DATE February 26, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Aminatta Forna discusses her investigation of the
circumstances surrounding her father's death from her new
memoir "The Devil That Danced on the Water"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is the daughter of an African leader who was executed in 1975. In
her new memoir, Aminatta Forna investigates what happened to her father and
what it reveals about the country she is from, Sierra Leone. The book is
called "The Devil That Danced on the Water."
Her father, Dr. Mohamed Forna, studied medicine in Scotland, where he met his
first wife, a white Scottish woman. With his wife, he returned to Sierra
Leone, where Aminatta was born. Dr. Forna practiced medicine and then became
one of the new generation of political leaders in the '60s when Sierra Leone
was a fledgling democracy breaking away from British colonial rule. After
becoming minister of finance, he became an opponent of the increasingly
authoritarian government, was removed from office and later accused of
conspiracy. In 1975, he was hanged with seven others.
After one of his imprisonments, Aminatta, her siblings and her stepmother--her
father had remarried--fled the country. She has since lived in England. She
has vivid memories of her father's 1974 arrest when she was 10.
Ms. AMINATTA FORNA (Author, "The Devil That Danced on the Water"): The night
my father was arrested, I remember quite clearly--I always have remembered
quite clearly. We were at home, and I was alone in the sitting room. I was
laying out a game that we were going to play that evening. My father was in
the bedroom with my mother. The house had been quite quiet that day, although
I came to remember that part later.
I looked up from what I was doing, laying out some bingo cards, and I saw two
men standing on our balcony. I went out and asked them what they wanted, and
they told me they were hear to speak to the doctor, and I went to the bedroom
door to fetch my father. He came out directly and spoke to the men. And then
he turned to me and said that he had to go with these men now, and asked me to
fetch him a couple of toothpicks from the sideboard. He used to have a habit
of chewing toothpicks. And I did that. And then the very last thing he said
was, `Tell Mom I'll be back later.'
So that actually was the last but one time I saw him. The next time I saw him
he was in handcuffs, and he'd already been condemned to death. But I was the
last person to see him go.
GROSS: What was he arrested for?
Ms. FORNA: He was arrested and later charged with treason, and his arrest
followed an alleged attack on the house of the vice president. Somebody had
thrown dynamite at it, and my father was accused of being part of a plot to
overthrow the government.
GROSS: You were 11 at the time your father was hanged. You were living in
Sierra Leone, but you were being educated in England. So you were spending a
lot of time away from home. And you were in England on the day he was
executed. Did you understand what was happening? What were you told?
Ms. FORNA: I wasn't told very much. And in that era, in the '70s, and also
particularly in that culture, it was not really felt that you told children
very much. I think people felt that they were protecting children--protecting
us in this particular instance--by not telling us anything. So I had only a
What it did to me, not being told, was that it created this enormous
curiosity. And my brother and sister and I--well, we used to snoop and rifle
and try to get as much information as we could. I knew that he was in prison,
I knew that he was being charged with treason. I didn't have any
understanding at that age that treason was a capital offense. And when he
died, I was told, in fact, that he died of an illness; he died in prison of an
GROSS: Let's back up a little bit. Your father was a doctor. He was trained
in Scotland. He went to medical school in Aberdeen. He had returned to
Sierra Leone after school, set up a clinic there. How and why did he get
involved with politics?
Ms. FORNA: My father was always political, with a small P. He was always
very active. He always had a very strong sense of the injustices that he saw
around him. And even when he was at school, he was already writing letters
about constitutional changes and posting them off to newspapers and to the
government. He became a doctor because he thought that he might rectify that,
but also because those were the sort of scholarships that were being offered.
But it fitted with his vision.
He went back to Sierra Leone at a time when the incumbent government were
moving the country towards a one-party state, and this was happening all over
Africa. And the opposition, the APC, were looking for young men, particularly
Western-educated young men, because they needed these people to gain some kind
of credibility among certain populations in the country: the middle-class
population, the city-based population and also Western governments and
My father resisted in the first instance, but gradually as he, I think, became
overwhelmed by the level of poverty and mismanagement in the country, he
gradually allowed himself to be wooed into the party and he agreed to stand as
GROSS: So he was trying to keep a two-party system and to stop a kind of
Ms. FORNA: Yeah. I mean--and the ACP was fighting the election--his party
was fighting the election on that very ticket, that they would stop a
one-party state coming into Sierra Leone as it had in Ghana, in Kenya and in
so many other countries in Africa.
GROSS: When did you decide that you wanted to find out the real story behind
your father's trial and execution?
Ms. FORNA: Well, I can't even remember that because it was a lifetime ago.
Well, I always knew I didn't know enough about it. My stepmother had always
tried to protect me by not telling me very much. In fact, later on when I did
decide to write the book and when I talked to her about it, she said that
actually one of the reasons she'd been like that was because she was on the
verge of falling apart herself, and the only way that she could protect us and
herself was by really trying to move on and not revisit it.
But it seemed to us, the children, this incredible silence surrounded
everything about my father. And yet, there was this anomaly. He had been
hanged as a traitor--I knew that by then--and yet when I visited Sierra Leone,
when I walked down the street among the ordinary people, he was treated as a
hero. People came up and embraced me. In the market, people would give me a
few mangos or bananas and not ask me to pay for them. Taxi drivers would let
me off of my taxi fare. So those were the two things that were not
reconciled: Why was he hanged as a traitor and yet his memory treated in that
way? So gradually, I wanted more and more of these questions resolved.
And the other major thing was that I knew, gradually by a process, I suppose,
of osmosis--eavesdropping and reading documents I shouldn't have--I knew that
on the fateful night where he was supposed to be attacking or leading an
attack on the vice president's house, I knew because I remembered it vividly,
that he had been at home, because something very important had happened that
GROSS: What happened?
Ms. FORNA: A man was brought to our house with a wounded hand, and my father
had dressed his hand and I had helped my father to bandage the man's hand.
And that turned out to be something that was absolutely pivotal in his trial.
GROSS: Was that brought up in the trial? Did the man who was wounded testify
on behalf of your father?
Ms. FORNA: The man that was wounded, I discovered later when I came to
research my father's trial, had died before the trial. Curiously, he didn't
play a very important part in the trial, although he was definitely linked
with whatever events had occurred at the vice president's house. He was an
armed military man, a soldier. He was involved in something, and he'd been
hurt handling, apparently, a grenade.
GROSS: So was the prosecutor just trying to overlook as much as possible, the
fact that your father had treated this man, because that would be an alibi and
the prosecutor didn't want him to have one?
Ms. FORNA: That's correct. The fact my father had treated the man proved
that he was somewhere else on the night that this attack had happened, and
what they were trying to do was prove that my father had been part of the
Later on, I traced the four witnesses who had given evidence against my father
and placed him at the site of the alleged attack, or of the attack, whoever
carried it out. And all four of those men admitted that they had been paid to
say that they'd seen him there.
GROSS: How much did they get in return for handing over your father?
Ms. FORNA: In fact, they'd been promised money. And the first one that I
interviewed spent some time complaining to me that he'd never received the
money that he had been promised. They were promised jobs, they were promised
scholarships to universities in the West and they were promised cash. And
they didn't receive very much of that. And two of them still felt extremely
aggrieved that they had never received the money that they had been promised.
They didn't seem to feel any remorse at all for what they'd done. They didn't
even seem to appreciate they were sitting opposite the person that they had
helped to kill's daughter. They just, even 25 years later, cared only about
GROSS: So did you get angry with them sitting across from them, getting these
stories, or did you just be neutral so you could get more information?
Ms. FORNA: Yeah, I did the latter. I mean, one of the reasons it took me a
while to write the book--I mean, although, you know, I was in my mid-30s when
I wrote it. It ...(unintelligible) take me a huge amount of time to get on
with it--but I do remember--I mean, I wanted to write this for a very long
time. And in my mid-20s, I felt to myself, `I'm not mature enough to do this.
I don't have the emotional maturity.' And I also really knew that I needed to
be a much, much better journalist to approach a story that involved me so
closely and that was such a complicated story.
So by the time that I was sitting opposite the men who had given evidence,
false testimony, against my father, I had accomplished a fair amount of
self-control and I didn't display it. And I could see--you know, in Sierra
Leone--I'm mixed race--people considered me to be white, or they see me as
European. So I could see that the reality of who I was wasn't really, you
know, sitting with this man. And, also, I never, ever referred to my father
as my father when I interviewed people. I always referred to him as Dr.
Forna. And that was part of trying to distance me from the subject matter,
and it did appear to work. Neither of these two men really, really seemed to
be registering the fact that they were talking to the person's daughter. And
I felt that, you know, if I interrupted our interview and labored that fact or
alerted them to it or reminded them of it that they wouldn't tell me so much.
GROSS: My guest is Aminatta Forna. Her new memoir is called "The Devil That
Danced on the Water." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aminatta Forna, and she's
written a new memoir about investigating the execution of her father. And her
father had been the minister of finance in Sierra Leone. He was executed by
the dictatorship in 1975.
You not only investigated how your father was set up at his trial, you also
investigated what he had to say. How did he carry himself at his trial? What
did you learn about that?
Ms. FORNA: I was immensely proud when I discovered how my father had
conducted himself at his trial. There was a moment when the prosecutor--his
name was Tom Johnson(ph)--confronted my father with the testimony of another
man, one of the other accused who had placed my father at the scene of the
attack. And what was already quite well known, and my father would certainly
had guessed, was that the other people who'd been arrested alongside him had
been very badly beaten, many of them tortured and this false testimony drawn
This was read out in court and used against my father. And the chief
prosecutor asked my father, `Is it true?' and my father said, `No, it's not
true.' And the chief prosecutor said, `Have you no conscience to say that
this man who is your friend is a liar?' And my father replied to him, `I have
a conscience and I have a heart.' And what he meant by that was--or what I
understood he meant by that was that he knew that these people were giving
testimony because they had been beaten, because they had been tortured and
because they had been forced to. And I think that's what he meant when he
said, `I have a heart.'
GROSS: In other words, that he was forgiving them for testifying against him.
Ms. FORNA: Yeah. Exactly, that he was forgiving them. He knew how the
system worked there. And I think that some of the beatings took place fairly
publicly. In fact, in one of the very last letters he wrote, he described
hearing some of the men being beaten, and he described overhearing a
conversation between two of them where one had said, `If you give them Dr.
Mohamed Forna's name, they'll stop beating you.'
GROSS: Do you think if he had made a deal that he could have survived?
Ms. FORNA: I think it's possible. I think that is possible. Siaka Stevens
knew that my father was immensely popular. He knew that he was the only
person who could lead a viable opposition against him. Siaka Stevens also had
come to hate my father because when my father resigned, he had alerted the
country and the entire international community to Siaka Stevens' corruption.
He'd accused him of violence, he'd accused him of megalomania. Apparently,
Stevens was absolutely enraged by this.
But I think it's faintly possible that Stevens might have spared him if he had
had the kind of response from my father that would have made that possible.
I'm not certain about it, but he might just have.
GROSS: Your father had been a medical doctor. When you returned to Sierra
Leone to investigate his execution, you were probably seeing lots of people
who had hands or feet amputated. During the civil war, the rebels had
threatened people with amputations if they voted because the rebels didn't
want them to vote. And I'm just wondering your impressions of traveling
through your country of birth and seeing people who had lost limbs in the
civil war through amputations.
Ms. FORNA: It's a very shocking thing, the loss of limbs. And although it is
ascribed--the action on the part of the rebels of chopping off people's hands
is ascribed to being a comment on the elections. What I saw did not seem to
tally with that explanation. I saw babies who had lost both arms. I remember
seeing a very pretty young girl--in fact, I took her photograph, and she
really wanted to be photographed with her friend. And to a Western eye, it
was a really shocking picture because there she was with both arms chopped off
above the elbow and her friend who had lost one arm. There was no explanation
for that, really. You know, there was simply no explanation for it.
And I have--when I was last back, which was actually only three or four weeks
ago, I was in a position to talk to people who had been in the area where
these sort of things were happening and there seems to be a huge amount of
denial about it now. The rebels, the RUF, denied that it was anything to do
with them, and they say that it was the Kamajors, who were one of the militias
who fought against them. They say it wasn't them, that it was the government
forces. So there's this huge amounts of denial, and I can't imagine that it
was anything by a drug--I mean, there's a huge amount of drug use, deliberate
use on child soldiers, a kind of drug-fueled aggression toward a civilian
population to do anything to subdue them.
GROSS: This kind of a massive sadistic terrorist campaign.
Ms. FORNA: I think so, yes.
GROSS: What are your feelings about your country now, you know, the country
of your birth? You loved it when you grew up there. The government had
executed your father. You returned, you know, recently to find the aftermath
of this campaign of terrorism.
Ms. FORNA: I'm cautiously optimistic about Sierra Leone. I mean, it has
taken me a long time to feel comfortable again there. I dreaded going back
when I was researching the book. I always felt deeply unhappy when I was in
the country in a way that, you know, I could only ascribe to the events that
had taken place there. And I remember when I was a child, I used to look
forward so much to going home to Sierra Leone. And from the moment of my
father's death, I could no longer bear to go to that country until I came to
the point where I avoided it altogether for 10 or 15 years.
Gradually, I've gotten more used to going back there and I've begun to enjoy
it again. And this time, I went up to my father's village--in fact, the
village that my grandfather had founded, which is deep in the--you know, it's
actually surrounded by forest, and it is the most beautiful place. And I
spent a week there with my husband. We were building a school for the
village. And I was just surrounded by people of such kindness and goodwill.
So, you know, kind of a lot of my childhood sense has returned.
GROSS: In your acknowledgements, you mention a couple of people who have been
in slightly similar situations to you. You mention Gillian Slovo, whose
parents were with the ANC, the African National Congress, and I believe one of
her parents was executed during the...
Ms. FORNA: Her mother was murdered.
GROSS: Yeah. And her parents were anti-apartheid activists. And you mention
Ken Wiwa, whose father was a dissident in Nigeria and he was executed. I find
it really interesting that in your case and in Ken Wiwa's case by writing
about your parents' execution, you're making it less possible for people to
forget this happened in spite of the government's attempt to, like, annihilate
the bodies and, you know, put them in mass graves and just kind of write them
out of history and cover it up to whatever extent they could.
Ms. FORNA: It was my intention, really, to bring stories like this to the
public consciousness in the West. My father wasn't really anybody who had a
significance outside of Sierra Leone. He was one of thousands of political
prisoners imprisoned and killed across Africa. And so I used his story in a
way that I felt was emblematic, that he was emblematic, we were emblematic of
what had happened to Africa in the post-colonial period.
And I really felt that in my position, being partly British and partly
African, and having so many friends--you know, I would sit at middle-class
dinner parties in London and I would hear people talk about Africa as though
it were another world, not just another continent. The difficulty people have
in understanding what's going on in Africa, the sort of--not boredom, but you
know, the tiredness of the constant problems. And also the exoticization, the
alienation of Africans, who we see so much on our news programs just as heaps
dead bodies somewhere, but not as individuals. And I would think, `If you
knew my story and you knew what had happened to somebody sitting at this
table, somebody you could associate with, if you could make that connection,
then you would feel quite differently about Africa.' And so I very
deliberately attempted to do that.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. FORNA: That's very kind of you. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Aminatta Forna's new memoir is called "The Devil That Danced on the
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music from "Chicago")
GROSS: The movie musical "Chicago" is nominated for 13 Oscars. Coming up, we
talk with John Kander about writing the songs with his partner, Fred Ebb.
They also wrote the songs for "Cabaret" and the movie "New York, New York."
(Soundbite of music from "Chicago")
Unidentified Man: Five, six, seven, eight.
(Soundbite of music from "Chicago")
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: John Kander discusses his career of writing musicals,
including the current hit "Chicago"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The movie adaptation of the Broadway musical "Chicago" is nominated for 13
Oscars. My guest, John Kander, wrote the music for "Chicago" along with his
longtime songwriting partner, lyricist Fred Ebb. They also wrote the songs
for "Cabaret," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Woman of the Year" and the Martin
Scorsese movie "New York, New York," which included their song "New York, New
The original Broadway production of "Chicago" premiered in 1975. It was
choreographed and directed by Bob Fosse and starred his wife, Gwen Verdon, and
Chita Rivera. The show was based on a play inspired by a sensational 1924
murder trial in the city of Chicago. The musical tells the story of two
singers who each murdered the man who betrayed her and the lawyer who
manipulates the media and turns the murderers into celebrities. The
adaptation was written by Bob Fosse and lyricist Fred Ebb. Here's the opening
song from the movie soundtrack featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones.
(Soundbite of "All That Jazz")
Ms. CATHERINE ZETA-JONES: (As Velma Kelly) (Singing) Come on, babe, why don't
we paint the town and all that jazz? I'm gonna rouge my knees and roll my
stockings down and all that jazz. Start the car, I know a whoopee spot where
the gin is cold but the piano's hot. It's just a noisy hall where there's a
nightly brawl and all that jazz.
GROSS: John Kander, welcome to FRESH AIR.
It's great, you're up for all these Academy Award nominations, 13. In 1975
when the show was on Broadway, you got 11 Tony nominations, and I
think--What?--you didn't win any of them, right?
Mr. JOHN KANDER (Composer): No. We were up against "Chorus Line" at that
time. Also, "Chicago," in 1975, got very mixed reviews. And I must say,
speaking out of my vanity, it's terrific that after all these years, some of
the same critics who didn't like it in 1975 seem to like it and approve of it.
And I get a real kick out of that.
GROSS: Is this a show you always loved? I mean, where do you see this
fitting into your body of work?
Mr. KANDER: Well, this is a show which I grew to love. This is my partner
Fred Ebb's favorite show, I'm sure. He was very excited about it from the
very start. It took me a little longer to sort of warm up to doing it.
GROSS: But yet, why'd you have to warm up to it?
Mr. KANDER: Because I remember when the idea was first brought to us--and
Fred was extremely enthusiastic. And God knows I was excited to work with Bob
Fosse and Gwen Verdon--and I was worried that we were writing yet another
piece about show business as a metaphor for life. But as we got into it, I
liked it more and more, and now I'm really crazy about it.
GROSS: Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were getting a divorce when "Chicago" was in
Mr. KANDER: Yes.
GROSS: And I've read that this was kind of Fosse's--it was part of Fosse's
divorce settlement with Gwen Verdon to give her a part in this musical. What
a strange-sounding story that is for a husband and wife to be collaborating on
a musical as they're divorcing.
Mr. KANDER: Well, even after the divorce, they maintained a very strong
Mr. KANDER: And after Bobby's death, Gwen continued to be his chronicler, if
you will, and the defender of his work. So I guess the marriage didn't work,
but the collaboration certainly did.
GROSS: I should mention that Gwen Verdon played the part of Roxie Hart, the
part that's played by Renee Zellweger in the movie version. Bob Fosse had a
heart attack after the rehearsals started for "Chicago." That must have been
devastating for everybody.
Mr. KANDER: It was about three days into rehearsal and, yes, he had a--I
don't know whether it was a triple-bypass or quadruple-bypass, but it was very
serious. And when we resumed rehearsals some months later, he had--his
personality was pretty dark by then. I think he'd been through a great deal,
and I think Fred would agree with me that affected, in some way, the work that
we did on the show. The show itself became more biting, more cynical, if you
will, than it had even started out to be. And there was always a kind of--not
a death wish, but there was always something self-destructive about Bobby's
behavior. He was a terrific man with a very dark side.
GROSS: I'd like to play a recording that you and your songwriting partner,
Fred Ebb, the lyricist, made together in 1973 while you were performing at the
92nd Street Y in New York's Lyrics and Lyricists series. This is a series in
Mr. KANDER: Oh, I remember that.
GROSS: ...they had songwriters come in and do their work. So this was 1973,
before "Chicago" had actually opened on Broadway. So nobody knew these songs.
You were still working everything out. And I'm going to play your version of
"All That Jazz." And Kander's at the piano, Fred Ebb is singing, but then
John Kander comes in and makes it a duet.
(Soundbite of "All That Jazz" from 1973 recording)
Mr. FRED EBB (Lyricist): (Singing) Find a flask, we're playing fast and loose
and all that jazz. Right up here is where I store the juice and all that
jazz. Come on, babe, we're gonna brush the sky. I bet your Lucky Lindy never
flew so high, to the stratosphere, how could he lend an ear to all that jazz.
Mr. EBB and Mr. KANDER: (Singing in unison) Ooh!
Mr. KANDER: (Singing) ...you're gonna see your sheba shimmy shake.
Mr. EBB: (Singing) And all that jazz.
Mr. KANDER: (Singing) Oh, she's gonna shimmy till her garters break.
Mr. EBB: (Singing) And all that jazz.
Mr. KANDER: (Singing) Show me where to park her girdle. Oh, her mother's
blood's curdle if she'd hear her baby's queer for all that jazz.
Mr. EBB: (Singing) Come on, hun, why don't we do the town and all that jazz?
Mr. KANDER: (Singing) And all that jazz. Oh, you're gonna see your sheba
Mr. EBB: (Singing) I'm gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down and
all that jazz.
Mr. KANDER: (Singing) And all that jazz.
Mr. EBB: (Singing) Start the car, I know a whoopee spot where the gin is cold
but the piano's hot. It's just a noisy hall where there's a nightly brawl
Mr. EBB and Mr. KANDER: (Singing in unison) ...all that jazz.
GROSS: That's John Kander and Fred Ebb performing their song "All That Jazz"
from the musical "Chicago." This was recorded in 1973 at the 92nd Street Y in
Now the song kind of turns into a kind of canon or a round in that duet part.
Mr. KANDER: It's just a little counterpoint. The chorus is singing one
thing and Velma Kelly, who was singing "All That Jazz," is singing another
thing. And we've done that a lot in our careers of--well, any composing team
does, of just a contrapuntal section to make the song work toward a climax.
GROSS: How tricky is that to write?
Mr. KANDER: It's tricky only like working out a puzzle is tricky. It's fun.
And as a matter of fact, I think the secret of our longevity is that writing
for us has always been fun and still is to this day. Otherwise, we wouldn't
do it. We enjoy the process of writing. There was a time out of town with
"Chicago" where Fosse almost apologetically asked us to write a song to
replace a song near the end of the show. And it was as if he was saying, `Oh,
I'm sorry to ask you to do this terrible thing.' And, well, we looked at our
shoes and aloud said we'd give it a shot, and then we left the rehearsal room
and went skipping down the hotel corridor practically because we were so
delighted to get back to what we liked to do. So we wrote a song in a half an
hour called "Nowadays," and took the rest of the day off.
GROSS: Let's hear the torchy version that's sung by Roxie Hart, and we'll
hear from the movie soundtrack Renee Zellweger.
(Soundbite from "Nowadays")
Ms. RENEE ZELLWEGER: (As Roxie Hart) (Singing) It's good. Isn't it grand?
Isn't it great? Isn't it swell? Isn't it fun? Isn't it, nowadays? There's
men everywhere, jazz everywhere, moves everywhere, lights everywhere, joy
You can like the life you're living, you can live the life you like. You can
even marry Harry but mess around with Ike. And that's good. Isn't it grand?
Isn't it great? Isn't it swell? Isn't it fun? Isn't it? But nothing stays.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ZELLWEGER: (As Roxie) (Singing) You can like the life you're living, you
can live the life you like. You can even marry Harry but mess around with
Ike. And that's good. Isn't it grand? Isn't...
GROSS: That's Renee Zellweger singing "Nowadays" from the soundtrack of the
film "Chicago." We'll talk more with composer John Kander after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music from "Chicago")
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Kander. He wrote the
music for "Chicago."
I know you didn't write the lyrics; your partner, Fred Ebb, did. But you must
have really steeped yourself in the language and music and stories of the
1920s to do "Chicago," which is the decade that the musical's set in. What
are some of the things that you immersed yourself in to write "Chicago"?
Mr. KANDER: Well, I know Fred did a great deal of research. As a matter of
fact, I think the phrase `all that jazz' came out of an article that he read.
And as far as the music is concerned, I listened to a lot of jazz of the '20s,
a lot of old recordings, and then just forgot about them and hoping that the
style would seep through somehow.
Plus the fact that "Chicago" is a vaudeville--we call it a vaudeville for a
number of reasons. But one of the reasons that we call it that is because
many of the songs are related to specific vaudeville performers: Eddie
Cantor, Helen Morgan, Sophie Tucker, Bert Williams. And so we listened to
recordings by those people, as well.
GROSS: If your partner Fred Ebb was here, I would ask him a question that
maybe you know the answer to. What does it mean in the lyric of "All That
Jazz" to `rouge your knees'? Did people rouge their knees?
Mr. KANDER: Yep, they sure did.
GROSS: And what was that about? They actually put red stuff on their knees?
Mr. KANDER: Yeah, yeah. Their skirts were higher, and you would rouge your
knees and wear your stockings down and then go out and Charleston.
GROSS: I guess that was very sexy.
Mr. KANDER: I guess so.
GROSS: I mean, in that period, it was considered very sexy.
Mr. KANDER: Sure.
GROSS: Now you were writing songs that you knew Bob Fosse would be using as
the music for his choreography. You were already very well-acquainted with
Bob Fosse's choreography 'cause you'd collaborated together on "Cabaret."
Were there certain rhythms that you knew would work for Fosse choreography
that you intentionally put in not only because it was set in the '20s, but
because of Fosse?
Mr. KANDER: I think so. Fred was very smart about that. I remember wrote a
song called "Razzle Dazzle," and before we took it and played it for Bob, Fred
said, `Try adding a couple of finger snaps to it. Bobby will love that.' And
what turned out was--(sings notes, claps, sings more notes). I mean, those
claps were finger snaps just then. And he said it with absolute assurance.
And we took it in and played it for Bob, and as soon as he heard the finger
snapping, he loved the song.
GROSS: There's a similar rhythm going on in "All That Jazz." There's two
beats that could easily be a kind of, you know, couple of hip bumps and
Mr. KANDER: Yes, I think that's true. But I think probably, if you listen to
the score of "Chicago" straight through, you would find a certain amount of
continuity or similarity, particularly with the accompanimental figures, in a
lot of the songs. That's mostly unconscious, as I said, just listening to a
lot of jazz of that period and then letting your brain soak in it and then
GROSS: What's your collaborating process with lyricist Fred Ebb?
Mr. KANDER: Well, it started when we first began to write together, and it's
still the same today. I go over to Fred's house and we talk for a long time.
And if we're working on a show, we speak about the moment that we're about to
try and musicalize, and we talk and talk and talk. And then maybe Fred will
have a phrase, a lyrical phrase, like `all that jazz,' and maybe I'll have a
rhythmic idea. And from then on, we improvise together, and literally
together. And Fred never hands me a lyric and says, `Set this'; I never hand
him a completed melodic chart and say, `Write a lyric to this.' We just don't
work that way. The numbers of--I would say 95 percent of everything we've
written together, we've written in the same room at the same time. But ever
since we started writing together, we've been faithful.
GROSS: How do you know, in the book for a show, when is the right time for a
song? Is it just like the pacing, or is there a certain kind of emotion that
calls for a song?
Mr. KANDER: Well, the simplest answer, it seems to me, is when a character
has reached that point where dialogue seems insufficient. We've worked with
some terrific collaborators who understand that. Terrence McNally, with whom
we've done three shows, is very good at writing a scene that has five pages in
it that he knows perfectly well we're going to steal and musicalize, but where
he will let a character go on in dialogue in a way which is probably unnatural
for him emotionally to do. And he does that in order to turn Fred and me on
to musicalizing it.
In "Chicago," because it was a vaudeville, it was a little more cut-and-dried.
We would get to a point where Mama Morton, for instance, appears on the scene
and she needs to tell the audience exactly who she is, and that seems more
natural in song than in dialogue.
GROSS: Do you think you would have written as many songs if it weren't for
the fact that there's the show that you're obliged to write and you have to
come up with 10 songs for the show, the pressure's on?
Mr. KANDER: I probably would not have. There's something about the
responsibility that you have in a collaboration which is a spur to me. I've
always written music, and I probably always would. But when you have a
structure and you have collaborators and you have a roomful of actors who are
waiting to be fed, it makes you get to work.
GROSS: My guest is John Kander. He composed the songs for the musical
"Chicago." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music from "Chicago")
GROSS: My guest is John Kander. He composed the songs for the musical
"Chicago" with his partner, lyricist Fred Ebb. They also wrote the songs for
"Cabaret" and the Martin Scorsese movie "New York, New York."
Let me ask you about one of your most famous musicals, which is "Cabaret." At
what point did you enter the process?
Mr. KANDER: Well, we had done a musical called "Flora, the Red Menace," which
Hal Prince produced and George Abbott directed. And Liza Minnelli starred in
it, and it was kind of her Broadway debut. A couple of weeks before the
opening in New York, Hal Prince said something which--I've told this story
often--I can't imagine a producer in his right mind today saying. He said,
`No matter what happens with "Flora," the day after it opens, we'll meet at my
house to start talking about the next musical.' Well, "Flora" opened, and it
was not a success. And the next day we were at Hal's house talking about a
musical which came to be called "Cabaret.'
GROSS: And what was the discussion like that day?
Mr. KANDER: Well, he had bought--he had the rights to the Berlin stories,
GROSS: The Christopher Isherwood stories.
Mr. KANDER: Yes, Christopher Isherwood stories, and the John Van Druten play
which had been based on them. And he had a writer named Joe Masteroff with
whom he'd had some discussions. And from that very first day, we started our
conversations which eventually lead to knocking out a narrative--is what I was
talking about before. The whole collaborative experience that we have had has
been very fortunate. And what if Sally Bowles has an abortion? What if
somebody throws a brick through the window? It's a game that I've come to
call `What if?' It's really a lot of fun. Everything is possible. And the
director, the writer, the composers sit in this room and imagine elements in a
story, imagine the characters. It's terrific, and it's a real turn-on for me.
GROSS: For "Chicago," you listened to a lot of music from the '20s. What did
you listen to for "Cabaret"?
Mr. KANDER: For "Cabaret," I listened to a lot of German jazz and vaudeville
music also of the late '20s and very early '30s, and then promptly forgot
about it. The same thing happened with "Zorba" and listening to a lot of
Greek music and to "Kiss of the Spider Woman" with Latin American music. It
sounds like a very kind of crude way of doing research, but it works for me.
You listen and you listen and you listen and then put it away and don't think
about it anymore. And I have this absolute belief that the styles of the
music that you've been listening to seep into your unconscious and come out in
your own language.
GROSS: You work keeps getting new lives. You know, "Chicago" had a big
revival in '96. It's still running on Broadway and, of course, now it's a
hugely successful movie. "Cabaret"--there was a very successful revival of
that just a few years ago on Broadway.
Mr. KANDER: And that's still running, as well.
GROSS: Do you think that the musicals keep changing as they're given new
lives? I mean, for example--correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that
"Chicago" keeps getting slightly more S&M in tone as time goes on. And
probably "Cabaret," also, at least on the part of the emcee, the character
that was originated by Joel Grey.
Mr. KANDER: I think any piece of musical theater, whether it's an opera or a
musical comedy or whatever, if it's a piece which has some value, whenever
it's revived, it will be revived within the recognizable language of its
contemporary audience. Is that a sentence that I just made there?
GROSS: Good enough for me.
Mr. KANDER: So that when "Cabaret" was first done in 1966, it was, in many
ways, quite shocking to its audience, to that audience in 1966, and considered
almost avant-garde. When the revival that Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall did
came along, the one that's running today, it also became somewhat shocking to
its contemporary audience. So in a funny way, "Cabaret" now feels to its
contemporary audience the way it felt to its audience in 1966 even though the
two productions are quite different.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. I understand what you're saying. Do you ever wish that life
was a little bit more like a musical in that there would be certain occasions
where you could break into song and dance?
Mr. KANDER: Well, yes. Unfortunately, I don't wish that life were like our
musicals considering how many people we kill.
GROSS: Too many murders.
Mr. KANDER: Yeah. I mean, Fred and I have been involved in some pretty heavy
stuff in musical theater. As a matter of fact, the other day we were to count
up how many people we've killed in our musicals.
GROSS: But the songs are good.
Mr. KANDER: Thank you.
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KANDER: Well, thank you for having me, and...
GROSS: I assume you're going to the Academy Awards.
Mr. KANDER: I don't know. That's pretty scary. We'll see.
GROSS: You mean you're actually thinking of not going?
Mr. KANDER: It's conceivable. We don't know yet. But a lot of it...
GROSS: Why would you not go?
Mr. KANDER: Because it's terrifying. That's...
GROSS: Well, you wouldn't be terrified sitting at home?
Mr. KANDER: No.
GROSS: I mean, you'll still be in suspense.
Mr. KANDER: I can sit in front of a television set and drink heavily and
not--I don't know yet. Half of me wants to and half of me doesn't. We'll
GROSS: OK. Well, good luck.
Mr. KANDER: Thank you so much.
GROSS: OK. Good to talk with you. Thank you.
Mr. KANDER: Same here.
GROSS: John Kander wrote the music for "Chicago." The movie adaptation is
nominated for 13 Academy Awards.
(Soundbite of "We Both Reached for the Gun")
Unidentified Man #1: Mr. Billy Flynn and the "Press Conference Rag." Notice
how his mouth never moves, almost.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: Where'd you come from?
Mr. RICHARD GERE: (As Billy Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) Mississippi.
Unidentified Man #2: And your parents?
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) Very wealthy.
Unidentified Man #2: Where are they now?
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) Six feet under.
(Singing) But she was granted one more start...
(Singing as Roxie) The Convent of the Sacred Heart.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "We Both Reached for the Gun")
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) I met Amos and he stole my heart
away, convinced me to elope one day.
Unidentified Woman: Oh, you poor dear, I can't believe what you've been
through. A convent girl, a runaway marriage. Now tell us, Roxie. (Singing)
Who's Fred Casely?
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) My ex-boyfriend.
Group of Performers: (Singing) Why'd you shoot him?
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) I was leaving.
Group of Performers: (Singing) Was he angry?
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) Like a madman. Still I said, `Fred,
(Singing as Billy) She knew that she was doing wrong.
Group of Performers: (Singing) Then describe it.
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) He came toward me.
Group of Performers: (Singing) With a pistol?
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) From my bureau.
Group of Performers: (Singing) Did you fight him?
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing as Roxie) Like a tiger.
(Singing as Billy) He had strength and she had none.
(Singing as Roxie) And yet we both reached for the gun. Oh, yes, oh, yes, oh,
yes, we both--oh, yes, we both--oh, yes, we both reached for the gun, the gun,
the gun, the gun. Oh, yes, we both reached for the gun, for the gun.
Group of Performers: (Singing) Oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, they both--oh, yes,
they both--oh, yes, they both reached for the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun.
Oh, yes, they both reached for the gun, for the gun.
Mr. GERE: (As Flynn) (Singing) Understandable, understandable. Yes, it's
perfectly understandable. Comprehensible...
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