Meet the Kleban Prize Winners for Musical Theatre

PlayBlog   Meet the Kleban Prize Winners for Musical Theatre
What Ed Kleban did for love (and money) was write words for musicals. He never got beyond A Chorus Line, but that made him very rich — rich enough to bequeath two $100,000 awards every year for the past 20 years to the most promising musical theatre lyricist and the most promising musical theatre librettist.

Peter Mills, 36, and Barry Wyner, 32, showed up at ASCAP offices June 21 to collect this year’s Kleban Prize booty — Mills for lyrics and Wyner for libretto, although both do both and compose as well. They had to sing for their supper, though — in front of such august lyricists and librettists as Sheldon Harnick, Maury Yeston, John Weidman and Richard Maltby, Jr. Two songs from both were presented as evidence of their talent.

Mills displayed both theatrical masks — a cleverly comic number called “Breaking Up,” in which a romance ends with faulty cellphone, and a very moving piece called “It’s Amazing the Things That Float,” where a flood victim reviews the devastation. The first was from Lonely Rhymes, the second from The Flood.

“One of the most recent shows I did was called Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge,” Mills said. “It was a bluegrass musical, an adaptation of Playboy of the Western World. I’m having a CD release of that original cast recording.”

Both of Wyner’s songs — “I Can See Him Now” and “Calm, Cool and Collected” — came from Calvin Berger, his musical-comedy take on Cyrano de Bergerac.

“Calvin Berger is a high-school boy who’s insecure about the size of his nose and can’t ask out the girl he likes so he uses the handsomest guy in school as his messenger.” But, Wyner added, there’s no nose song per se. “The Christopher Plummer musical has that song. I always loved Cyrano in high school, but I hadn’t thought about it in years. Then, when I was thinking of a good idea for a show, I just realized that the theme of physical insecurity really resonated with me.”

It’s Cyrano up to a point. “I started deviating when the original play shifted to a war ground,” he said. “I wasn’t going to send them off to Iraq so that’s where I started deviating the most. I built them into the device of a bachelor auction because it forces the issue of physical insecurity and being judged for attractiveness.”

Maltby, in introducing Wyner’s songs, pointed out that Calvin Berger was the latter-day Cyrano de Bergerac.

“I’m very, very fond of this idea,” he said, “because when David [Shire] and I were in college, our first musical adaptation was of Cyrano de Bergerac — and, obviously, it was a pretty good idea.”

— Harry Haun

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