The songwriting duo responsible for contemporary hit musicals like Cabaret (1966), Chicago (1975) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992) was not two collaborators so much as a single entity with a singular sound. "We walk into the studio as John Kander and Fred Ebb," the former is quoted as saying, "but what comes out is authentic Kander and Ebb."
The two were young men during the heyday of another inextricable pair of songwriters, Rodgers and Hammerstein, but Kander and Ebb's first collaboration didn't take place until each was nearly 40. That was with 1965's Flora the Red Menace, which helped launch the Broadway career of Liza Minnelli. By the time Cabaret was staged the following year, they'd carved out a new theatrical niche that would later be dubbed the "concept musical."
"Kander and Ebb were the Rent of the '60s and '70s. They created an entirely new musical genre — a hip, cool, [Bob] Fosse style," says Cheyenne Nelson, who stars in Interplayers' production of And the World Goes 'Round, a musical revue of their extensive body of work.
"What happened in pop culture at that time was that Fosse was the name everyone picked up on," she says. Kander and Ebb didn't exactly go unnoticed and uncredited as a result, but their songs — instantly recognizable numbers like "New York, New York" and "All That Jazz" — took on a life independent of their creators.
Like a family reunion, And the World Goes 'Round brings dozens of those songs together into one show. Accompanied by piano and drums, the cast of five sings, acts and dances its way through the Kander and Ebb songbook, reenacting the self-contained narratives that are at the heart of much of their work.
"Each song is written as a story," says director Michael Weaver. "Discoveries are made in every song, whether it's a self-discovery or through somebody else."
"That's rare," adds Nelson, who played Patsy Cline at the theater last season. "In most musicals, you get a type. The reason this is so nice is because I get to go through an emotional arc." She and her fellow ensemble members — nearly all of whom were selected from a packed New York audition session — "are playing a world of people" who represent the range of characters in Kander and Ebb's songs.
Given that their music has often been linked to Fosse's innovative choreography, And the World Goes 'Round features plenty of complementary movement. Jean Michelle Sayeg, an L.A.-based choreographer who's danced for Smuin Ballet, was called in to bring cohesion and expression to the mix.
"There's definitely a Fosse influence, but it's not all Fosse," she says. "Just like the songs take each actor through a different character, we go through swing dance, tango, the cha cha, into tap. There's so much emotion with all the different numbers. It's an intimate setting, and you can be up close and feel that vibe it sets off. There's a huge assortment of movement that's happening."
The others laugh.
"There's lots of it, I'll say," Weaver adds. "We've never done a show that has this much dance in it."
At the center of all that movement and music, there's a philosophy of optimism to be found, says Nelson.
"It's about the ebb and flow of life, so each character has a really fun, crazy, outgoing song, and each character has a beautiful love song — or love-lost song. The beauty of this show is that it's saying no matter what happens in the world, no matter what happens in an individual's life, everything's going to keep going." ♦
And the World Goes 'Round • May 8-25: Thu-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • $28 ($22 seniors, active military; $12 students) • Interplayers • 174 S. Howard • interplayerstheatre.org • 455-7529