(Laura Barnett’s interviews appeared in the Guardian, 10/27.)
John Kander, composer
As I see it, I was part of the last generation that was allowed to fail. In 1965, my writing partner Freddie Ebb and I were about to open our first musical, Flora the Red Menace, in New York. Things were not going well, and Hal Prince, the producer, said: “Whatever happens with this show, we’ll meet at my house and talk about the next project.” Flora opened and it was a terrible flop – but the next day, we were at Hal’s house talking about the next show, just as he’d promised. That show turned out to be Cabaret.
The first thing I did was listen to all the German jazz of the 1920s that I could find, believing that somehow the music would seep into my body. I’ve done that several times since: when we were writing Zorba, I listened to lots of Greek music; with Chicago, it was American jazz. It’s like sitting on a pile of books, hoping that the information will sneak up into your body without you having to think about it. And it does.
Cabaret went down quite well in New York, but it was with the London production that things got really interesting. Lila Kedrova – a wonderful actress but wrong, I felt, for the part of Fraülein Schneider – got rave reviews. And Judi Dench, who was without question the best Sally Bowles I’ve ever seen in my life, got bad ones. She filled out the character in a way we have never seen, before or since. She was innocent and knowing, vulnerable and tough.