John Kander not slowing down after hitting 85

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By MARK KENNEDY, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — When the Dramatists Guild Fund honors composer John Kander at a star-studded gala next month, there is very likely to be one person reluctant to be there. That would be John Kander.

"It scares me to death," says the Tony Award-winning songwriter with partner Fred Ebb of "Cabaret," ''Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman." ''I guess I'm not the world's most spotlight-oriented person."

The Dramatists Guild Fund is the public charity arm of the Dramatists Guild of America, which aids and nurtures writers for the theater. The fund is celebrating its 50th anniversary and chose Kander to honor since he is also celebrating his half-century of creating art.

The June 3 gala at the Mandarin Oriental New York hotel is slated to feature performances and tributes from Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, Stockard Channing, Joel Grey, Christie Brinkley, Rob Marshall, Susan Stroman, Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba and Joshua Henry.

Fellow writers Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and Terrance McNally also are expected to attend, and Jon Cryer, the star of "Two and a Half Men," will serve as host. Tickets start at $500.

"It is going to be a wonderful, big lovefest," says Gretchen Cryer, president of the Dramatists Guild Fund. "Everybody wanted to do it. He's very beloved. Everybody loves John."

Minnelli would be at the top of that list. She teamed with Kander and Ebb multiple times, including a taped version of her live show "Liza With a 'Z'" in 1972. It won eight Emmy Awards and the soundtrack went gold.

"They invented me," says the actress, who also earned an Academy Award for playing Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" on screen and a Tony for the Kander and Ebb musical "The Act." ''With 'Liza With a "Z,'" they gave me a real identity. The way they write, there's nobody like them. Nobody."

Kander, who just turned 85, hasn't stopped working following Ebb's death in 2004 — not by a long shot. He and Ebb's last musical "The Scottsboro Boys" received 12 Tony Award nominations in 2011 and Kander has for the past few years been collaborating with 34-year-old lyricist Greg Pierce.

Their haunting musical "The Landing," currently being developed off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre with David Hyde Pierce, features three distinct stories performed by an ensemble of four.

"I guess that has been a rejuvenating process because it's the first person that I've worked with on a real basis since Fred," says Kander. "It's a whole new experience. I'm enjoying it a lot."

For Cryer, Kander's staying power is inspiring. She notes that he received the Kennedy Center Honors award for Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. "Look what he's done since then," she says. "Isn't it amazing that he's going strong? He's a mid-career artist at age 85."

Kander says he never worried if his creative juices would still be flowing strong after Ebb's death. "Life goes on and changes happen," he says. "I don't think I ever had a kind of fear of what was going to happen to me creatively in the future. I just know that I'm having a really, really good time right now."

Minnelli, too, is going strong with concerts planned and has just had a recording of her 1974 concert "Live at the Winter Garden" released for the first time on CD, packed with Kander and Ebb jewels. "I'd forgotten how many terrific things they wrote," she says. "Even now, a lot of what I say on stage is due to Kander and Ebb. And what I feel is due to Kander."

Kander says he doesn't know any details of the Dramatists Guild gala — and wants to keep it that way. He suspects old friends will be present but gets uncomfortable thinking about it.

"The safest place for me in the world is a rehearsal room full of people who are really talented and who care about making some kind of art. The rest of it I'm not really comfortable with," he says.

"That all sounds very ungracious. I'm very touched to be honored by the Dramatists Guild, which is an organization that means a great deal to me. But I kind of wish it was about somebody else."

He may try to hide under the table.

"He can't," says Minnelli with a huge laugh. "I'm sitting next to him."

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Online:

http://www.dramatistsguildfund.org

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