From their first collaboration in 1965 to 2015’s The Visit, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have cemented their place as musical theatre icons. The songwriting team penned such legendary hits as Cabaret, Chicago, and NYC anthem “New York, New York” while pushing musical theatre to new heights with their dark subject matter and innovative storytelling forms. Last Friday, the beloved partnership got the respect they deserve in spectacular fashion at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops concert Life is a Cabaret: The Songs of Kander and Ebb.
Led by conductor and music director Steven Reineke, the Kander and Ebb concert brought the songwriting team’s catalog to life with the help of the expansive 72-piece orchestra. Timed to coincide with Kander’s 90th birthday, the evening was a joyous celebration of the legendary team – complete with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” to the composer himself, who was in attendance.
Along with highlighting iconic hits like “Mein Herr” and “All That Jazz,” the concert was quick to embrace the team’s lesser-known gems, such as “Sing Happy” from Flora the Red Menace (a particular highlight) and songs from The Rink; 70, Girls, 70; and Woman of the Year. Though often associated with the star performances and Fosse choreography that have helped to define their greatest hits, Kander and Ebb’s music had the spotlight to itself here, brought to life with a grandeur and power that was all their own.
In the concert’s instrumental selections, the New York Pops excelled with standout renditions of the haunting Americana strains of The Scottsboro Boys’ “Minstrel March” and the spirited “Gimme Love” From Kiss of the Spider Woman. Other numbers, however, felt a bit incomplete without the emotional heft of the sung lines. While the iconic instrumental opening of “All That Jazz” was spot-on, for instance, the melody lines lost something when not combined with Velma Kelly’s understated yet commanding performance. Most numbers, though, were accompanied by performances from two of Broadway’s best: Caissie Levy and Tony Yazbeck. In these moments, music and lyrics combined to epitomize Kander and Ebb’s musical power, producing a lush, expansive sound that felt like a rare luxury as Broadway orchestras continue to dwindle in size.
From Roxie Hart to Sally Bowles, Kander and Ebb have been responsible for some of the strongest female characters in the musical theatre canon – and Caissie Levy did them justice. Levy’s confident and charismatic performance – along with her serious singing chops – tackled such tunes as “Maybe This Time,” “Roxie” and “Ring Them Bells” with a vibrancy and commanding presence that matched the heft of the orchestra behind her.
Yazbeck, whose song-and-dance stylings are some of the best on Broadway today, proved himself to be a true triple-threat in Friday’s concert, singing and acting his way through such familiar classics as “All I Care About is Love” from Chicago and more emotional fare like “Sometimes a Day Goes By” from Woman of the Year. Yazbeck’s talents particularly shined in “City Lights” from The Act, as the dancer broke out his tap shoes for an electrifying and clever dance break that deftly fit into the tight quarters of the performing space.
While the concert honored the songwriting team’s celebrated history, it also looked toward the future. Yazbeck’s final performance of the night was from a new Kander musical the actor is currently involved with, which will be based on the novella “The Beast in the Jungle” by Henry James. The classic, big band-style song in three-quarter time harkened back to the classic Broadway sound Kander and Ebb helped to popularize. Even after a career that’s spanned more than five decades, the performance showed John Kander isn’t slowing down yet – and, as the New York Pops concert proved, we are all the luckier for it.