Despite Lean Times, A Class Act Expects 'Better' Days

News   Despite Lean Times, A Class Act Expects 'Better' Days "I've been fat, I've been thin," sings a hopeful Ed Kleban in the Broadway musical, A Class Act, a so-far cult favorite that has been particularly lean at the Ambassador Theatre box office in recent weeks.

"I've been fat, I've been thin," sings a hopeful Ed Kleban in the Broadway musical, A Class Act, a so-far cult favorite that has been particularly lean at the Ambassador Theatre box office in recent weeks.

Although Kleban (played by Lonny Price) concludes that "thin is better," producers of the new musical based on the songwriter's life would like the box office to be much fatter than it has been in recent weeks. For the week ending April 8, A Class Act grossed a mere $88,552, representing 23.55 percent of capacity at the Ambassador Theatre.

"You got bulldog producers," said Marty Bell, who is mounting the valentine to musical theatre with producers Chase Mishkin, Arielle Tepper. Bell said the producers are in it for the long haul, and he expects a surge in business in coming weeks due to word of mouth, the new TV ad campaign and a direct-mail effort.

Bell likened the strategy of selling A Class Act to selling an Off-Broadway work: It takes 10-12 weeks for a momentum to build.

Bell also said he's looking to the horizon of May 7, when the Tony Award nominations are announced. He expects the intimate, sentimental musical to get noticed by Tony nominators. One of the hot Tony-season stories could be that the late Kleban, whose story is fictionalized in the musical co-written by Price and Linda Kline, gets a posthumous Best Score Tony nomination. The musical, first seen at Manhattan Theatre Club, concerns neurotic songwriter Kleban's wish to land as a Broadway composer-lyricist rather than just a lyricist (he wrote words to Marvin Hamlisch's music in A Chorus Line). A Tony nom — and a win — for full score would be the realization of Kleban's apparent lifelong dream. He was felled by cancer in 1987.

Although the score is a sentimental favorite for a Tony nom, a handful of other "new" scores this season will be competing, including The Full Monty, Jane Eyre, Tom Sawyer, The Producers and Seussical

. Observers of A Class Act point to likely Tony noms (at least) for Lonny Price, as the tirelessly complicated and plaintive Kleban, and Randy Graff, who plays best pal Sophie. Graff gets only one solo in the show, "The Next Best Thing to Love," but it succeeds in the same way her solo in City of Angels, "You Can Always Count on Me," did. That memorable Cy Coleman song — and her good-gal interpretation of it — is cited as a major reason Graff won a previous Best Featured Actress (Musical) Tony.

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Words, music, life, death, sex, love, friends and a passion for theatre are all on display in A Class Act, which opened March 11 at the Ambassador.

The intimate biographical tuner tells the fictionalized life story of Broadway songwriter Edward Kleban, who always wanted his work played (as they say in the show), "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 it in."

That line reverberates touchingly throughout the humane and humorous show, which began previews Feb. 14, St. Valentine's Day. The show is considered a heart-filled valentine to the people who create Broadway musicals.

A Class Act was first seen in fall 2000 in an extended staging at Off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club. Revisions and reconsiderations have gone into the show since last year (a song was cut, another added), and further refinements were made in the preview period.

Hundreds of Kleban's "trunk songs" were explored by co librettists Linda Kline (his former companion) and Lonny Price to create this "new" score, which has not been heard in a Broadway theatre before.

Price, remembered for playing lyricist Charley Kringas in Broadway's Merrily We Roll Along, plays Kleban, who (if the show is to be trusted) was at turns quirky, funny, annoying, charming, neurotic, sad and driven. Price also directs, as he did at MTC in 2000.

There have been changes since the fall 2000 MTC staging. Jeff Blumenkrantz, Donna Bullock, Patrick Quinn and Sara Ramirez joined the company due to the previous obligations of the actors who created the roles Off-Broadway. Nancy Kathryn Anderson, Randy Graff and David Hibbard recreate their roles, however, as does Price. The characters include the songwriting friends, colleagues and lovers of Kleban — including Marvin Hamlisch (played by Blumenkrantz), Michael Bennett (played by Hibbard) and famed conductor and musical theatre-writing guru Lehman Engel (played by Quinn).

"We did our out-of-town tryout on 55th Street," producer Bell said in a previous statement. "The audience at MTC and the critics taught us a lot about our show. And now we have the chance to respond."

Robyn Goodman and Tokyo Broadcasting System/Kumiko Yoshii are associate producers.

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Marguerite Derricks is choreographer for Broadway; Scott Wise (Jerome Robbins' Broadway, State Fair, Fosse) created dances for the Off-Broadway version, with some additional work by Derricks (who choreographed Price's aborted pre-Broadway staging of Finian's Rainbow).

Bullock was a late-run Mother in Ragtime, Actors' Equity prexy Quinn has appeared in Beauty and the Beast and many other shows, Ramirez was featured in The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm and The Capeman (she is handed a new song, "Don't Do It Again," added since Off-Broadway) and Blumenkrantz was Bud Frump in the recent How to Succeed in Business... revival. Blumenkrantz is himself a songwriter, a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a group that is prominently featured in the new musical. Kleban was an early member when Engel was running the nonprofit workshop. Characters in the show are composites of friends, lovers and colleagues in Kleban's life.

The work of Ray Wills (replaced by Blumenkrantz), Julia Murney (Ramirez), Carolee Carmello (Bullock) and Jonathan Freeman (Quinn), of the MTC staging Oct. 3-Dec. 10, 2000, was preserved on a cast recording, released Feb. 20 from RCA Victor.

The Off-Broadway designers — James Noone (set), Carrie Robbins (costumes), Kevin Adams (lighting) — will repeat their duties for the Broadway move, although the scenic elements have been expanded for the larger Ambassador Theatre (MTC's Stage II only held 150). Sound design is by Acme Sound Partners. David Loud is musical director, Larry Hochman is orchestrator, Todd Ellison handles vocal arrangements and dance music; the orchestra has also been expanded since Off-Broadway.

A Class Act features unpublished songs (music and lyrics) written by Ed Kleban. Most have only rarely been performed, until now. The songs were "inherited by his friends when he died in 1987," according to production notes.

A prominent fund in Kleban's name (The Kleban Award, from The Kleban Foundation, Inc.) doles out annual cash prizes to up-and-coming lyricists and book writers.

The score includes up-tempo numbers, ballads, comedy songs and more, the sort of stuff that is regularly discussed still today in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Some of the songs of A Class Act were heard years ago in the Engel class. The songs now help tell the story of Kleban's life.

The cast album includes "Light On My Feet," "One More Beautiful Song," "Charm Song," "Paris Through the Window," "Mona," "Gauguin's Shoes," "Follow Your Star," "Better," "Next Best Thing to Love," "Broadway Boogie Woogie," "Say Something Funny," "Self Portrait" and more.

In order to adapt Kleban's songs for a narrative, the creators enlisted Brian Stein and Glenn Slater to write additional lyrics. The show covers territory between 1958-1988, starting with the later date (the time of Kleban's memorial) and going backward to his roots as a theatre songwriter.

Broadway preview audiences have been sighing out loud when snippets of Kleban's lyrics to A Chorus Line ("What I Did For Love," for example) are heard in the show, as if to say, "Oh, that's what he wrote!" A dollop of Marvin Hamlisch's music from that smash show is included in A Class Act.

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Co-librettist Kline has been committed to bringing Kleban's unpublished works to the stage since his death. She has written for television, and she also co-wrote the libretto for Theaterworks USA's The Secret Garden.

Director, actor and co-librettist Price is artistic director of Musical Theatre Works, which helped develop A Class Act. His directing credits include Pal Joey (City Center), The Rothschilds, Juno and Sally Marr...and her escorts. As an actor, he has appeared in Master Harold...and the Boys, Merrily We Roll Along, Burn This, The Immigrant and Falsettoland.

A Class Act is the third show in a year that started at MTC before transferring to Broadway: David Auburn's Proof and Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife began in 1999-2000 and made the move to Broadway in fall 2000. Both have recouped their investment.

A Class Act tickets are $25-$75. The Ambassador Theatre is at 219 W. 49th Street. For ticket information, call (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250.