Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Remembering Ed & Linda
A Class Act

Right up front I have to confess to breaking the Kleban Two Block Rule: "don't speak about the play until you're two blocks away." When reviewing a show, I always explain this one to uninitiated companions and invoke Edward Kleban's name for enforcement. But since I was at the opening of the SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of A Class Act as a friend of librettist Linda Kline, not as a reviewer, I trust that Ed will allow us a dispensation, just this once.

I thought it perfectly acceptable that we stood right in front of the Boston Center for the Arts and spoke most indiscriminately about the splendid performances of Ed's songs we'd just been treated to. And anyone else who relishes a good theatre song should get themselves over there by March 22nd to partake of this dip into the treasure trove of largely unheard songs with words and music by Ed Kleban.

Edward Kleban and Linda Kline
Photo: Alan Menken
Linda was Ed's girlfriend in the last decade of his life and is now the keeper of his songs. She collaborated with Lonny Price (co-librettist, director, star of the original Broadway production) to fashion them into a musical self-portrait of their creator with his beloved BMI Musical Theatre workshop and the writing of A Chorus Line at its center. Ed was working on Light on My Feet, his own stab at an autobiographical musical, when he died of cancer at the age of 48 in 1987. But that's getting ahead of my story.

Linda and I met in the librettists' arm of the BMI Workshop twenty-five years ago. Our class was one of the last to begin the course under Lehman Engel's tutelage and matriculate into the "big" workshop before he died, despite being "kept back" a year because of his declining health and off and on relationship with us. [Lehman predeceased Ed by five years, though it's not depicted that way in A Class Act.]

Back then I got a frantic call from Linda over our first Christmas break. Lehman was going to be absent for a while, and she was in a tizzy because her boyfriend had been asked to fill in as the first year composer/lyricist teacher. She told me their relationship was governed by a very strict set of rules, one of which, she was sure, precluded his girlfriend sitting in on any workshop session where he was present.

Eventually, I dragged it out of her that our substitute teacher was to be none other than Ed Kleban, the master lyricist of A Chorus Line and the BMI Workshop's most illustrious member. I couldn't get off the phone fast enough to spread the news. And news it was, so much so that one of Ed's sessions with us was written up in the New York Post, including his critique of several "charm songs" for A Member of the Wedding.

I can't remember whether, in the end, Linda was present that day or not. Certainly, with that reporter in the room the situation would have been even more fraught for, contrary to what's been reported elsewhere, it was this man, playwright Tom Topor, who suggested Linda apply to the BMI Workshop, and it was he who took her to the party where she'd first met Ed a few months before.

One of the gems from the piece is Ed's metaphor for creating a musical:

A major musical is this: someone gets hit by a Mack truck and he's carried into an emergency room. Five or six crazy, egotistical geniuses who have never met are called in to put him together. Now these brilliant weirdos must get along if the patient is to survive. If any organ goes, the patient dies. If the patient survives, that's a hit musical.

Ed turned out to be a fabulous teacher and mentor, offering us a steadying presence and a firm hand when Lehman became overly sentimental and lenient with us, his "youngest" writers. As a solid coterie of friends developed over the next few years, Ed was assimilated into our group. He accepted our invitations to go out for drinks after class, sometimes joined us when we went to see our friends' work performed and often celebrated with us when there was something to cheer about. When Maury Yeston won a Tony for Nine, Ed brought his own Tony to our party and placed it on top of the television.

But the greatest privilege was getting to hear his work. By the time we were admitted to the Advanced Workshop, Ed was an active participant again. He tried out material for Scandal, Heartbreak Kid, Musical Comedy and his endless revisions of Gallery on us.

Gallery was a tricky one. Linda recommended one of our own as a rehearsal pianist for the ill-fated 1981 Public Theatre workshop. When the plug was pulled after a single performance, a small contingent gathered in my apartment to sing through the score before it was returned to Ed. How frustrating that we couldn't share our enthusiasm with him about this extraordinary evening of theatre songs. And forever after, we had to be mindful of which songs we'd rightfully heard at BMI and which had been sampled in my living room.

As is made abundantly clear in A Class Act, the workshop meant everything to Ed. These are his words from an issue of the BMI Magazine saluting the Musical Theatre Department:

I don't know what I'd do without the workshop and its members. I trust their reactions more than any single genius in the theatrical profession. My workshop colleagues heard and dissected all the material I wrote for A Chorus Line. And when the show won everything, I walked into a session and received an absolute ovation. It meant more to me than almost anything because this very special group of people understood completely what was done. That moment gave the whole enterprise validity ... a celebration of the process within the workshop. It proved that we weren't sitting around whistling 'Dixie.'

After Ed died, getting his songs out into the world was a daunting effort that began with shoeboxes of cassette tapes stored in a closet and ended up years later as A Class Act on Broadway. The twists and turns of that journey are documented elsewhere, but it was interesting to listen again to a recording of Ed's memorial (at the Public Theatre, February 11, 1988), since Linda and Lonny use that as a frame for their story.

With two exceptions - a gem of a love song to a breakfast food, "French Toast," and a parody of "The Way We Were," that was a birthday tribute to "Marvin" and "the way we worked" - all the songs performed at the memorial are included in A Class Act.

David Shire starts off, fittingly, with "Self Portrait." Next up is Bob Baliban (Gallery workshop participant) and Pam Zarit (she suggested Ed use "Broadway Boogie Woogie" to audition for Michael Bennett) with a superb rendition of "Gauguin's Shoes." Phyllis Newman gets "Better," the song she introduced on The Tonight Show after Barbra Streisand cut it from her disco album.

Alan Menken does Linda's favorite rendition of "Fridays at Four" and then Betty Buckley knocks it out of the park with "Under Separate Cover." Priscilla Lopez offers "The Next Best Thing to Love" and the final moments are Ed's own rendition of "Paris Through the Window," from one of the ubiquitous cassette recordings.

Several speakers refer to Ed's remains in the Wedgwood urn (on display at his instruction), including Linda who suggests that, "It's his show; I guess he's entitled to house seats" and Peter Stone who wonders, "What if Ed were actually here with us today . . ."

Something that isn't represented in the fictionalized version of Ed's last days is the fact that in the last months of life, Ed the inveterate talker, man of many - oh, so very precise - words and even a collector of dictionaries, was unable to speak at all.

Susan Sandberg, a friend going back to high school days and one of the inspirations for Sophie, remembers how Ed loved to talk, even phoning her late at night so he could read her an entire J.D. Salinger story in the latest issue of The New Yorker. She says she teased him about having to learn to listen when talking became difficult.

Wendy Wasserstein describes being invited over to hear the first act of Light on my Feet the day he found out he was going back into the hospital for what would turn out to be the last time. He played the piano while she read the lyrics from his yellow pads.

And Jonathan Tunick, another friend from the High School of Music & Art, tells how Ed called to say how much he valued their thirty-five years of friendship before the power of speech was taken from him. Tunick's words, paraphrased by Bobby in A Class Act, are worth repeating here in full:

With Ed it's easy to say, 'too bad he wrote so little.' To me the miracle is that he wrote so much. I've never know anybody who exemplified more the expression, 'the courage to create.' Knowing him as well as I did, I know what it must have cost him to break through that familiar fa├žade, the witty Ed, the self-assured, articulate Ed - I used to tease him that he was the only person I knew who used "motor" as a verb - that erudite, perfect Ed - to break through that and expose to us for those few moments that it takes to hear a song, the "real" Ed.

I was curious what Linda thought Ed might have found to celebrate - or decry - about the "state of the musical" during the 2000-2001 season when A Class Act opened on Broadway. She said:

He would celebrate that musical theatre is alive and well in the 21st century. He would send notes to the creators of shows he admired; he would walk out on the shows he didn't like - and this he would know by the second number. He would be proud of Kristen Childs (Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin), who was a Kleban winner.

For those who don't know, the Kleban Foundation over the past ten years has granted awards totaling nearly a million dollars to promising librettists and lyricists, endangered species as far as Ed was concerned. Other recent winners include Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, Patrick Cook and John Bucchino.

Lehman Engel (Joe Siriani, top center) leads his songwriting class in "Charm Song" from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of A Class Act.
Jon Blackstone, lower left, plays Ed Kleban

SpeakEasy Stage Company Production: A Class Act, directed by Paul Daigneault, now through March 22nd at the Boston Center for the Arts: BCA Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston. Performance schedule: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 4 PM & 8 PM; Sundays at 3 PM & 7 PM. Box office phone: 617 426-ARTS (2787). Student "no-rush" is $20 anytime; select seats; subject to availability; sponsored by Fleet.

Other Information:

Professional and amateur performance rights to A Class Act administered by the R&H Theatre Library:

Vocal Selections distributed by Hal Leonard.

The published script is a selection of Stage & Screen Book Club:

Information about the Kleban Award available from New Dramatists:

Uncredited photos: Craig Bailey/CBE Photo

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Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Boston area.

- Suzanne Bixby

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