There was a moment on Sunday night at the Dramatist Guild Fund’s 50th Anniversary Gala that I won’t soon forget.
Somewhere between the second and third course of dinner at the swanky Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York, I was escorted over to a table at the center of the ballroom, where I found myself privately engaged with Liza Minnelli and guest of honor John Kander – both true definitions of the word ‘legend.’ As I knelt down, Liza took my hand and asked if I knew John Kander. I couldn’t speak; I just nodded. They both waited patiently for me to eke out a question to ask – I’m the journalist, after all, interrupting their dinner to get my story – and finally I asked (though I don’t remember it),”Liza, fill in the blank. My life was changed by John Kander because…”
As Kander exclaimed “Oh God, that’s not fair!” Liza looked at me and immediately answered, without any ironic facial expression or syllable of self-importance: “He invented me.” Then she took Kander’s hand in hers and told me the story of how they met, of how she heard a girl singing a song and inquired about its authorship, how she asked to meet the then-unknown Kander and his writing partner Fred Ebb and how she found herself walking in on the very day they were working on Flora the Red Menace, the musical that would turn Kander and Ebb into household names and Liza Minnelli into a superstar. “Remember that?” Liza asked, and Kander silently nodded. “I knocked on the door, they opened the door, and I was home,” said Liza. “I never left.”
Liza and Kander were joined by dancing wonder woman Chita Rivera, Cabaret mascot Joel Grey and Broadway godfather Stephen Sondheim (among others) to celebrate 50 years of arts advocacy and the career of 85-year-old composer Kander. Along with partner Ebb (who passed away in 2004), he created some of musical theater’s most famous standards: Chicago, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman and the song “New York, New York.”
Hosted by Two and a Half Men’s Jon Cryer (whose mother, Gretchen, is president of the guild fund’s board of directors), the evening played out as one long love letter to Kander, with performances by Debra Monk (singing “Everybody’s Girl” from Steel Pier) and Bebe Neuwirth (singing “Nowadays” from Chicago with Karen Ziemba). A pair of showstopping performances, however, brought down the house: Chita’s singing selections from her star-making turn in Spider Woman and Liza’s closing medley of Cabaret tunes. Chita and the rest of the night’s performers joined Liza on stage for the final number, a rendition of “New York, New York” that drove the audience wild.