Features

“Curtains,” the Last Kander & Ebb Musical, is Deadly Fun

By Ellis Nassour

With the death of Frank Ebb in 2004, Curtains marks probably the last original collaboration by Kander & Ebb, Broadway’s longest-running songwriting team. The duo gave us Cabaret, Zorba, Chicago, The Rink, Steel Pier and Kiss of the Spider Woman, not to mention The Act, Flora, the Red Menace, The Happy Time, 70 Girls 70, and Woman of the Year. And, the song “New York, New York.”Curtains has been developed by Mystery of Edwin Drood Tony winner Rupert Holmes from an original concept by the late Peter Stone, who won Tonys for his librettos for Titanic, Woman of the Year and 1776. Composer Kander has done additional lyrics with Holmes.

(Curtains is in previews at the Hirshfeld Theatre, Opening Night is March 22)

By Ellis Nassour

With the death of Frank Ebb in 2004, Curtains marks probably the last original collaboration by Kander & Ebb, Broadway’s longest-running songwriting team. The duo gave us Cabaret, Zorba, Chicago, The Rink, Steel Pier and Kiss of the Spider Woman, not to mention The Act, Flora, the Red Menace, The Happy Time, 70 Girls 70, and Woman of the Year. And, the song “New York, New York.”Curtains has been developed by Mystery of Edwin Drood Tony winner Rupert Holmes from an original concept by the late Peter Stone, who won Tonys for his librettos for Titanic, Woman of the Year and 1776. Composer Kander has done additional lyrics with Holmes.

(Curtains is in previews at the Hirshfeld Theatre, Opening Night is March 22)

David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame, stars as Frank Cioffi, a bungling Boston homicide detective, albeit one who loves musicals, caught in a web of bedlam, deceit, massive theatrical egos, a budding love affair and more murder.Curtains' curtain raiser is the death of the leading lady of Robbin’ Hood!, a Wild West musical retelling of the Sherwood Forest legend, who comes to an untimely end while taking her bows.
Pierce feels this last K&E collaboration “is a historical moment for the stage. The premise [a musical set against a murder mystery] is a bit tricky, which makes it all the more fun. John and Fred are at the top of their game and the result is classic Kander and Ebb. And, with Peter gone, Scott’s idea to bring in Rupert, an acknowledged master of the mystery/thriller genre, was genius."

Four-time Tony-nominee Debra Monk plays producer Carmen Bernstein. Tony and Drama Desk-winner Karen Ziemba is Georgia Kendricks, the lyricist of the try-out musical. “Not unlike Betty Comden,” she reports.

Co-starring are Jason Danieley, Jill Paice, Edward Hibbert [seen frequently on Fraiser], Noah Racey, Darcie Roberts and an 18-member cast.
Multiple Tony and Drama Desk nominee Scott Ellis is the director, with choreography by Rob Ashford [1992 Tony, Thoroughly Modern Millie].

Bright and brassy is how Holmes describes Curtains' score, “but it's a bit different for Kander and Ebb. However, there’s no mistaking it’s a Kander and Ebb score. It has their mark, which is the absolute height of theatricality with a wonderful show business sensibility. There’re also a couple of stirring tunes that would cause any thespian’s heartbeat to race.”

Because of Fraiser [which won him four Emmys] and his Drama-Desk-nominated performance in Spamalot, Ziemba states the obvious, “Everyone knows David can be funny, but in Curtains he’s amazing. This is Kander and Ebb so you expect the songs to be incredible, but this score just keeps coming at you.”

There are lots of six degrees of separation. This is Monk’s sixth show with Ellis. She and Hyde Pierce met in his early Broadway days in a Christopher Durang play reading; and she later appeared with him on Fraiser. Monk and Ziemba met in the cast of Steel Pier, which Ellis conceived and directed. Ziemba met Ashford when they joined the cast of Crazy for You and performed with Racey in Never Gonna Dance.

Having originated the role of Shelby Stevens in K&E’s Steel Pier and having been a Mama Morton in Chicago, Monk is no stranger to their scores. She's also been aboard Curtains, since the 2001 workshop.

"What attracted me," she explains, "was that it has one of John and Fred's greatest scores. It was also the opportunity at that time to work with Peter Stone. And now Rupert, who’s written one heck of a part for me.”

In Curtains, she delights in hearing the vamps K&E are famous for. “Their scores are always so funny and rich, the songs so full of irony. They can do something big and brassy, then turn around and write the most heartfelt ballad. And follow that with a great eleven o’clock number. If anyone loves Kander and Ebb, they won’t be disappointed.”

Monk, who’s been a producer [and writer], says, “I was never a producer like Carmen. She's one of a kind, larger than life and loves theater deeply. She’s a shrewd businesswoman, but also has heart.”

And no, she states with an exclamation mark, contrary to scuttlebutt, Carmen isn't based on Fran Weissler! “As I understand it,” says Monk, “she’s based on a woman Peter [Stone] knew.”

"Because it's a murder mystery, Curtains has an edge,” Ellis explains, “but it’s also a homage to musical theater. Some Kander and Ebb shows have been dark. Even though we have a murder, this isn’t. Because it’s a show within a show setting, we embrace that ‘Let’s put on a show’ feeling that Mickey and Judy had.”

She couldn't be happier with her songs. "John knows Debra and me so well that he came up with perfect songs that are just right for our characters. One of John and Fred’s great assets is they can write beautiful songs that come out of the story. What’s really special are their big finishes, the kind that really lift your heart. This score raises the bar even for them!”

And Holmes’ book packs punch, says Ziemba, "because the comedy comes from the theatrical egos of the characters."
After short-lived Broadway productions of Accomplice and Solitary Confinement, Holmes went into TV with Remember WENN, set in the late 30s and 40s when radio was king. “It was a dream situation,” he states, "one I’ll never encounter again. No laugh track, no commercials. I was able to write a continuing story line, fifty-six half-hour episodes. I thought of it as writing the world’s longest play."

He was back on Broadway with Say Goodnight, Gracie, which starred the late Frank Gorshin. Holmes has completed an adaptation of Remember WENN for the Public, where he developed Drood. Then there’s Marty, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ adaptation of Paddy Chayevsky's original teleplay and Academy Award-winning film. In development are adaptations of the films Second Hand Lions and First Wives Club.

For Curtains, he took the liberty of changing the time line to the 50s, when such shows as West Side Story, Bells Are Ringing, The Music Man, Damn Yankees, The King and I, The Pajama Game and The Most Happy Fella ruled on Broadway.

“I wanted to convey the simple wonder I felt as a boy witnessing those great musical comedies,” he explains. “I thought it would give me the opportunity to remind an audience who can remember and inform one that doesn’t."

It also allowed him to create larger than life theatrical characters and temperamental directors. "If I wrote about Broadway today," he admits, "I’d have to bring in Lloyd Webber, Mackintosh’s mega musicals and Disney.
Given how computer driven today's shows are, I wanted to remind audiences of the noisy scene changes and those vividly-painted drops that actors stood in front of.”

Kander & Ebb

Musically, he's a sort of jack of all trades. For his 1986 Tony and Drama Desk-winning Best Musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Holmes was the first to receive Tonys for Book, Music and Lyrics. Jonathan Larson was the second.

Holmes recorded over 15 albums. Two of his best known tune are “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" and “Him.” He wrote, arranged and conducted extensively for Streisand, with tunes on six albums. Other tunes have been recorded by Judy Collins, Rita Coolidge, the Jets, Patti Lupone, Dionne Warwick and Dolly Parton.

Easily, though, his great love is the mystery/thriller genre. “Mysteries and thrillers have that extra something that keeps you guessing," he states. "They invite audiences to get one step ahead of the detective, and even when they’re wrong – which in the case of Curtains they usually are – that’s part of the fun. No matter how certain you are of who done it, chances are you’ll be surprised.”

He realizes there’s going to be a problem keeping the show’s ending secret. “It’s not something you can control. However, I’ve come up with a couple of little games.”