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Two Broadway legends with staying power: ‘Chicago’ and composer John Kander

John Kander, 96, accepts the award for lifetime achievement in theater at the Tony Awards in June.Charles Sykes/Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

What is the enduring appeal of that sparkling-yet-sinister Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago,” now the longest-running show on Broadway? Pose the question to its 96-year-old composer, John Kander, and he acknowledges it’s one he’s still pondering.

When “Chicago” premiered on Broadway in 1975, directed by Bob Fosse and starring his longtime muse, Gwen Verdon, it received a mixed reception and was overshadowed by the phenomenon of “A Chorus Line.” With music by Kander and lyrics by Ebb (who co-wrote the book with Fosse), the show about the tabloid murder trials of two women was remounted in 1996 in a stripped-down production that starred and was choreographed by another Fosse muse, Ann Reinking. Still running on Broadway nearly three decades later and spawning the 2002 Oscar-winning film, “Chicago” has become a pop culture fixture. Now a touring production based on the revival arrives at the Emerson Colonial Theatre Nov. 28-Dec. 3, presented by Broadway in Boston.

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So why did this vaudeville-style, Brechtian tale, which explores our penchant for turning crime into entertainment, become “the name on everybody’s lips” the second time around?

“I hope you can tell me, because I’ve always wondered. It’s the same show, the same score, the same words, the same attitude,” Kander says in a recent Zoom interview from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “Sometimes critics who didn’t like it the first time, they suddenly then liked it. Some of the [original] reviews had talked about how mean the show was and how sour the score was. And you wanted to say, ‘Well, what’s different now?’ ”

In the mid-1970s, the country had been mired in turmoil over the Vietnam War and Watergate, so perhaps a cynical show about mistrust of institutions cut a little too close to the bone. By contrast, the streamlined 1996 “Chicago” arrived around the time of the sensational O.J. Simpson and Menendez family murder trials.

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“When you just leave ‘Chicago’ out there, it’s nasty but it’s funny. There’s something about its approach to corruption which doesn’t leave you in despair,” Kander says with a laugh. “There’s a kind of joy in [it].”

Ann Reinking (left) and Bebe Neuwirth shared a laugh onstage after "Chicago" won the Tony Award for best revival of a musical in 1997.ADAM NADEL/Associated Press

Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, wrote the original Jazz Age satire upon which “Chicago” is based, in 1926. That story involved two women who were acquitted of homicide. They became the inspirations for “merry murderesses” Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.

“People see [’Chicago’] and they’ll say, ‘It’s amazing how contemporary it seems,’ and the same thing happens with [Kander and Ebb’s] ‘Cabaret.’ My usual response is: ‘Yes, and isn’t that awful?’ I think maybe we’re constantly surprised at what our potential for corruption and cruelty really is. Maybe we tapped into something in human nature that’s always present and that we can be horrified at or laugh at or run away from.”

A down-on-her-luck nightclub dancer, Roxie kills her lover when he walks out on her, and then hires Chicago’s slickest lawyer, Billy Flynn, to create a media circus and parlay the tabloid attention to help win her freedom and turn her into a celebrity. Roxie’s rival cellmate Velma is the favorite of Matron “Mama” Morton, who runs the cellblock. But when Roxie’s fame begins to eclipse Velma’s, Velma refuses to take it lying down. Set amid the lustrous decadence of the Roaring ‘20s, “Chicago” is dripping in skin-baring fishnets, slinky bodysuits, seductive choreography, and sparkling showstoppers like “All that Jazz,” “Razzle Dazzle,” and “Cell Block Tango.”

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When Fosse and Verdon approached Kander and Ebb about adapting the Watkins play into a musical, Ebb loved the idea but Kander was reluctant. “Freddy had the time of his life,” says Kander, who eventually came around. “One of the great pleasures of doing what I get to do is those months of freedom of making art with your friends.”

Still, the original production was plagued by the demise of Fosse and Verdon’s marriage and Fosse’s health problems. Fosse had open-heart surgery when the show was in rehearsals, and the production was paused while he recuperated. When Fosse returned, Kander says, his mood became darker and more brooding and that seeped into the show. “I can’t begin to analyze him, but he became very mistrustful of just about everybody,” Kander says. “He had his demons, and there was a bitterness that developed.”

The Kander and Ebb oeuvre is studded with melancholy musicals shaded by cynicism and moral corruption and darkened by the despairing realities of human nature. “Cabaret” (which will be revived again on Broadway in the spring, starring Eddie Redmayne) concerns the rise of fascism and antisemitism in decadent Weimar-era Germany. “The Visit” is a parable about a filthy-rich dowager seeking vengeance on her former lover and striking a Faustian bargain with the villagers who once scorned her. “The Scottsboro Boys” explores one of the most egregious episodes of racial injustice in our nation’s history. In “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” a gay window dresser is sent to prison and retreats into his imagination as a means of survival.

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“Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. That’s actually one of the hardest things to write,” Kander says. “If you’re writing about a not-very-talented girl living in Berlin in 1929 and her bisexual boyfriend during the rise of Nazism, you’ve got lots to write about. If you write about nine guys in a prison cell in Alabama trying to save their lives when they’re accused of something they didn’t do, you’ve got lots to write about. People thought some of our shows were the dumbest ideas, but it seemed very clear to us that all the material was really rich.”

Music has been playing in Kander’s head his whole life. His grandmother and aunt played the piano; his father had a rich baritone and loved to sing. In second grade, Kander wrote a Christmas carol that was performed by the school choir. But he traces his sensitivity to sound to a bout of tuberculosis he suffered as a baby. Isolated in his crib, his family would come to the door and wave at him and make noises, and a nurse would come to check on him regularly. “So I have this theory — and I could be full of [expletive] — that I began to organize sound in my head because I could tell when footsteps were coming near and that meant people were going to visit. I think sound became my principal sensory talent.”

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Lin-Manuel Miranda (right) presents the award for lifetime achievement in the theater to composer John Kander at the 2023 Tony Awards. The duo collaborated on the score for the stage musical "New York, New York."Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

After Ebb’s death in 2004, Kander spent years completing their final musicals — “Curtains” (2006), “The Scottsboro Boys” (2010), and “The Visit” (2015) — and getting them off the ground. Last spring, their long-gestating show “New York, New York” opened on Broadway, loosely inspired by the 1977 Martin Scorsese film starring Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. The score was a mix of their songs from the film and new ones that Kander wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda. And of course the show boasts that iconic song. Its popularity, though, still mystifies Kander. “I don’t dislike it. God knows I’m grateful for it. But there are a lot of things I don’t understand,” he says with a laugh.

Kander and Ebb famously rewrote the song at the prompting of De Niro while they were working on the film. At first, they were miffed that “some actor was telling us about songwriting,” Kander says, but the new version became a classic, and Kander acknowledges that their anger made its way into the music. “I think that’s the secret of the song’s success,” Miranda said during a visit with Kander to “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” last spring. “Because they wrote it when they were a little pissed off, and I think every New Yorker is a little pissed off.”

While “New York, New York” closed after just a few months, the show was nominated for nine Tony Awards, including best musical, and will launch a tour in 2025. For the past decade, Kander has also been busy pumping out fresh material with new lyricist Greg Pierce for “Kid Victory” and “The Landing,” chamber-sized musicals that have been staged to warm reviews off-Broadway. At an age when many artists who have survived as long as he has are no longer productive, Kander keeps creating fresh material from the music he hears in his head. Where does he find the stamina?

“People talk about aging and retiring, but does it mean you should stop doing the things that give you joy? I don’t know any artist, painter, sculptor, or composer who stops before they die. Why would you deny yourself that pleasure?”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

CHICAGO

Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Nov. 28–Dec. 3. Tickets from $45. 888-616-0272, BroadwayInBoston.com