‘A Class Act’ Puts BMI Theatre Workshop Center Stage

Posted in MusicWorld on February 28, 2001 by

'A Class Act' Puts BMI Theatre Workshop Center Stage
by Frank Evans

Maury Yeston offers his insights to a current class of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.

Ed Kleban (second from right) and Alan Menken (right) are pictured at a BMI Musical Theatre Workshop session during the mid-’70s.

A Class Act, which opened March 11 on Broadway to a sheaf of rave reviews, is a biographical musical about Ed Kleban, the BMI writer who wrote the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning lyrics for A Chorus Line. And eight times a week Broadway theatre-goers are getting an insider's look at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop at Broadway's Ambassador Theatre.

The new show comes to Broadway directly from its critically-acclaimed, sold out run at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The original cast recording on RCA Victor was released while the Broadway show was in previews.

The ensemble cast participates in a highly stylized version of the workshop as it was run when Lehman Engel, often called "The Dean of Broadway Conductors," ruled the workshop and Kleban was one of his star writers. Kleban joined the BMI Workshop as a composer but was encouraged by Engel to write lyrics as well. Kleban's classmates in the workshop included a number who went on to establish themselves firmly in the mainstream, among them Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors), Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel, Phantom and Titanic), Judd Woldin (Raisin) and Carol Hall (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas).

After mastering the craft of lyric writing at the BMI Workshop, Kleban was hired to collaborate with Marvin Hamlisch to create the score for A Chorus Line and the rest is theatrical history. The show played 6,137 performances in New York, went on to win the Olivier Award in London and inspired a spate of books about the making of the show.

The BMI Workshop is more than a setting for A Class Act: It is virtually a character in the show. Not only is Kleban on stage (played by director and co-librettist Lonny Price) but the venerable curmudgeon, Lehman Engel, is also represented (and portrayed by Patrick Quinn, who, during offstage hours, is President of Actor's Equity). Co-librettist Linda Kline, who contrary to popular belief did not meet Kleban at the BMI workshop where both were honing their writing skills, claims there is a little bit of herself in every one of the female characters she created with Price for this part-fact/part-fiction theatricalization of Kleban's life.

After Engel's death on August 29, 1982, several of the BMI Workshop members got together and concluded that nothing would honor this master of the theater more than keeping the workshop alive in his honor. The BMI Workshop was re-christened The BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and moved into a new era. Kleban actively served the Workshop, preserving its integrity and refashioning the workshop's thrust along with his then-colleagues and fellow members Yeston, Menken, Richard Engquist (Kuni Leml), Ellen Fitzhugh (Grind, Paper Moon, Herringbone), Walter Edgar "Skip" Kennon (Time and Again, Herringbone, Feathertop) and David Spencer (La Bohme, Weird Romance, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Theatreworks USA versions of Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables). The workshop would continue to flourish, encouraging more new voices in the theatre such as Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Seussical) and Michael John LaChiusa (The Wild Party, Marie Christine, Hello Again).

Maury Yeston recalls that Engel "provided loving attention to writers who otherwise would be separate and alone and without the foggiest idea how to get ahead or how to pursue their craft. He was really one of a kind. He created a forum for friendly criticism and he offered it in the most avuncular and giving way. He brought into being a marvelous thing. And we refused to let it die with him."

Kleban's life was cut short at the age of 48 by cancer. But before his death, he took pains to establish the Kleban Foundation, an entity independent of the Workshop, which gives yearly grants of $200,000 to lyricists and librettists for the musical theatre. (Kleban believed that composers had plenty of awards to apply for, but that lyricists and librettists were a much- neglected breed in this regard.) This year's prize has been awarded in part to Patrick Cook (Captain's Courageous), who serves as moderator of the BMI Lehman Engel Workshop's First Year Program; last year, part of the prize went to Committee member and Newsletter editor David Spencer as well as Advanced Workshop members Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez.

A Class Act is exposing dozens of previously unheard Kleban songs, unless you were fortunate enough to be a member of the BMI Workshop, where almost every song in the show was demonstrated by Kleban himself. Kleban also insisted upon thus presenting every number from the then-developing "A Chorus Line," over Marvin Hamlisch's initial objections. (And actor-songwriter Jeff Blumenkrantz, who portrays Hamlisch in "A Class Act" is not only a current BMI workshop writer, but has had his work performed and recorded by Audra McDonald.)

A Class Act may well have two break-out hit songs: "The Next Best Thing to Love" was written for the last Michael Bennett show, Scandal, and "Better," a joyous song of celebration, was originally recorded by Barbra Streisand but not released. Phyllis Newman, however, did include and record the song in her one-person show and CD Madwoman of Central Park West. (And to complete the circle, Amanda Green, daughter of Newman and her husband, lyricist-librettist Adolph Green, is a current member of the BMI Workshop.)

As for A Class Act's balance of fact with fiction, one of Lehman Engel's guiding principles was to ignore the truth of historical situations, when it made for dull theatre. Engel would undoubtedly be pleased that he outlives Kleban in the musical, when in fact he predeceased Kleban by five years. (The short, round, bespectacled Engel might be even more pleased to find himself played by a tall, dashing, young man, a casting contrast to real life not unlike that of Cary Grant as Cole Porter in the whimsically "biographical" film Night and Day.)

RCA Victor-BMG has released the original cast recording of A Class Act, and it is currently available in stores.

It might be parenthetically noted that Kleban's former career at Columbia Records was not as dreadful as the musical makes it out to have been. He and Thomas Sheppard (also a member of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop and now one of the most accomplished producers of cast albums) were being groomed by Columbia president Goddard Lieberson to take over the Original Cast Division. Kleban produced the albums of Hallelujah, Baby, Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and Herschel Bernardi sings Fiddler on the Roof (a novelty bestseller featuring Broadway's third Tevye, that he was especially proud of, citing that, as a rule, "Re-creation albums never make money") as well as some of the first albums by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford. (Ford, by the way, is currently an active member of the Workshop.)

Rarely does an advanced workshop session go by without Yeston or another veteran from the Kleban years citing a rule of Kleban's creation. Kleban had rules for writing and rules for life. At one point Ed declared that there were three certainties in life. And the character of Ed onstage at the Ambassador would no doubt concur that:

1) Actresses leave you.

2) Culture abhors a resort.

3) The rich die in their private planes.