There’s a scene near the end of Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” in which Liza Minnelli, playing a down-on-her-luck jazz singer who has been abandoned by her deadbeat husband (Robert De Niro), steps into a dark, empty recording studio. “Sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re sad,” she sings, “but the world goes round.”
Shot in a single long take, Minnelli’s quiet, contemplative performance eventually bubbles up into an effervescent burst of joy, as she searches within herself for the silver lining in life’s dark cloud.
It’s one of the more moving moments in an otherwise uneven film, and it’s all because of that song, which longtime Broadway collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote specifically for Minnelli. (The film’s title track later became a staple of Frank Sinatra’s live sets.) It also inspired – in name, at least – the musical revue “The World Goes ’Round,” which is currently playing at Interplayers Theatre and celebrates the enduring legacy of Kander and Ebb.
Their roster of successful musicals remains one of the most impressive in Broadway history: From 1965 to Ebb’s death in 2004, the duo were responsible for “Chicago,” “Woman of the Year,” “Zorba,” “Fosse,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Cabaret,” which was famously adapted into an Oscar-winning big screen vehicle for Minnelli in 1972.
Although they weren’t directly involved in its production, “The World Goes ’Round,” which first premiered in 1991, has Kander and Ebb’s fingerprints all over it. Their music and lyrics reflect a sunny optimism that’s almost always at odds with the settings of their shows – the Nazi-occupied Berlin of “Cabaret,” for instance, or the prisons and courtrooms of “Chicago” – and this showcase loosely strings together a series of vignettes that mirror the themes of 30 individual Kander and Ebb compositions.
Even taken out of their original contexts, these songs still retain their intended meanings when presented as standalone numbers. “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” from the musical “70, Girls, 70,” is used to illustrate the bustle of our fast-paced world. Songs like “Maybe This Time,” “A Quiet Thing” and “My Coloring Book,” which was written as a single for Barbra Streisand, tell small stories of love and loss. And “All That Jazz,” one of the standout tracks from “Chicago,” is used (as it should be) to soundtrack a scene of drinking and revelry.
There’s no real story here, or characters that are clearly defined. “The World Goes ’Round” is all about the songs, and it allows Ebb’s lyrics and Kander’s melodies to speak for themselves. It’s a colorful, buoyant introduction to the work of two of Broadway’s biggest names, and it boils their career down to its most essential parts – the words and the music.
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