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​On Broadway: John Kander

The 1972 film "Cabaret" -- and the Broadway show on which it was based -- both featured Tony Award-winning music by John Kander. All these years later, he's in the running again at tonight's Tonys, here on CBS. Anthony Mason takes us behind the music:

At New York's Lyceum Theatre, "The Visit," nominated for five Tonys, is a hot ticket. One of those nominations went to 88-year-old composer John Kander, who wrote the music for "The Visit," one of more than 20 Broadway shows he's scored over the past half-century.

"Did I read right that you've written somewhere over 2,000 songs?" asked Mason.

"I have no idea," Kander replied.

"Does that sound right?"

"Yeah. That doesn't mean they're any good!"

But they are. Kander wrote the music for "Cabaret," "Chicago" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (which, like "The Visit," starred the now-82-year-old theater legend Chita Rivera).

To hear Chita Rivera sing "Love and Love Alone" from "The Visit" click on the video player below.

Kander, who started playing piano at age four, saw his first musical as a boy growing up in Kansas City.

His response: "I was in love," he said.

John Kander and Fred Ebb (with Jill Haworth). Photofest

He came to New York to study theatre at Columbia, and started working on Broadway, playing rehearsals for "West Side Story" and composing dance music for "Gypsy."

In 1962, his publisher paired him with another client, a lyricist named Fred Ebb: "When Fred and I started working, that was the real thing. We both knew it right away," Kander said. "Yeah, we were pregnant all the time! We couldn't not write."

"Must be pretty exhilarating when that happens?" asked Mason.

"Oh, it's terrific fun!"

It was the beginning of a 42-year partnership. Their first show, "Flora the Red Menace," would introduce a young Liza Minelli. Their next musical, "Cabaret," set in a Berlin nightclub, would literally change Broadway, and win eight Tonys (and eight Oscars when it became a film).

Mason asked, "Were you surprised at 'Cabaret''s success?"

"I was surprised at any success, truly!" Kander laughed.

When "Chicago" opened in 1975, many critics dismissed it. But the revival launched in 1996 led to another Oscar-winning film adaptation, and is still running nearly two decades later. Kander admits the acceptance of the show now -- in some cases by the same people who didn't like it before -- is satisfying.

Kander and Ebb wrote quickly together: "Mostly it would be instant with both of us," he said. "I might have a vamp, or Fred would have a first line. And we would take it from there."

Ebb was the city kid with the quick wit; Kander, the quiet one with the more romantic spirit.

"That's a pretty remarkable working relationship," said Mason.

"I think it's because we were very different people," Kander said. "And we weren't socially necessarily involved with each other all that much. But the one thing that was constant was that writing was always a good time, even when we wrote badly. And I think that's something that we both appreciated."

Their best-known song was not written for Broadway, but for the 1977 Martin Scorsese film, "New York, New York." But it's not the song originally written. "All the songs worked really well, except that one," he said.

During filming, Robert De Niro said he didn't like the title song -- he wanted something stronger. "And so we went off in a snit, and angrily wrote another song called, 'New York, New York,' in 45 minutes. And that's the song that you know."

Liza Minnelli sang it in the film; Frank Sinatra would make it a classic -- though Kander calls the Sinatra cover "a strange version. He made up some lyrics and changed some things, but how could I not like the Sinatra version? It probably bought me this house!"

Kander's sanctuary is a 300-acre property in upstate New York: "Of all the productions I've done, this is the most successful," he said.

He shares it with partner Albert Stephenson, a dancer and choreographer he met during a show in 1977. They've been together ever since.

The studio tucked in the woods is Kander's favorite place to work: "A huge amount of 'The Visit' was written in this room," he said.

He was there when he got the call in 2004 that Fred Ebb had died.

Mason asked, "What's it like to lose a writing partner after all that time?"

"It's shocking. It's like some attachment to your body that you're used to having isn't there anymore."

"Was it difficult sitting down at the piano the first time, though, without him on the other side?"

"No, it wasn't difficult to sit at the piano. It was difficult to know why I was sitting at the piano."

Kander went back to work to complete one of their then-unfinished musicals, "Curtains." He wrote a song for the character of a composer who's separated from his writing partner. Called "I Miss the Music," it was sung by Jason Daniely in the 2007 Broadway production:

"I found every time in a performance when Jason would sing this song, I would suddenly out of nowhere get teary," Kander said. "And I didn't really know I was that sentimental, but I am. So I think to this day that's sort of my song about Fred."

"The Visit" was another of the unfinished Kander & Ebb collaborations. It will be their last to play Broadway. But the 88-year-old composer has three more musicals in the works with new collaborator Greg Pierce.

You keep writing, Kander says, because that's what you do.

Mason asked, "In this whole process of writing a song, where do you get the biggest thrill?"

"I think the moment when the musical moment is finished, when something in you says, 'That's true.' That's the big one for me."

"That so hard to get to."

"It is. It doesn't happen all that often."

"No, but it's kind of what you live for, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it is!" Kander laughed. "It really, really is."

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