups complain that
movies and television are corrupting our youth.’ This analysis makes clear
identification to the present as this is still happening; take OJ Simpson as an
example, the trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron
Goldman was televised live and was watched by thousands, becoming the ‘trial of
the century’ (Brown, Muldowney and Effron, 2017). Nancy Glass says in this news
article that it involves sex, murder and money which will always be on peoples’
minds on whether he had killed them or not. This links directly back to
vaudeville, as it would not be known without an audience and neither would have
Chicago nor Simpson.

Other serious accusations are
found in The Scottsboro Boys. This
play had hints of vaudeville in the show and used the device of having a play
within a play (just like Cabaret and Chicago)whilst bringing out a
political/social matter. The musical is about 9 black, male teenagers who were
pulled of a train in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931 and are wrongfully accused of
raping two white women. The case goes on for 9 whole years. Kander said in an
interview on Front Row (2014) that Fred Ebb had originally said that the
audience would pull away from this piece if they did not make it entertaining
they decided that they needed to sweeten the story in some way with the music. Unfortunately,
Ebb had passed before this show was released so Kander took on the project
himself along with David Thompson who wrote the book. The style of the songs
are quite jaunty, juxtaposing with the dark matter at hand, reminding Kander of
‘Oh What A Lovely War’ with the style and intent of each song. Their songs
created a false, safe atmosphere where the audience could enjoy themselves but the
key feature in this was their use of Minstrelsy (black face) to bring forward
the dark, underlining the issue of racism. Minstrelsy was a form of comic
theatre in America where white minstrels would paint their faces black ‘whose
material caricatured the singing and dancing of slaves.’ (Gorlinski,Parwani and
Tikkanen, 2010) in the eighteen hundred and later it would influence vaudeville
theatre and other sources on media. Kander and Ebb subvert the original portrayal
of this and turn it on its head, by having a black actor playing a white
character. By disrupting this they ‘force history into the present'(Stahl,
2016;75) but they can only push the audience so far in this sense. A man called
Sarfraz Manzoor commented on the piece on The Review Show in 2013, saying that
because of this use of the flipped minstrelsy the injustice of the ‘rape’ is
lost as the audience are too shocked at the white character being portrayed by
a black actor. Although, this is the exact reason they used it, as they wanted to
make the audience aware of the racism in the story and how racial
discrimination is still happening to this day. It is argued on this show that
it is ‘one of the worst Kander and Ebb productions'(The Review Show, 2013) as
it doesn’t match the musical or political terms it sets out to show. However,
Hoffman argues that ‘While the musical engages with a variety of social topics,
the issue of race takes precedence’ (Hoffman,2014;3), linking back to the Jim
Crow Laws which consisted of the separation of any person of a racial colour
that is not white. Ebb writes these lyrics ‘
Wheel about, turn about, and do just so/ Every time dey wheel about, dey jump
Jim Crow’ which makes the spectators aware of  these laws and can make the audience shocked
at the direct confrontation and how politically correct it actually is. At the
very end of the performance the cast put on black face makeup and ‘sing about
the media frenzy surrounding their newfound notoriety’ (Stahl,2016:77) but
their upbeat number is brought to a halt by the revelations of the boys” fates.
When they are asked to perform their usual ending number ‘the Cakewalk’ but
refuse and remove their faces clean, leaving the stage. This offers the idea of
hope of change with the Civil Rights Movement. The minstrelsy helps with the
way the show is constructed as well.  The
actors use chairs and tell their story with them (a semi-circle of chairs were
used in a lot of minstrel shows) using them to change the scene from a train to
a cell etc. ‘The actors become in charge of the structure: they build the set’
(Perloff and Richard, 2012:6). The end is left with the chairs in the
semi-circle are completely tipped over metaphorically showing how they have deconstructed
the minstrel form. The presence of both the minstrelsy and Brechtian elements
leaves the ‘audience to think critically on this satirical commentary on the
racist attitude in the South at the time of the Scottsboro trials and the
minstrel tradition.'(Robson, 2017:3), whilst making ‘racism’ a key theme
throughout to make the audience think of what is happening now compared to
then, and if there is much difference.

To conclude, both Kander and
Ebb have adapted minstrelsy, Brechtian forms and interlinked this with the idea
of concept musicals. They are both key practitioners because they manage to
create intriguing entertainment whist still making the audience think. The pair
have used these forms as stepping points to create their own material, creating
in depth pieces with not-so-hidden messages. This essay has looked at three
different musicals that they have written together and commented on the
influence they have had on the audience, which was their initial desire, as in
these pieces they wanted to make a contemporary audience analyse whether things
have really changed in the world or not.

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