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John Kander: The Oberlin Years

Illustration for OAM by Dominic Scibilia
What do you remember most about your Oberlin experience?
Oh, God, so much. I've often said that if I had to do it all over again, I would. It was a major experience for me. I was part of the generation that came to Oberlin right after the war, so we were all a bit older and we were all there on the G.I. Bill.

One thing I remember is that Oberlin, from 1947 to 1951, was the most racially integrated place that I'd ever seen. It made me sad, during my last few visits there [in 1996 and 1998], to see how the student body at Oberlin had divided itself. I believe in ethnic groups, religious groups, sexual groups, and racial groups all celebrating themselves and becoming aware of their roots. But to negate the desirability of living together is a big mistake. It even reflects itself in the world that we live in right now. We're separating ourselves more and more from the rest of the world.

I loved Oberlin. Even today, there's always something to stand up and demonstrate about. Oberlin exists because of the traditions of its student body. For example, there wasn't a theater department on campus back then. My classmate, Nikos Psacharopoulos '50--who went on to become a major director and teacher and the founder of Williamstown--and I and another friend got together a ramshackle theater organization. There was a condemned shack at the side of Tappan Square that we begged the administration to give to us. We painted it and had weekly workshop sessions, writing and producing new musicals. It was a wonderful experience of making theater--I couldn't not make theater--and it had an incredible effect on me. When you're young and in the theater, you're unbelievably foolish. Things that might scare you 20 years later don't when you're young.

Did you write music for those shows?
I wrote several musicals, a ballet, and a choral piece, and I even acted some. We all did everything. It was a very exciting time. That period right after the war was considerably more optimistic and liberal than now. Oberlin still had its problems and terrific pressures and enough things wrong with the administration that we wanted to fight--and the food wasn't very good. But certainly, for me, it was the right place to be. Even though the school has changed a great deal, I still sense that kind of restless, creative, angry spirit in contemporary terms.

What issues were students protesting?
There were so many. One had to do with the firing of a history professor who had been refused tenure. All the political issues of the day were very much at the forefront. You know what Oberlin is like--it's the world in small. A place with 2,900 students, relatively isolated, that reflects the bigger problems in society. I really liked it.

Why didn't you study at the Conservatory?
I was a music major in the College. One of the reasons I chose Oberlin was to get a good musical background and a full liberal arts education. I didn't want to enter a conservatory that might not have met my other educational needs.

Did you ever consider majoring in something else?
No. I've been a musician since I was 4. Even as a small child, sound was something I organized in my head, and I played around with the piano. Not just banging, but playing. And when I was 4 years old, my aunt put her hand over mine and we made a C-major chord. It's one of my most vivid childhood memories. The fact that my hand could create that sound was something I never got over.

When I was 6, I started taking piano lessons, but I also played by ear, and I always wrote. In second grade I wrote a Christmas carol during arithmetic class, and my teacher asked me a question that I couldn't answer. She came to the back of the room where I was sitting, writing great big notes and words all about Jesus in the manger. She made me stay after school, then she played the song and realized it was actually a Christmas carol. Later, they sang it at the Christmas assembly.

Years later, I found out that the teacher had called my folks to tell them that I had written a Christmas carol. My parents said, ‘Oh! That's nice.' And the teacher said, ‘Well, I know you're Jewish. Is that all right?' My folks tried to seduce me into religious school after that--it didn't take.

Musical theater is still not a major field of study at Oberlin.
Putting together a useful program of musical theater is a sophisticated thing. I would love to see it, of course, if it were done correctly. In the meantime, if students want to make musical theater, they should go out and make it--like in the old days when I was at Oberlin. Maybe they'll fall on their ass in front
of an audience, or maybe they'll have great triumph--who knows?

There's still this feeling at Oberlin that the best of what's going to happen to you is what you make happen yourself.

You spoke earlier about theater that happens because you can't do anything else.
People live, for the most part, on their passions, or at least the lucky ones do. I feel sorry for people who don't have a passion, because they must find some other way of making their lives matter to them. If you have a passion, whether it's for dismantling cars, writing novels, painting, or politics, you live in that passion. It's not just what you do from 9 to 5. It's what goes on in your head all the time. For those of us whose passion is the theater--or, in my case, music and the theater; music is my passion, really--you can't not do it. You may not do it well, and you may not get paid for it, but it's what you do.

It's useful for people to get in touch with their passions, to recognize them, and to pursue them, to whatever extent they can. Maybe that's how you get your weekly salary, or what you do on Sundays or after work. In this town every waiter is an actor, but really, they're actors, not waiters.