Broadway’s Biggest Losers

London, The Arts

There was a sad piece tucked away in the US papers recently as South Park’s admittedly clever ‘The Book Of Mormon’ swept the Tonys. It beat a labour of love created by the frequently experimental writing team Kander & Ebb.

Back in 1976, lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander set a new record as the biggest losers at the Tony Awards when ‘Chicago’ got beaten in 11 categories.

‘Chicago’ was originally very different to how it is now. It was played as a deliberately tacky, cruel vaudeville show. Everything the pair created pushed the boundaries of what could be done in mainstream theatre. Often their shows worked with hardly any scenery; they were the opposite of bombastic Lloyd-Webber shows – satirical, dark, clever and thoughtful.

Their first show featured a young Liza Minnelli as a would-be fashion designer wooed over to a Communist terrorist group -not your usual subject matter for lighthearted Broadway fare. It failed.

In 1997, Kander and Ebb lost out again with the brilliant ‘Steel Pier’, which played like a supernatural version of Horace McCoy’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ Last Sunday night, ‘The Scottsboro Boys’, a powerful musical about one of the most horrific cases of racism from the 1930s, in which a group of black men were falsely charged with raping a white girl, was up for 12 nominations – but it won nothing at all. Some subjects, it seems, are still too close-to-home for Broadway.

Kander and Ebb began working on ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ in 2002, but Ebb died in 2004. The pair’s only peer is Stephen Sondheim. They had won big for ‘Cabaret’ (1967), ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ (1993) and ‘Woman of the Year’ (1983). Kander continues to work without his partner of over four decades.