The premise of A Class Act, the new musical that began life at Manhattan Theatre Club and is soon to open on Broadway, is that Ed Kleban never received during his lifetime the recognition for his songwriting talents--as both a composer and a lyricist--that he so richly deserved and so desperately craved. Kleban's words and the music of Marvin Hamlisch were wedded to provide the score of a bona fide masterpiece of the American musical theater, A Chorus Line. But, as A Class Act makes abundantly clear, that landmark show was both a blessing and a curse for a gifted man who died far too young.
A Class Act tells the true-life story of Kleban, incorporating songs he wrote for a variety of unproduced musicals (e.g., Subject to Change, concerning divorce; Gallery, inspired by famous paintings; Musical Comedy, about the BMI Musical Theater Workshop; and Scandal, Michael Bennett's last project). The show opens at Kleban's memorial service, and his story is then told in flashback. This concept is the biggest problem with A Class Act but, thankfully, it does not detract from Kleban's songs on the recording. Nor does it detract from the wonderful performances of Nancy Kathryn Anderson, Carolee Carmello, Jonathan Freeman, Randy Graff, David Hibbard, Julia Murney, and Ray Wills. (For my humble opinion on the singing of Lonny Price, who plays Kleban, see below.)
Highlights of the score--if that's an accurate term for such an after-the-fact wedding of songs to story--include "Fountain in the Garden" and "One More Beautiful Song," both written during Kleban's brief stay in a mental hospital after a breakdown in college; "Charm Song," written for Musical Comedy and deftly rendered by Jonathan Freeman as BMI guru Lehman Engel; "Under Separate Cover," a song about divorce from Subject to Change, stunningly sung by Carolee Carmello as Ed's friend Lucy and Randy Graff as his former girlfriend, Sophie; and "Better," a gem recorded by Barbra Streisand but never released. ("Better" was recently named by Stephen Sondheim as a song that he wishes he had written.)
The two most memorable, heart-stopping moments in A Class Act are "Paris Through the Window" and "Next Best Thing to Love." The former, from Gallery, tells the story of Ed's first trip to Europe and was inspired by a Chagall painting. It is persuasively performed by Price, Hibbard, and Wills, and it has a melody that stays with you for days. The latter, beautifully sung by Graff, seems destined to become a cabaret standard almost instantly.
It was upon hearing "Next Best Thing to Love" that I turned to my companion during the first preview performance of A Class Act at MTC and said, "This show is going to make a fabulous CD." I was right. It should be pointed out that, during previews, a fragment of "Smile, Gypsy" in Act I was replaced by "Gauguin's Shoes," and that "El Amor y La Muerte" was cut entirely. Additionally, at that first preview, a scene dealing with Kleban's work on the revival of Irene (starring Debbie Reynolds and initially directed by John Gielgud) substituted aliases for the show's title, star and director; but, at some point, their real names were inserted into the libretto. Finally, it's a shame that the CD could not have included the snippet of "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line that is heard in the show. As much as it might have pained Kleban, who always regretted that A Chorus Line overshadowed his other work, this excerpt--with music, of course, by Hamlisch--provides one of the most thrilling moments in A Class Act. (A portion of "One" from A Chorus Line may be heard on the CD.)
Julia Murney sounds ravishing throughout the recording and, among their multiple roles, David Hibbard as Michael Bennett and Ray Wills as Marvin Hamlisch are unflinching in their characterizations. Lonny Price, who co-authored the book (with Linda Kline) and directed the show, does not fare as well in the Kleban role; the energy and enthusiasm he brings to the part are evident, but he has a tendency to sing just slightly under pitch. I was fortunate to see the first preview of A Class Act at MTC, with the role of Ed filled by standby Danny Burstein in what can only be called a revelatory performance. His voice was beautiful, and his remarkably polished, confident characterization was so amazing that it was hard to believe he was the standby. After seeing Price as Kleban, one can hardly fail to ponder why he insisted on wearing so many hats in creating and performing A Class Act. If Burstein had been handed the role, Price would have been able to concentrate more on his direction and the show's book problems.
The seven-member orchestra, conducted by Todd Ellison, sounds terrific on the well-produced recording (which is due in stores on February 20). The plot synopsis in the CD booklet is excellent, and complete lyrics are provided. Considering that more than half the cast of A Class Act bolted following the show's brief run to mixed notices at Manhattan Theatre Club, we are fortunate that RCA Victor recorded that cast for posterity. Whatever problems A Class Act may have--and it has many!--its creators are right about one thing: The terrific lyrics and music of Ed Kleban are certainly worthy of being performed and enjoyed.