Apparently, Kleban--so eager to help aspiring songwriters that he succeeded Lehman Engel as head of the busy tuner factory known as the BMI Workshop--was also a difficult man, moody and irritating. A chubby, bearded, friendly guy, he shared with many artists an inclination to doubt his talents; this tried the patience of those closest to him. He fulminated, smoked, dated women compulsively, and checked himself into mental institutions when he was depressed. When he died of a cancer related to his cigarette addiction, he left much of the proceeds of his Chorus Line fortune to establish the Kleban Foundation so that youngsters eager to follow in his path might have some of their financial obligations eased. He also evidently left his songs to friends with the wish that they do something about them.
A Class Act seems to be the fulfillment of that wish, although "fulfillment" may not be the best word to describe the musical that has been built around a couple of handfuls of Kleban's usually snappy and often soulful ditties. Librettists Linda Kline and Lonny Price have decided that the best way they can honor the late Kleban is to tell his life story, using his songs as reflections of his actual life, which may or may not be accurate. Their conceit is that Kleban shows up in spirit at a memorial service for himself at which various speakers trigger flashbacks wherein his driven, troubled, and infrequently happy past is reviewed.
Since Kline was Kleban's girlfriend off and on during his final 10 years, and since Price may also have been one of those chums to whom the tunesmith willed his songbook, their intentions must be counted as strictly honorable. But that does little to mitigate the reality that what they've done is salute their buddy with an extended, Woody Allen-like sketch about a womanizing nebbish who may be talented, but who certainly gets on your nerves with his insistence that everyone tell him how good he is.
As depicted by Kline and Price, Kleban decides at 19 what work he wants to pursue and then does so, joining the aspiring BMI group. In time, he also becomes a Columbia Records A&R man under the tutelage of the great Goddard Lieberson. Given a chance to supply additional lyrics to the Debbie Reynolds revival of Irene, he pisses of its director, the great English actor John Gielgud, and is handed his notice. Eventually he snags the Chorus Line assignment, endearing himself to Michael Bennett but not entirely to Marvin Hamlisch. After the success of that show, he tries to top himself with projects that don't see the light of day. He does all of this, by the way, while a Wedgwood-like urn containing his ashes rests downstage.
Many of the details of Kleban's career would seem to be verifiable, as must be his romance with Kline (called Lucy here) and his relationship with an ex-lover and longtime enthusiast called Sophie. But the facts are set out with the reductive effect of a cartoon strip. Nothing is revealed about Kleban's family and upbringing. No friends or relations figure in his life aside from Sophie, Lehman Engel, and the BMI workshoppers, alongside whom Kleban honed his craft. Although the influential Lieberson and Gielgud remain personages addressed in unseen booths or over intercoms, Bennett and Hamlisch do put in appearances. Even though the Kleban-Hamlisch clash over the appropriateness of shoehorning "What I Did for Love" into A Chorus Line is supposedly true, Hamlisch still might think about enjoining this enterprise for its two-dimensional depiction of him as whining, inflexible, and autocratic. (For a more flattering view of Hamlisch, see the Neil Simon-scripted They're Playing Our Song, another look at songwriters pursuing their dreams for which Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, then a couple, wrote the score.)
A crucial problem for A Class Act is that it fails to engage interest in a nagging, shadowy figure and his highly personalized interests. It's unlikely that the average audience member is going to care--or even figure out--how the BMI workshop operates. Although musical lovers may respond to "charm songs" when they hear them, they may not want to be exposed to discussions about them. They may not be moved to laugh when Engel says, as he often did in real life, "Next week's assignment is to write a charm song for A Streetcar Named Desire."
It seems curious that, in a work about the lyricist of A Chorus Line, none of the creators have taken note of how Michael Bennett made something universal from something so particular in this enterprise. Yes, A Chorus Line is about a bunch of singer-dancers hungry for work, but it's also about a group of people putting themselves on the line for a job--any job. Who wouldn't relate to that? A Class Act might have had more resonance had it been about a man struggling to reconcile his disappointing daily existence with his artistic inner life, rather than the story of one usually nervous, not especially appealing little guy.
Still, there are those Kleban songs. Many of these numbers are just what the show promises: class acts. Kleban's sizable gift was for taking honest emotions and expressing them in unpushily clever words and lilting melody. (Don't be fooled by Sophie's suggestion that most of Kleban's shows weren't produced because he's a better lyricist than composer; far worse melodies been heard on and Off-Broadway than those Kleban so compulsively turned out.) Although it's been said that A Chorus Line is the great Stephen Sondheim show that Sondheim never wrote, a comparison with that composer-lyricist is misleading; Kleban is generally softer and sweeter, more tolerant of human frailties, less insistent on ambiguity.
Though not all of the Kleban songs showcased here are singular sensations, several of them deserve repeated hearings and secure places in the Great American Songbook--and perhaps will get them if a cast album is issued. (The score is only passably played under Todd Ellison's command.) Talk about charm songs: there's "Gauguin's Shoes," "Better," "Paris Through My Window," "Broadway Boogie Woogie." Talk about book ballads: there's "Under Separate Cover," "Next Best Thing to Love," and the melting "Self-Portrait." Incidentally, although the songs are listed in the program, the shows and/or situations for which they were actualized are unfortunately not.
Kleban's best work sounds particularly good because Price, who directs and impersonates Kleban in addition to his scripting assignment, has hired two of musical comedy's best female performers for this show: Randy Graff and Carolee Carmello. Alongside them are other reliable vets: Jonathan Freeman, Julia Murney, Ray Wills, Nancy Kathryn Anderson, and David Hibbard. These gilt-edged troupers go about their tasks as best they can, considering they're playing people as flat as coasters. Graff, than whom there is no one more direct with a lyric, makes friend/research scientist Sophie eminently likable and scores big time with "Next Best Thing to Love." Carmello has a smile as wide as a thrust stage and a heart as warm as a spotlight, and she nails "Under Separate Cover." Freeman, as portly as Lehman Engel but about a foot taller, delivers his lame jokes as if they were fresh from Oscar Wilde's mint, and Hibbard is shockingly on-the-nose as Bennett, never alighting anywhere for too long. Price has directed these folks to be very out-there on James Noone's black box set with its backless, upright piano that no one actually plays. As a stand-in for Kleban, he's okay, if hampered by the book he co-wrote.
Well, alright. Ed Kleban wanted his songs played in theaters, and now more of them have been--at least, in one roomy-enough auditorium. But, forgetting about paying customers for the moment, would Kleban himself have been satisfied? At one point in the show, he's asked why each of his songs has to be perfect. His reply: "It has to be, because it can be." By that measure, he'd disapprove of A Class Act, which isn't anywhere near perfect.