(Review of Original Off-Broadway Engagement)

Music and Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II / 131 West 55th Street / (212) 581-1212

Reviewed by David Spencer


As some may know, this review was delayed because I found myself struggling with it, "A Class Act" is about a fellow I knew, the late composer-lyricist Edward Kleban, and a good deal of it takes place in an environment I know intimately, that of the B.M.I. Musical Theatre Workshop (I entered it in 1978, I was there for the last several Lehman Engel years [Lehman, a renowned Broadway musical director, was the Workshop’s founder, mentor and, at that time, sole moderator] and now I’m on its Steering Committee and faculty–in large measure because of a recommendation Ed made on my behalf). And as a co-winner of this year’s Kleban Foundation Award for lyrics–a foundation Ed himself set up before his death–I’m indirectly indebted to him for more still: that’s his money I won, from a fund created out of his share of "A Chorus Line".

What I struggled most with was my feelings about the show’s tone, and how the Ed presented onstage is–as a friend of mine put it–a "warm and fuzzy neurotic"…when the Ed who really existed, albeit at least as pathological, had a much more intriguing, troubled personality, a quieter manner and a much drier wit–and how the atmosphere of the B.M.I. Worskhop, as presented, is bogus (albeit affectionate) and not truly reflective of what goes on, as much as it might have been.

I drafted a much longer and more personal piece than you’ll read here, but kept sitting on it and procrastinating about putting it online, because I was clocking the reactions of friends and colleagues in my musical theatre circle–and I discovered some interesting things.

The closer and friendlier they were to Ed–the less fond they tended to be of "A Class Act". The less they liked Ed, or the more removed they were from his inner loop, the more they approved of the somewhat romanticized musical theatre hero he has become in it. (I hasten to add, Ed was not any kind of ogre, at least not that I ever saw, knew or heard. In fact, he was not without an enormous, if not constant, generosity of spirit–certainly the Kleban Foundation is a lasting monument to that. But like most brilliant artists, he was a complex fellow, who had his dark and difficult moments–tempered versions of which are at the crux of the musical about him.)

Most interesting, perhaps, were the reactions of a number of new members of the B.M.I. Workshop–they loved the show, and thought it was, in a very real sense, about them, their lives, their dreams and their aspirations. (And audiences are taking to the show as well–largely, I think because they identify too. A truism for us musical dramatists is that the more specific a show is, the more it taps into universal verities–whereas the more general a show is, the less likely it is to evoke empathy. A point which I’ll get back to.)

I decided, finally, to drop my long profile about "the real Ed." It reflected, in the end, only my real Ed, and while I knew him well enough to speak of him with some significant accuracy, I didn’t know him intimately enough to speak with academic, or even personal, authority. I can’t present myself as an "Ed expert." I know a lot more than most of you do–but somehow that doesn’t seem qualification enough to ruminate, philosophize and judge creative decisions "A Class Act"’s creative team made on that basis.

So I’ve opted instead, to do something a little unusual, and a little clumsier. I’m just going to review the show, as much as I’m able, on its own terms, since that’s how most audiences will take it in. Where its narrative contradicts fact, I’ve inserted, chop-and-drop fashion, bracketed, sometimes discursive, italics setting the record straight. Some of them will break the flow–such that if you removed them, the review would still make perfect sense and read better. The bracketed material is, as Jack Webb used to say, just the facts, ma’am. And not all of them–these are only the facts I know. Doubtless more corrections could be added by others.

Make of them what you will…

The Review

If "A Class Act" does nothing more than increase people’s awareness of the largely unknown cannon of its real-life hero, composer-lyricist Edward Kleban, whose only major credit was as lyricist of "A Chorus Line", it will have performed a noble service. This despite some prominent flaws that all seem, curiously, forgivable.

The basic outline of the show is this: it begins at Ed’s memorial service at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway in 1987. There are many notable speakers, among them Lehman Engel (Jonathan Freeman), who was for years head of the B.M.I Musical Theatre Workshop; and Lucy, Ed’s last, longtime significant other (Carolee Carmello)–as well as others Ed met at the workshop, which nurtured his talent and passion for theatre songwriting. And although almost none of those present realize it, Ed himself (Lonny Price) is of course in attendance too–albeit watching from "the other side." He is a little miffed to note that his first significant other, an oncologist named Sophie (Randy Graff), is also there. She became his very best friend, to whom he had stopped talking, because of the one awful truth she once suggested to him. He tries to will her away…but Sophie alone knows he is there and refuses to leave. Because her presence means that this reminiscence of Ed’s life will have to be "the truth, all of it."

[An odd phrase, since the truth referred to is only the fictional one created for the musical. In reality, Lehman Engel died about half a decade before Ed, and it was Lehman’s funeral that was held at the Shubert–probably in large measure due to Ed, who revered him, since the Shubert was where "A Chorus Line" was then playing. Ed’s memorial was an intimate, less formal and somewhat more modestly attended affair at the Public Theatre downtown on Lafayette–where "A Chorus Line" had originally been developed. For whatever reason, that memorial was not held in the Newman space where "A Chorus Line" had played, but in the smaller, second floor Anspacher Theatre, a space I knew well, as my adaptation of "La Bohème" had played there a few seasons before.]

From the memorial, the show flashes back to 1958, Ed checking out of a mental hospital (an early warning that Ed’s relationship with neurosis is not casual) and the first time Ed expressed his desire–to Sophie–to write musicals. It keeps travelling forward (with periodic narration from the rememberers in the "present"). She encourages him to pursue his dream and eventually he finds himself a member of the B.M.I. Workshop, exposing himself to the criticism–and praise–of his benignly jealous and competitive peers, and of the paternal Lehman himself.

[As presented, the Workshop sessions are cattier and more competitive in general than they are–as a general rule–in real life. There will be some disagreement and controversy about this, but from my perspective, the most obvious abrasion of personalities in the Lehman-Ed years that I was privy to tended to exist primarily on the inter-personal rather than classroom-wide level, when it happened. There were difficult moments–in a roomful of artists you couldn’t entirely avoid them–but they were tied to the collision of individual idiosyncrasies, rather than a general gestalt. The Workshop, then as now, existed to nurture–and that’s what it did. Though I will allow as to how in the older days, before the post-Lehman committee refined, codified, renovated and even vastly improved procedure and curriculum, it could be more of a rough-and-tumble experience.

[Furthermore, virtually every non-historical supporting character in "A Class Act" is a fictional construct, a composite representing certain signature aspects of several real people, but no identifiable essence of any one real person. The Workshop members, for example, include a character named Charley {Ray Wills}, whose broad brush-stroke feature is that he is "lovably" envious and competitive–but he bears no true or spiritual resemblance to any of Ed’s much more consequential contemporaries and friendly "rivals"–among them Maury Yeston and Alan Menken.]

The Workshop is here also portrayed as a great place to find dates [people have occasionally hooked up over the decades, inevitably, but as a rule it’s just not that kind of watering hole], and Ed is tempted to stray with a hot babe named Mona (Nancy Kathryn Anderson) about whom he would write a hot song using road-travel metaphors ("You are now entering Mona,/Population: Two…"). When Sophie finds out, she leaves him–though she will never entirely leave his life. And Ed will eventually settle down with his once-platonic friend, the aforementioned Lucy, a Workshop writer and actress-singer, who will be with him until the end. [Lucy may well share some qualities in common with the show’s co-librettist Linda Kline, who was Ed’s real-life companion…but Linda was and is primarily a writer–and judging by Lucy’s singing career and very specific costume and hair-style, her character appears at least as much modeled upon a "legendary" Workshop mainstay who identified herself with a single flashy name–akin to "Madonna" or "Cher"–and who had an extravagant, sexually compelling personality to match. I can’t say whether or not Ed ever had a dalliance with this woman. Reportedly she was…not shy. But Ed once described her to me as "The smoking gun who ended {a colleague’s} marriage." At the time I thought that a purely academic observation from a cautious distance, but that may have been a very naïve assumption.]

The show goes on to track Ed’s development as an artist and also as a fabulous neurotic, starting with his first job, as lyricist and lyric doctor for the Debbie Reynolds revival of "Irene"–a job from which, due to his then-naïvely expressed perfectionism, and then-impolitic manner, got him fired by director John Gielgud.

["A Class Act" places the "Irene" revival at 1970. It was 1972. And, understandably, because there’s no room or point for it in the narrative, the show omits the later irony that Gielgud, who really had no business directing a musical, was himself fired, and replaced by Gower Champion.]

The show takes Ed through the transitions that lead to his "A Chorus Line" collaboration with the Mssrs. Bennett (David Hibbard) and Hamlisch (Wills), whose difficulties are looked at with humorous affection [while skirting the subject of that show’s librettists: there were many more on "A Chorus Line" than just the two credited, which is in itself a long story]–and the resultant notoriety and how the pressure to live up to it would only make Ed increasingly, idiosyncratically, phobic as he got older–as well as frustrated that he was gaining recognition as a lyricist only, but not as a composer.

Ultimately "A Class Act" tells a story that has perhaps never been dramatized before, but one that is too often true in our business: the tale of "one who got away," an extraordinary talent who was mostly celebrated by his colleagues, peers and associates, but never truly broke out of obscurity–not in the way he desired. (What makes Ed’s story different from most is that he had the one moment in the sun and it was a pretty amazing one at that. Add to that his tragic early death from cancer–the death that robbed him of the chance to keep plugging.) The underlying conceit of the show–articulated only indirectly–is that, by its very existence, it is rectifying the injustice. Finally, Ed’s music and lyrics are being performed in a dramatic context in a midtown theatre. And it just happens to be the story of his life.

Paradoxically "A Class Act" is a fairly daring idea that is given a fairly conventional treatment. On the positive side, the use of convention is as Ed (I think) would have wanted it, and what Ed’s songs demand: a context that celebrates the time-tested and time-honored traditions of straightforward musical theatre. Convention does not, after all, have to mean coventionality. Indeed, too, this show may be–in an "exception that proves the rule" kind of way–the best (perhaps the only really effective and seamless) integration of pre-existing, unrelated songs into a newly devised libretto. But since the show is about the songwriter’s life–a songwriter whose songs often charted autobiographical territory–there is an internal connection implicit in the source material that triumphs over the traps such endeavors are prone to. Ed’s life as a musical comedy with a peppering of bittersweetness…why not?

But–and I place this at the feet of co-librettist/director and star Lonny Price, who, given all those capacities, must be acknowledged as the evening’s ultimate architect–there is in fact a conventionality of vision here. The playing style is broadly foursquare in a kind of ’60s style that eschews the more naturalistic (or anyway more layered) approach to characterization normally applied to musicals about complex characters these days. True, this does no immediate harm, as it is executed with conviction and consummate professionalism…but it does limit the humanist heights to which "A Class Act" can reach.

Subsequently too a small number of the more resonant or haunting songs are not always heard to their most resonant or haunting advantage. (And one of Ed’s funniest, savviest songs, called "Two Little Words", is only represented [actually mis-represented] by an out-of-context snatch–reassigned to the character of an untalented writer to facilitate a throwaway gag–in a most unflattering manner that I think Ed would not have approved.)

As for Mr. Price’s performance as Ed…there’s no question that he is an individualistic, extremely skilled thespian, and he retains much of the youthful charisma that stood him in good stead as he assayed variously edgy and intense nebbishes, hustlers and best friends earlier in his career…but it diminishes him here, because it contradicts the soul of Ed, even the fictional soul presented by the play–for Ed’s was always an old soul, which is why he was able to write so maturely and insightfully. And be so complexly crazy so early. (This dichotomy explains several reviews which have said that Mr. Price hasn’t sufficient charisma for the role. It’s not about sufficiency–it’s about quality, the kind of quality an actor [especially in this exposed and artifice-free a leading role] cannot change…the very quality that defines his palate. Mr. Price seems a bit displaced from the rest of the cast, all of whom are–bluntly–more adult of persona. The story and show are presented artfully enough that you make allowances and go with the flow…but there’s no chemical validity, for example, to the pairing of Price and Randi Graff as a romantic couple. They seem more like older sister and younger brother.) (Postscript to this point: word has it that the fellow to see in this role, if you can somehow contrive to coördinate it, is standby Danny Burstein–who in fact did play it many times during previews when the director needed to give himself an audience-eye view of the show. Having worked extensively with both gentlemen, I don’t doubt the validity of the claim. Danny’s persona and energy are a much better match to the hero’s–and those of the other cast members. And by the way, the other cast members are swell.)

As for the libretto by Linda Kline (as mentioned above, Ed’s real-life significant other) and Price…here as well there’s that odd blend of a daring idea with a treatment that at times seems almost generic: The invented supporting characters are familiar archetypes, and the exposition that refers to showbiz labors so effortfully to ring insider and authentic that it sounds like the work of fans rather than veterans. (The following example may be slightly misquoted, but here’s the general gist of one representative spot: "Oh, Michael [Bennett] you’ve done so well for yourself. All those hit shows, two Tony Awards." Which garners the riposte: "Three, but who’s counting?")

On the other hand–and this is the most important factor: Ed’s trajectory is represented fairly enough, and it’s an interesting enough arc to overcome the less-than-special trappings that surround it. In a very different way, "A Class Act" is, like "The Full Monty", a triumph of properly earned audience sympathy for a character and his journey–and his very deserving work–over lesser production elements. Indeed, as I write, plans are underway to transfer the show to Broadway.

Of course, Ed himself does a lot of this work for (and posthumously with) Kline and Price. He did write brilliant song after brilliant song, and other than "A Chorus Line" he wrote them for project upon project that never saw the light of day–because he couldn’t get the underlying rights, because the workshop didn’t fix the problems, because nobody liked the premise, because (frankly) he didn’t always choose his projects wisely. So we empathize with the frustration that speaks to the feelings of futility we all encounter one way or another–just as we get to celebrate the work itself–magnificent gems like "Better", "I Want You to Know Me", "Paris Through the Window", "The Next Best Thing to Love" and others. And because Ed is "there" to observe his rememberers–which now tacitly include us–we get the feeling that a kind of justice has been done after all.

A musical can do worse than give a worthy life and its ambition closure…

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