The audience at the Broadway musical The Visit got a rare treat last night when the show's composer, John Kander, took the stage after curtain call for a public chat with Lin-Manuel Miranda, presented by Time Out New York. With lyricist Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, Kander has written more than a dozen Broadway musicals, including Cabaret and Chicago; Miranda composed and starred in In the Heights and the Broadway-bound phenomenon Hamilton. More than 50 years apart in age, the two men have an easy, lovely rapport. They have been friends for years, and Kander presented Miranda with this year's New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Musical earlier this week.
Adapted by Kander, Ebb and Terrence McNally from a 1956 play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Visit stars Chita Rivera as a wealthy woman who returns to her impoverished hometown with a twisted request for her former neighbors. The event last night began with a speech by producer Tom Kirdahy, who announced that balcony seats for the musical, from now through the Tony Awards on June 7, would be sold for just $19.75. Rivera and director John Doyle made a cameo appearances, but most of the half hour was just two brilliant artists talking about their work. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
On their friendship:
Lin-Manuel Miranda: “John and I have been having lunches together ever since he came to see In the Heights Off Broadway, and what struck me most the first time we had lunch is that all he wanted to do was talk about music. So I’m going to pretend we’re having lunch, and we’re having French onion soup, and we’re going to talk music.”
On The Visit:
John Kander: “When we started work on this piece, it suddenly struck us: A story about an impoverished town and the richest woman in the world coming to visit them and their desire to keep the money in their town is The Merry Widow! And Dürrenmatt must have known that. It’s our feeling that he took The Merry Widow and stood it on its ear, and turned it into the most vicious piece of satire that any country has probably ever had to endure by one of its citizens. So it seemed to me then that if it’s The Merry Widow, it’s got to be full of waltzes—it’s got to be an operetta. And the very first thing we wrote was a waltz called 'You, You, You,' which goes through the score. The form of the whole piece is Viennese in its soul.”
Miranda: “I don't think the Viennese ever wrote lyrics like ‘I’ll take your coffin to Capri.’ And that’s what I love so much about your music, from Cabaret down the line: You will give us the most beautiful Viennese waltz while the lyric is stepping on our throats.”
Kander: “That was something that Fred took a great delight in. People all the way through the piece are saying one thing to music that says something else.”
On the writing process:
Miranda: “My wife and I went up to stay at your house one weekend; you were working on The Scottsboro Boys at the time. You went away for the morning to your little writing hut where you write upstate, and you come out and he goes, ‘My conscience is clear.’ And that meant you had gotten your writing done for the day! You had finished the verse or the couplet you were working on. I still say that all the time. Anytime my wife asks how things are going, if I’ve finished the couplet I’m working on, I go, ‘My conscience is clear!’”
Kander: “I’m really, really lazy. But if you start out and sort of have a goal that you have to finish this much today, if you do that and leave a little bit left over so that you know where you’re going the next day then you can stop, and say, ‘Okay, let’s live.’”
Miranda: “I have to write in the morning. I kind of degenerate over the course of the day. And having a dog has intensified that; now the morning walk is when all the good stuff happens.”
On a breakthrough in Hamilton:
Miranda: "It was New Year’s Day, we were starting previews in a couple of weeks, and I still hadn’t written what Hamilton says before he gets shot. My son was asleep on my chest and my wife was asleep and my dog was asleep, which never happens. It was the quietest moment I think I’ve ever had in my life, and I went, ‘Oh, that’s the one thing I haven’t done in the show: I haven’t had a moment of quiet.’ So I decided there would be no music, and Hamilton would just sort of spin out. I walked my dog from my house to my parents’ house, which is a good 30 blocks, and by the end of it I had enough couplets that I could walk into my parents' house and say, ‘My conscience is clear.’"
On bad work:
Kander: “It’s funny: There are moments in shows, even after they've been produced or even revived, where you think, That moment is really a mistake. Every time you see it, you think, How did that happen? I think that’s something that a lot of people who don’t write don’t understand. They will see a reconception or revival of a piece and they’ll start comparing it to what was there in the past, and certain things won’t be there, and they mostly assume that the writer was bludgeoned into cutting it out, whereas in fact is it’s the writer who does the cutting.”
Miranda: "Theater is one of the last worlds in which the writer gets to say what stays and what goes. It’s in our contracts, unlike in Hollywood. But there is that misconception. I have the added misfortune of having to be onstage while [a bad moment I’ve written] is being delivered. I have a line in Hamilton, which I will not mention, because it will be different by the time you see it on Broadway, but it got an unintentional laugh about half the time. It was my fault; I had set it up like a punch line. But every time the laugh came, a unicorn died, my soul died, and I had to stand there and be in the scene. In In the Heights, any time the band messed up or an actor messed up, Robin would turn to me and go, 'Papa, they think you wrote that.'” [Laughs]
On writing without Fred Ebb:
Kander: "It ought to be harder, but I still feel like it’s the two of us writing this piece. Anytime I have to do something where Fred is not physically present, I just assume that he’s in the room telling me, 'No, you can’t do that' or 'Okay, that’s all right.' So he helps me all the time with this."
On working with Chita Rivera:
Kander: "She’s grown and grown and grown. That performance for me is like the distilled essence of Chita; it’s like everything she knows about theater is up there on the stage. She’s a famous dancer, she’s famous for her moves, but watching Chita stand still onstage—and you can’t take your eyes off her—is something that gives me enormous pleasure and also tells me something maybe reassuring: That the longer you work, it’s possible that the better understanding of your art you have."
Miranda: "I’d extend what you said about Chita to your score, which to me feels like the summation of everything that you and Fred know. It has all of the joy and all of the ferocity and all of the highs and the lows that we’ve come to expect of your work and it’s distilled into this one-act beautiful thing."
Kander: "Thank you. The one act is because of our terrific director, John Doyle, who took this material—which we had been quite happy with before—and turned it into a one-act piece in which we keep the young Claire and the young Anton onstage the entire time. That’s all John. We didn’t do a lot of rewriting, but we did a lot of cutting, a lot of tweaking. It’s like Chita’s art: It’s the distilled essence of this piece, and Terrence and I are thrilled with what he did."
Kander: "Our first production was in Chicago, and 9/11 happened. While we were in Chicago, buildings were blowing up in New York, and it was a very strange feeling. Not being here and yet being aware of it, and knowing that we were going back to the city, affected this piece. I cannot tell you how. But there was an awareness of the fact that life ends. And maybe what that means. I think all of us felt our mortality very strongly during that period. Fred was sick then, but he wouldn’t miss that experience for anything in the world."
On each other:
Kander: "Without sounding too awfully condescending, you make me so proud, you really do. It seems to me you've found a way to combine everything that’s going on in the moment today musically with everything that’s gone on in the past and put them together and turn it into your own language. You really give me confidence that there will be musical theater in the future."
Miranda: "You give me hope that we get better with every show. Because this is my favorite of your shows."