If you have ever imagined, as I once did, that musical theater was at the center of the universe, that nothing could do more for the happiness of mankind than an elegant lyric carefully wedded to a beautiful melody, then you will find, as I did, an almost unbearable poignancy to "A Class Act."
Are there four of you out there to whom all this applies? "A Class Act" is based on the life and work of Edward Kleban, who is best known as the lyricist of "A Chorus Line."
Part of the poignancy of "Class" comes simply from the realization that that show opened on Broadway a quarter of a century ago. Kleban, who died in 1987 at the age of 48, was an extremely gifted lyricist and an able composer. The score for "Class" is drawn from songs he wrote for the BMI Workshop. As four of you already know, the workshop is devoted to imparting to budding lyricists and composers the highest standards of writing for the theater, as if, in the context of Broadway today, such things mattered. Linda Kline and Lonny Price have incorporated these songs into a book about Kleban's short and not very happy life. A perfectionist with himself, he made life difficult for everyone close to him. The life is not fetching, but the songs are splendid, especially "Mona," "I Choose You" and "Paris Through the Window," for which Glenn Slater wrote additional lyrics. Best of all is "The Next Best Thing to Love," sung rapturously by Randy Graff, who plays the woman with whom Kleban had the longest, most complex relationship. Graff's warm presence adds enormously to "Class."
There should be a musical for her every year. The eight-person cast is uniformly sensational, playing a range of roles with verve and depth. Donna Bullock is especially strong as his most levelheaded friend. David Hibbard is funny in several roles though somewhat too broad as director Michael Bennett. Jeff Blumenkrantz does a hilarious version of Marvin Hamlisch. Sara Ramirez has a brassy charm as Kleban's fiercely competitive boss, Nancy Anderson is winning as an early girlfriend, and Patrick Quinn projects the dry humor of Lehman Engel, the founder of the BMI Workshop. As Kleban, Lonny Price, who also directed the show, conveys this brilliant, abrasive, deeply troubled character beautifully. As a director, he has given the show great flair, though, becausehe wrote and stars in it, he has not been able to stand back and try to put it in a wider context. Larry Hochman's simple orchestrations capture the fresh spirit of Kleban's music. James Noone's sets keep the action moving. Carrie Robbins' costumes capture the period smashingly. "Class" is inventive, richly entertaining and deeply moving.
Beware of answered prayers, and ambitions granted. The late Edward Kleban, the lyricist of "A Chorus Line," desperately wanted to write the music, as well as the lyrics, for a Broadway musical. Now he has. Almost. His lyrics were always admired. His music perhaps rather less so. And now his friend and companion, Linda Kline, together with the director, Lonny Price, have gathered together a whole sheaf of his songs written for various Broadway projects and workshops, and concocted around them a new show.
It is called "A Class Act," and it opened at the Ambassador Theatre last night, after a production earlier this season at the Manhattan Theater Club's Stage II.
Kline and Price have made the show's book into a romanticized version of "This Is Your Life, Edward Kleban," starting with his memorial at the Shubert Theatre in 1988.
As such, "A Class Act" finds itself dutifully plowing through Kleban's biography with musical vignettes from his brief institutionalization in a psychiatric center in 1958, to his death from cancer in 1987 at the age of 48.
This is the first of the show's problems, for it wasn't a particularly interesting life. Like the musical, it was apparently centered on Kleban's blind ambition, his various, mildly self-indulgent phobias and neuroses, and his loyalty to a Musical Theater Workshop.
Even his big success - the lyrics of "A Chorus Line" - brought him more fortune than fame, more bitterness than fulfillment, and his subsequent career was failure after failure, each failure seemingly buttressed by his nerdy, needy, unyielding personality.
But he left more than a hundred songs - lyrics and, most definitely, music - most of them unheard except within the chill, bleak walls of various musical workshops. These songs are the second of the show's problems.
As a composer, like most of his generation, he was over-influenced by Sondheim, and, dare one say it, Marvin Hamlisch. As a result, he rarely displayed an individual voice.
A couple of numbers here, "Better" and "Next Best Thing to Love," are first-rate, but the rest are only musically competent.
Yet the virtues of "A Class Act" - and they are real ones - depend on the spirited performances, the most intriguing of which comes from the show's co-begetter Lonny Price, who has also staged the musical with telling and effective zest. And his portrait of the oddball Kleban is compelling - Tony nomination stuff I should have thought.
Of the others, I was naturally taken with Randy Graff, who brings elegance and humanity to everything she does, although the whole cast - including David Hibberd and Jeff Blumenkrantz, who in the course of their protean duties, turn in wickedly satiric sketches of Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch respectively - does just dandy.
However, the show itself does rather less than dandy, although it may well please people cultishly devoted to the mechanics of the musical and those mechanics who musicalize them.
Here's a seeming paradox.
''A Class Act,'' a musical based on the life and the songs of an unsung songwriter (something of a paradox in itself) made its first appearance last fall on the tiny second stage of the Manhattan Theater Club. Befitting its location, it was an almost bare-bones show, and it had its charms. Its major flaw was in its miscalibrated lionization of its subject, Edward Kleban, who was best known as the lyricist of ''A Chorus Line'' but who never realized his ambition to write both the words and music for a Broadway show.
When the producers announced they would fulfill his dream posthumously -- Kleban was 48 when he died of cancer 13 years ago -- it seemed a mistake on two counts. For one thing, how would such a modestly conceived tribute, with only eight actors and without a hint of spectacle -- or even much scenery -- fill a Broadway stage, much less meet the expectations of extravaganza-trained audiences?
And for another, it added a note of hubris to a show that had already oversupposed the appeal of its navel gazing. A neurotic, witty, irritating, grudge-holding perfectionist whose gifts were nearly but not quite first rate, Kleban was, evidently, a theater ''character,'' beloved by theater insiders who, among other things, admired how he poured his own life experiences into his storytelling songs. And except for the songs, all Kleban's own, ''A Class Act'' was written, produced and directed by his friends and enthusiasts; it felt highly personal to the creators and, as a result, of insufficient interest to anyone not instinctively sympathetic to the travails of show business.
Curiously, the Broadway production of ''A Class Act'' seems smaller in almost every respect, and perhaps more curiously it is a better and more satisfying show, one that has found its rightful dimensions. With the exception of one number excised and another, ''Don't Do It Again,'' added to showcase the marvelous voice of a new cast member, Sara Ramirez, the songs are the same. The three other cast changes are also largely for the good. But the producers have made only a few scenic concessions to the Ambassador Theater, where it opened yesterday. The impressive side wall of theater lights, the dark rear-stage panels that open to reveal a gold-lighted backdrop, a few projections, some minimal decorations that descend from the fly space and of course a full orchestra, still leave the show to be performed on a bare stage with only a handful of props.
In the confinement of the Manhattan Theater Club the show gave off a restiveness, an impatience to burst into greater view. That was certainly appropriate to Kleban's personality, but it contributed to the show's breast beating. At the Ambassador it feels more like the little show that could, and the sense of aspiration against the odds, which Kleban also held fiercely, is far more welcoming. In this day and age you can't help but be sympathetic to a musical that relies entirely on such old-fashioned pillars as song and dance and story to support the contention that yes, this is entertainment.
Equally important, with adjustments in the book that make Kleban less of an icon and more of an Everyman, the show has become less of a glorifying monument to the man and more of a tribute to the human qualities he embodied: passion, yearning, the desperate craving to create meaning in a life. It was written by Linda Kline, Kleban's companion in his last years, and Lonny Price, who also directed and stars, and they've maintained the narrative frame, which presents Kleban's life in the context of a 1988 memorial service for him on the stage of the Shubert Theater (where ''A Chorus Line'' was still running), his story rendered in the memories of friends he met mostly in the 1960's in a songwriting workshop taught by Lehman Engel. But this is no longer a show that obstinately insists that Kleban's relative obscurity was undeserved. Rather, it makes us feel that our own is equally so, and as a result its hanky-wringing emotions are well earned. You leave feeling genuinely touched, rather than debated with.
One might wish a few things were different, for instance that Mr. Price's singing voice were surer and more commandeering. Or that the role of Lehman Engel (Patrick Quinn) had been written to allow a little more actorly eccentricity; he's merely a voice of fatherly authority here, and Mr. Quinn (as did the actor he replaced, Jonathan Freeman) comes across as restrained by a part that seems to have been created with greater regard for reverence to Engel than for the animation of a character. The choreography could be more lively and original; one number rather painfully recalls the sendup of grooviness from the old television show ''Laugh-In.'' And the gentler tone of the show robs its caricatures of Michael Bennett (by David Hibbard) and Marvin Hamlisch (by Jeff Blumenkrantz) of some of their delicious, unflattering wickedness.
But overall the show's alteration in spirit carries the day. In an indicative moment in the second act, Kleban's oldest friend and first love, Sophie, suggests to him that his words have always been better than his music. In the Off Broadway version, when she said, ''What if your words are better than your music?,'' it was an admonition to face reality and it confounded the premise of the show: so why should we care enough to listen to two hours of his music? On Broadway, Sophie (played by the same actress, Randy Graff, with the same endearing warmth) says instead: ''Maybe your words are better than your music,'' and it means something different. It means, ''So who cares?''
The change underscores the show's new emphasis on Kleban's humanity rather than his talent, and it allows us to hear his songs with greater generosity. He was gifted as a composer, and it's perhaps impossible to define the line between a good song and a memorable one, but for all their variety and melodic poignancy, Kleban's songs are strongest in their lyrics. What the revised version of ''A Class Act'' allows for is the context to accept that, and not only does that jibe with Kleban's own obsession with context, the songs themselves are often quite moving. And a few really stick with you.
''Light on My Feet,'' the show's reiterated anthem, matches its goofily mordant lyrics about being present at one's own memorial service (''I thought I'd drop by/To hear the people gushing/'Cause after you die/They always get you blushing'') with a toe-tapping tune that serves not just the wit-inflected ache of the song but of the whole show. ''Better,'' a Sondheimesque life assessment (''I've been healthy and in pain/Pain is reason to complain/Ask someone who's been insane/Sane is better''), is ruefully joyous, or maybe that's joyfully rueful.
Ms. Graff's tender and wise rendition of ''Next Best Thing to Love,'' a paean to a lost connection, remains a showstopper, but it now provides the show with a powerful emphasis of its newly found theme, that living life fervently yields rewards, even in disappointment. ''And come to think of it,'' she sings, ''I guess the next best thing to love/Is also love.''
Real life? Well, we can all hope, in the end, for such neat and consoling wisdom. And hope, after all, is something that real musical theater, like ''A Class Act,'' does best.
So who says Broadway types aren't sentimental? It may end up costing them a pretty penny, but a quixotic trio of producers have seen fit to grant "A Chorus Line" lyricist Edward Kleban his lifelong wish of seeing his words and music performed "in a large building, in a central part of town, in a dark room, as part of a play, with a lot of people listening who have all paid a great deal to get in." That's how Ed himself describes the dream he spent his life pursuing in the bio-musical "A Class Act," which uses his own songbook to tell his story.
You may have noticed that that description only fits a Broadway musical, and a Broadway musical is what "A Class Act" has now become, following its mostly well-received Off Broadway premiere at Manhattan Theater Club. How long it will continue to warrant the description -- before becoming an ex-Broadway musical -- is a knotty question.
The show's small-scale charms are still intact, even as it has been gracefully expanded to fill a much larger stage. It has also been improved in some respects -- the first act is distinctly clearer and more engaging. But this is still a show that blithely drops names such as Lehman Engel and Goddard Lieberson, and even goes so far into showbiz minutiae as to include a tiny quotation from the musical "Bajour!" (Exclamation point mine -- I think.) In a competitive season for tuners new and old, "A Class Act" will need a rousing new set of reviews and aggressive marketing if it hopes to draw the attention of audiences beyond hardcore theater lovers.
The show's supporters would surely point out that Kleban's megahit "A Chorus Line" was itself a "musical about musicals," as "A Class Act" is honestly selling itself in its print ad campaign. But that show succeeded because it found universal resonance in the specific struggles of its gypsy characters. "A Class Act," by contrast, glories in the idiosyncrasies of its singular subject and the intricate workings of the musical theater world. It's an unabashedly inside-baseball show, to borrow a metaphor that Mets fan Kleban would understand.
He was, as his friends recall at the memorial that gives the show a graceful frame, something of a pain in the neck: neurotic as well as phobic, self-doubting and self-aggrandizing at the same time, his own worst enemy when it came to collaboration. And Kleban's struggle is so very much his own that it almost precludes any deep sympathy on the part of your average audience member (when he bridles at the idea of contributing only his lyrics to "A Chorus Line," many will be ready to give up on him). But he gives the show a lively focus, and as played with a spicy mixture of impishness and aggressiveness by Lonny Price, he is also rather easier to take on the Ambassador Theater stage (on MTC's tiny Second Stage, the character's petulance and occasional nastiness was a bit overbearing).
How he managed to tame his demons long enough to translate his talent into a brief burst of Broadway success -- and before succumbing to cancer at the age of 48 -- is the story of the show. Book writers Price and Linda Kline have beefed up the first act significantly, giving it a sturdier structure and integrating the songs more strongly into the musical's biographical fabric. "Under Separate Cover," a rousing song about a broken marriage that is a highlight of the score, now comments more directly on Kleban's own difficulty to commit to sometime girlfriend Sophie (Randy Graff). A new song, "Don't Do It Again," sung by Ed and his friend and boss at Columbia Records, Felicia (Sara Ramirez), clarifies the central crisis he faced: Whether to settle for a modestly successful life in the record business or go for his dream of showbiz success.
The score contains several other small gems, and they are winningly performed by a cast comprising holdovers from the MTC stand as well as some new additions. Ramirez is archly brassy as the aggressive Felicia, and Donna Bullock is fine as Ed's sometime paramour Lucy, while Patrick Quinn is a significant (and new) comic asset as Lehman Engel. Graff still gives a performance of lovely simplicity as Ed's long-suffering sometime girlfriend Sophie, and Nancy Anderson still gets to show off her versatile vocal abilities in "Mona."
Small and gemlike, too, is the production, which has not attempted to dress itself in ill-fitting finery for its move to Broadway. James Noone's set is gorgeously simple: a wall of black panels that shift and turn and rise and fall, revealing or concealing sections of a white backdrop that is suffused with various bright colors. Banks of stage lights are arrayed at the right, acting as part of the set design as well as the vehicle for lighting designer Kevin Adams' exceptionally lovely work. Marguerite Derricks has staged the musical numbers with a combination of simple vernacular movement and show dancing that complements the similar blend of life and art in Kleban's lyrics.
The spareness of the production, and its sometimes lonely look on the comparatively vast expanse of a Broadway stage, also serve to give the show a small share of emotional resonance it didn't have earlier. We are faced with the forbidding empty spaces that Kleban and his ilk work so passionately to imbue with theatrical life, and we can't help but notice the daunting nature of the task. With Broadway stages usually -- if not invariably -- awash in color and costume and spectacle, it's easy to forget that the simpler magic of words and music are the essence of musical theater, and all that survives when the curtain falls for the last time. It will certainly not be joining "A Chorus Line" in the record books, but "A Class Act" gives Ed Kleban's well-crafted songs the chance they never had to hold their own on a Broadway stage.
So break a leg, Ed.