The will was quite specific: Friends were permitted to sing "any composition—with the exception of ‘What I Did for Love,’ which I do not wish to be sung at my memorial."
Ed Kleban—who put words to that rather insistent Marvin Hamlisch melody—was exiting in character, a cranky curmudgeon who put his craft as a songwriter above everything. Never mind that "What I Did for Love" was arguably his biggest hit, it was a song he always apologized for—"the money men made me do it"—and yet it best expressed his passion. There was wit in his last request, as deliberate as his rhymes—and a resignation that, if the world remembered him at all, it would be as the lyricist of A Chorus Line.
Turns out, this was the tip of the iceberg. Kleban wrote words and music, but none of his self-collaborations went beyond workshops—till now. A Class Act, opening at the Ambassador Theatre on March 11, brings new meaning to his lines, “Kiss today goodbye/And point me toward tomorrow.” It’s his second Broadway offering, and he seems to have negotiated it all from the grave.
When he died in 1987 at the too-young age of 48, Kleban left the rights of his work to Linda Kline, a friend who shared his obsession for "getting the songs out there." She thought long and hard about how to do that and still didn’t have a clue in 1994 when she caught, by chance, Sally Marr . . . and Her Escorts. Essentially a one-woman vehicle in which Joan Rivers played the mother of Lenny Bruce, it also had what Kline took for "ghosts"—two mute dancers who gave Rivers a focus to play to—and she was struck by how stylishly they were handled. "There was a real director’s hand there," she decided.
The hand belonged to Lonny Price, who also co-wrote the piece with Rivers and was then embarking on a directing career after a nice run as an actor. ASCAP’s Michael Kerker gave them the excuse to get together: a series of songwriter evenings at the Russian Tea Room. Kline asked Price to direct the evening devoted to Kleban’s songs, and he agreed. Encouraged, she tried for second base: What about a Broadway revue of Kleban songs? Kline could hear Price’s brain screeching to a halt. His hand shot up. "I won’t do a revue," he informed her. "I only do book shows. What I like about musical theatre are songs that move the action and illuminate character. With revues, you start at zero. Every song begins with getting to know someone. I admire the form, but I’ve no affinity for it."
Somehow, Kline did not hear "No" in the above: "Everything he was saying was like a dream to me. No one had mentioned a book show, and it was better than anything I’d thought of. I much preferred to work on a book show. It sounded like a great adventure."
So off they went, in sync, shifting through songs from a half-dozen unproduced shows.
"Ed did not write songs per se," says Price. "He wrote scores. He was a musical dramatist. The more I heard, the more I knew we could make a show out of his songs. They are of a single mind. You couldn’t do this with Sondheim. Pacific Overtures doesn’t sound like A Little Night Music, which doesn’t sound like Company. He’s more chameleonlike. Ed had a very personal, idiosyncratic sensibility and vision and tone.”
The storyline that evolved over the next six years—via e-mail and readings and at least three workshops at Musical Theatre Works—concerned the trials of a gifted, frustrated songwriter who was initially based on Kleban and, in time, became Kleban, warts and all.
"We never tried to shoehorn in a song that was not right for the show," says Price. "We let the book lead us. We were always telling a story and using the songs to illustrate it."
The closest A Class Act comes to a love story is Kleban and his music, but the subplot concerns him and "Sophie" (an amalgam of girlfriends and female friends in his life). "I never saw a platonic love story onstage before," Price admits. "I wrote it with Daisy Prince in mind and had a dream that one day we’d play it together, but, in six years’ time, she got married and had a baby, and I decided I didn’t want to be an actor. Life changes."
And it changes back. Right before A Class Act opened Off-Broadway last fall, the actor playing Kleban landed a TV series, and Price was compelled to turn into an actor again.
Quite aside from the musical richness that has been gathering dust in forgotten desk drawers, Kleban left something else behind. The Kleban Foundation, created with his Chorus Line earnings, gives away $200,000 a year to a deserving lyricist and librettist.
"Nobody, no lyricist or composer, has ever given back to the degree this man has," says Price. "He loved this form, and he really made sure that after his death it would survive."
Over the doorway of Kline’s kitchen is a sign Kleban had duplicated from one he saw in the Shubert Theatre during the marathon reign of A Chorus Line. In the show’s trademark black-lettering-on-mirrored glass, it says, "There Is No Intermission. Refreshments Now."
According to Kline, "Ed felt that said everything you needed to know about life."