Fred Ebb, the Broadway lyricist whose 40-year partnership with composer John Kander produced such landmark musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, as well as such standards as ”New York, New York,” died Saturday of a heart attack at his New York home. His age was between 71 and 76; he was always ”sweetly vague” about his age, Broadway director Scott Ellis told the Associated Press.
Besides writing some of the most hard-edged, jazzily cynical songs in Broadway history, Kander and Ebb were instrumental in the careers of such actresses as Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, and Lauren Bacall. The first of the pair’s 11 musicals, 1965’s Flora the Red Menace gave Minnelli an early career break, and though it was short-lived, it led to their next job: 1966’s Cabaret. The musical about life in pre-Nazi Berlin won the pair the first of their three Tonys for Best Score, was a long-running hit, and spawned a memorable movie that earned Minnelli an Oscar.
Other Kander and Ebb hits included 1975’s Chicago, which eventually spawned a long-running revival (launched in 1996, it continues on Broadway to this day) and the 2002 Best Picture Oscar-winning movie; 1981’s Woman of the Year, which made a musical star out of the ”not exactly known for her vocal prowess” Bacall and won another Tony for the songwriters; and 1993’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, which provided a showcase role for Rivera and won the pair their third Tony. Despite the cynicism of many of Ebb’s lyrics, the pair may be best known for their most optimistic song, the theme they wrote for Minnelli’s 1977 film New York, New York. Though the movie wasn’t a hit, a cover of the ”If I can make it there/I’ll make it anywhere” tune sung by Frank Sinatra made the tune a standard.
Ebb won the Kennedy Center Honor in 1998 and was named one of New York’s Living Landmarks in 2003. On Sunday, the Broadway cast of ”Chicago” dedicated their performance to his memory.