“Cabaret” composer John Kander was so nervous playing a new song for Bob Fosse’s screen adaptation of the musical that he literally made his fingers bleed.
“I looked on the keyboard, and there was blood all over it,” Mr. Kander, 87, recalls of meeting Fosse in the early 1970s. “I’d been doing glissandos up and down the keyboard, and I was so nervous that I was bearing down too hard” on middle C.
Despite his anxiety, the song “Mein Herr” became a staple of the film as sung by Liza Minnelli. The film went on to win eight Academy Awards, including Oscars for Miss Minnelli and Fosse.
“‘Cabaret’ was kind of rethinking the material,” Mr. Kander said, “and what came out was wonderful, but it was far away from what [lyricist] Freddy [Ebb] and I had done” for the stage.
Mr. Kander and Ebb went on to collaborate on other musicals including “Chicago” and “Fosse.” After Ebb’s death in 2004, Mr. Kander found a lyricist in Greg Pierce. The duo collaborated first on “The Landing,” which ran off-Broadway, and now on “Kid Victory,” which runs at the Signature Theatre in Arlington through March 22.
“Kid Victory” follows Luke, a 17-year-old who returns home to Kansas after vanishing a year earlier. Changed by his experience, Luke and his parents attempt to rebuild a life together.
“We got interested in stories of people who had gone missing and what happened to them,” Mr. Pierce said. “We actually got more interested in what happens to them when they come back [and] how they jump back into their former lives when they feel like very different people.”
Mr. Pierce and Mr. Kander researched missing teens and their often-shaky reintroductions to society. That investigation informed the story and the music in the offbeat tale of “Kid Victory.”
As the collaborators watched rehearsals in Northern Virginia, they found their material taking on a life of its own.
“We got so involved in making these people that we’re finding out more and more about who these people are,” Mr. Kander said. “They sort of take charge after a while and become — this is going to sound very crazy — but they become very real, almost more real than the people that you know, and they start telling you who they are.”
“If music sounds a certain way, that will influence how a character’s being written and vice versa,” Mr. Pierce said. “So we just sort of really build it collaboratively. And we’re continually rewriting still.”
Mr. Kander is thankful to have a collaborator in Mr. Pierce, who challenges his artistic muscles in creating music.
“[His lyrics] set me in different directions musically,” he said. “So I’m having sort of late-life rebirth, if you will. I’m having a great time with the two of us.”
“Working with John has been more collaborative than I’ve ever been through before,” Mr. Pierce said. “It’s exciting in this piece because we’d already experimented in ‘The Landing,’ and we’re kind of continuing that experiment and doing some new things with it. So it always feels new.”
Mr. Kander has won several Emmys, Grammys and Tonys, but he remains humble about his skills and his material, refusing to pick a favorite song from “Kid Victory.” But if forced to do so, he said, he is particularly fond of the music at the show’s conclusion: “The resolution, or semi-resolution, that takes place at the ending. Every time we get to that point, I find myself very moved.”
He is careful not to reveal anything further of the plot, preferring that theatergoers discover it for themselves.
“It’s obviously some dark subject matter, but we’re hoping for tremendous hope and joy and entertainment along with the sort of investigation of how people jump back into their lives,” Mr. Pierce said.
Mr. Kander said he hopes the audience leaves with a sense of hope after the show’s grueling journey.
“Maybe [it’s] something that people can relate to in their own lives, not just because of the bare bones of the story, but because of the way people relate to each other,” he said. “The longing that we all have for intimacy with another person.
“And I know when we get to the end of this piece, I feel better. It sounds strange considering the subject matter, but I do. I feel stronger, and I feel more optimistic.”
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: “Kid Victory”
WHERE: Signature Theater, 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, Virginia 22206
WHEN: Through March 22
TICKETS: Call 703/820-9771 or visit Signature-Theatre.org/tickets