- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

The songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb isn't exactly new to Oscar glory. Mr. Kander composed the tunes and Mr. Ebb penned the lyrics to the last movie musical to make a haul at the Academy Awards, "Cabaret."
This year, expect them to walk away with best-song honors for "Move On." It is likely to be one of an armload of awards Sunday night for the movie "Chicago."
Given their remarkable success in the golden-statue department, you might be tempted to put the Kander and Ebb team in the ranks of other famous songwriting duos, such as Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz or Johnny Mercer and anybody.
But don't succumb.
It is a measure of just how good "Chicago" is that it makes first-rate entertainment out of mostly second-rate songs. Mr. Kander's melodies usually are less than inspired, and Mr. Ebb's lyrics often are downright clumsy. A couple of the songs, such as "Mister Cellophane," should have been cut altogether, and even the keepers are disappointing when heard on CD, without all the blinding razzle-dazzle of the movie production.
But perhaps it is unfair to judge Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb by the standards of the great songwriters. To their credit, and compared with much of what ends up on Broadway stages these days, they do write real songs.
For years, the Great White Way has been in the stranglehold of the Andrew Lloyd Webber school, full of overblown and undercooked light opera. The attraction of arias to Mr. Webber, and to the composers of musicals such as "Les Miserables," seems to be that the tunesmith is liberated from having to write any compact, coherent melodies. Thus the tuneless meanderings.
Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb, by contrast, write songs that hew to the traditional forms of American popular song. Take "All I Care About," sung by Richard Gere in a style that parodies the 1920s crooners who amplified their voices with megaphones. It actually is a decent effort at a classic song or at least it would be if it weren't, like everything else in "Chicago," cynical.
Goodness knows there is plenty of room for cynical songs in the great American songbook; just check out Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Hart's "I Wish I Were in Love Again." Still, it does rather limit the emotional range of the material if every last song has to be delivered with arched eyebrow and knowing smirk. Missing is the kind of sincerity that packs the greatest emotional wallop think "Our Love Is Here to Stay."
Will any of the songs from "Chicago" become embedded enough in the popular consciousness to be called "standards"? Not likely, but that may say less about the songs themselves than about the current state of popular music.
Once upon a time, there was a thriving industry devoted to getting Broadway songs and movie tunes onto the pop-music charts, but in the '30s, '40s and '50s, there wasn't much of a stylistic gap between Broadway and radio. In the days before Elvis Presley, performers such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby ruled the charts the perfect vehicles for George Gershwin and Cole Porter tunes. While Mr. Sinatra was still around, he was kind enough to take a movie theme Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb had written and turn it into their most enduring hit, "New York, New York."
Today's pop stars and pop idioms don't lend themselves to the classic 32-bar song form. The producers of "Chicago" know this all too well. The tune they chose to promote as a hit is telling.
They had Queen Latifah, who has a supporting turn in the movie as an avaricious prison matron called "Mama," cut a radio-friendly single of the movie's big showstopper, "Cell Block Tango." It is the merest wisp of a song, consisting mostly of spoken patter accented with a hook. In the movie version of the "Cell Block Tango," girls dressed in Bob-Fosse-fetish-wear take turns telling why they offed their significant others. After each tale, all the women join as a chorus to belt out the hook: "He had it coming." It was a perfect song to make into a hip-hop single lots of violent talk punctuated with a simple motif but it's not really the stuff of which standards are made.
Somebody should take a shot at "Move On," however. If it wins the Oscar, as expected, the song will get an added boost. It is a tune that just might work, both as a modern pop song and as something to be added to (the back of) the American songbook. There's almost a Burt Bacharach quality to the song I can hear the fluegelhorns already and that may suggest the treatment that would give it the best chance on radio. Perhaps Elvis Costello could be persuaded to team up with Mr. Bacharach again and try his hand at "Move On."
It would be a shame if the best movie musical in three decades came and went without a single song by which to remember it.

Eric Felten is a jazz singer and trombonist in Washington.

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