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posted: 10/22/2013 6:00 AM

Composer John Kander rides new creative wave at 86

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  • Composer John Kander, left, and lyricist Greg Pierce, at the Vineyard Theatre in New York, have collaborated on three new musicals, including "The Landing," which opens Wednesday, Oct. 23.

      Composer John Kander, left, and lyricist Greg Pierce, at the Vineyard Theatre in New York, have collaborated on three new musicals, including "The Landing," which opens Wednesday, Oct. 23.
    Associated Press

 
By Mark Kennedy, Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Legendary composer John Kander is standing in a hallway at the Vineyard Theatre when he spots an unusual opportunity.

"I've never been to the ladies' room here," he says, conspiratorially. "Do you suppose now is the time?"

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It's daytime. There's no one around. The bathroom is empty. Who's going to deny the man who helped create "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman"?

"I just want to see it," he says, pushing the door and going in.

Then, to everyone's shock, a lady comes out.

Kander emerges, sheepishly, behind her. Embarrassed, yes, but he's crossed something off his to-do list.

"You think she'll be scarred?" he says, laughing.

Kander may be 86, but he sure doesn't act it. There's a youthful vitality that crackles about him. How many Tony-winning octogenarians are boyish enough to want to take a sneak peek inside the ladies' room?

Part of that is due to a creative wave flowing through Kander, sparked by his new collaboration with rising playwright and novelist Greg Pierce, who is some 50 years his junior.

"We just like to write," says Kander, sitting beside his new partner. "At one point, because I'm doing other stuff and he's writing plays, we made a pact. I think the phrase was, 'Let's always be writing something.'"

"That works for me," says Pierce with a smile.

Kander was Fred Ebb's collaborator for four decades and the two transformed American theater with dark, bleak stories that had a socially conscious edge. Ebb died in 2004 and their last work together was "The Scottsboro Boys," based on the real story of nine black teens wrongly convicted in the 1930s in the rape of two white girls. All but the youngest were sentenced to death.

Kander has been friends with Pierce, 35, for a decade, and he watched the younger man grow as a short story writer and playwright. His play "Slowgirl" was produced at Lincoln Center and his "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival.

He reached out to Pierce after conceiving "a piece that was so tiny you could do it in your living room and would tell a story with four actors and four instruments." Kander says Pierce, "who is the best storyteller I know," was the first person he called.

Pierce, who was about to turn 30 and had never written a musical, recalls getting that call -- and freaking out. "I was so excited and I also thought, 'Am I actually going to be able to focus and write because this is so exciting?'"

Kander and Pierce have not one, not two, but three musicals in the works, the first being "The Landing," which makes its world premiere off-Broadway on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the Vineyard Theatre.

The new work is three thematically linked minimusicals -- "Andra," "The Brick" and "The Landing." It will be directed by Walter Bobbie and have a cast of four, including Pierce's uncle, David Hyde Pierce. The younger Pierce, who wrote the story and lyrics, says working with Kander was easy.

"The second we got into the room and started talking about 'Andra,' the resumes disappeared completely," says Pierce. "I never felt intimidated. It's also because of who John is -- how incredibly generous and wonderful he is -- that I never felt intimidated and always felt free to speak up, too."

Their collaboration has also created "Kid Victory," a musical for four women and five men, and a third work they are tight-lipped about. Kander says partnering with a new lyricist and writer has energized him.

"It's the same but different. The spontaneous quality of working very closely with a collaborator is what I had for 40 years but what we're doing -- and his sensibility -- is so different from Fred's that I'm writing differently myself," he says. "That's like a present somebody gave me."

Technology has changed since Kander and Ebb were writing, and Kander and Pierce rely on their iPhones to record snippets and text each other if they're not nearby. "You can just do it and a second later he's got it. It seems like cheating," says Kander, laughing.

They've developed their own musical style, one that mixes full-length songs and ones that are just four lines long. They start with a character and then build a story, letting the music take them wherever it wants to.

"He's really a brilliant lyricist, in a very different way than Freddy was," says Kander, turning to his companion with a smile. "I hope I live long enough so that people say, 'That's a real Kander and Pierce song.'"

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