Obituary: Fred Ebb

Internationally renowned lyricist whose string of hit musicals included Cabaret and Chicago

"Start by admitting from cradle to tomb/ Isn't that long a stay." An obituary of Fred Ebb, true to his spirit, can hardly do anything but obey that instruction, which, inevitably, brings with it the rest of that celebrated chorus of life in prewar Berlin: "Life is a cabaret, old chum,/ Come to the cabaret." Such a way with words, set to the music of John Kander, also had Ebb "King of the hill,/ Top of the heap", as he put it in that hymn to New York, New York. Add to this Chicago, and you have a rousing city trilogy: "Find a flask, we're playing fast and loose,/ And all that jazz!/ Right up here is where I store the juice,/ And all that jazz!"

It must be said that such hits, familiar as they are today, did not always leap directly into the public consciousness. Like Ebb's career, which itself began modestly, they had a way of percolating their way into the repertoire.

Ebb, who has died, aged 71, following a heart attack, was born in New York, studied English literature at Columbia University, took his master's degree, but then eschewed academia for music theatre. He had got his first taste of showbusiness contributing lyrics to revues, supporting himself, meanwhile, with humdrum jobs and writing. Working with composer Paul Klein, he wrote such nightclub numbers as The Insecure Tango, in which a girl confesses that she is not sure if she is fashionably insecure.

Ebb was 27 when his breakthrough came, with his contributions to the 1960 revue From A To Z, a satire of Broadway and Hollywood figures, starring Hermione Gingold, and a show that also marked the debut of Woody Allen and Jerry Herman. Later that year came Vintage 60, a review that satirised the then Vice-President Nixon, while letting the soon-to-be President Jack Kennedy off the hook - and showing where the writers and cast were coming from politically.

As to where lyricist Ebb was going, this was decided in one of those inspired meetings, when he was brought together with composer John Kander by the music publisher Tommy Valando. Kander had already worked with Harold Prince, made the dance arrangements for Gypsy and collaborated on songs with William Goldman. Kander's method of constructing a song in an unexpected way chimed perfectly with Ebb's words.

An early success came with My Colouring Book, recorded by the emergent Barbra Streisand, which showed another side to Ebb's exuberant spirit. This was a most unusual colouring book, the singer asking the listener to look at her eyes "that watched him as he walked away,/ Colour them grey./ This is the heart that thought he would always be true,/ Colour it blue"; and so on, until depicting "the room I sleep in, and walk in, and weep in, and hide in that nobody sees,/ Colour it lonely, please./ This is the man, the one I depended upon./ Colour him gone."

Ebb and Kander were soon linked with another rising talent, Liza Minnelli, then 19, and the star of Flora, The Red Menace, produced by Prince and directed by the eminent veteran George Abbot. An account of labour troubles in the depression, the subject somehow becomes one of great charm, but, in 1965, it ran for only a few months and was not judged a hit.

It did well enough, however, for Prince to engage Ebb and Kander for the musical Cabaret, compiled from John Van Druten's play I Am A Camera, which was itself taken from the Christopher Isherwood stories about Sally Bowles in 1930s Berlin.

As was usual for them, Ebb and Kander completed the opening number first; this, for reasons more practical than superstitious, set the tone by startling the audience with the reflection of themselves in a distorting mirror. They were welcomed by the master of ceremonies (Joel Grey), providing that undertow of anti-semitism which belied Berlin's razzmatazz. The winner of many Tony awards, the show was transformed by director Bob Fosse for the Oscar-winning movie in 1972, and made Minnelli a superstar.

Zorba (1968), which Ebb and Kander took from Kazantzakis's novel, was too bold a stroke for its time, but could yet be revived, as 70 Girls 70 (1971) has been, not least because it offers veteran female performers a chance to shine in a light tale of needs-must bringing about a life of crime.

It was not until Chicago (1975) that Ebb and Kander were truly back on Broadway, with an account of Roxie Hart, whose life of murder and stage success had been filmed previously, but only began to come into its own in the ambiguous morality of the stage version. However, the show was seen at the time (Chita Rivera starred) as being merely "daughter" of Cabaret - and it did not help that it reached the public in the shadow of A Chorus Line.

Chicago was followed by The Act (1977), written for Minnelli, who, that same year, sang New York, New York in the Martin Scorcese movie. It was characteristic of the way in which Ebb and Kander's work could sometimes take a while to reach the public that it was not until later in the decade that it was taken on by Frank Sinatra.

If The Rink (1984) was not successful, Ebb and Kander had greater luck with seemingly unlikely adaptations of two movies: Woman Of The Year and Kiss Of The Spider Woman; and, although Cabaret was regularly revived, it was not until 1994 after a semi-staged try-out, that Chicago really came into its own, returning to Broadway and eclipsing all memories of A Chorus Line. A decade later, it is still running.

Not that all this could help Steel Pier (1997), which broached the subject of dancehall marathons in the wake of the movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969). But where the film was harrowing, Ebb and Kander's musical remains in the mind as a parade of flappers. Even so, past form shows that it could yet find its time and place on Broadway, a place that Ebb and Kander had helped to make receptive to work with that feel-bad factor that underpins even their most rousing numbers.

At the time of Ebb's death, he and Kander were working on several projects, including a revision of Over And Over, a musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's classic The Skin of Our Teeth, and a murder-mystery musical, entitled Curtains.

Ebb brought to his craft a wide-ranging appreciation of far more than musicals, although he never paraded his knowledge. Always ready with a lugubrious comment, he could take a philosophical view of proceedings. However when his anger was aroused, he was all the more formidable; he was certainly far from pleased that the movie of Chicago downplayed his and Kander's contribution, especially when it emerged that Janet Jackson was to be paid considerably more - $300,000 - for supplying an extra song.

· Fred Ebb, lyricist, born April 8 1933; died September 11 2004


Christopher Hawtree

The GuardianTramp

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