Composer and lyricist Edward Kleban might have been remembered as a one-hit wonder. He won a Tony Award and numerous other accolades for penning the lyrics to the 1975 Broadway smash “A Chorus Line.” The musical, which was still running when he died of cancer, at age 48, in 1987, was his only produced show in his lifetime.
But years after his death, his longtime companion Linda Kline began pulling together “A Class Act.” It’s a musical about Kleban’s life and career, built from songs he wrote for shows that never got produced. When “A Class Act” debuted on Broadway, in 2001, the late Ed Kleban was nominated for another Tony.
“He had a way of saying ‘theater songs,’ it was like invoking God,” Kline says.
The Berkshire Theatre Group remembers Kleban this summer the way he might have wanted, with story and song. “A Chorus Line” runs at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield through July 21. “A Class Act” hits the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge Tuesday and continues through Aug. 4. Kline has helped to tweak that production.
“Things that are as vivid as that — I remember it all. It’s easy to conjure it up,” Kline says. “It’s fun to make it new, and it’s fun to keep this musical alive, because I love it so much.”
There’s even a benefit one-woman show, “My Musical Comedy Life,” by the original Cassie of “A Chorus Line,” Donna McKechnie, at the Colonial on July 28.
“I always regard [Kleban] as the unsung hero of ‘Chorus Line’ because he was so quiet,” says McKechnie, who won a best actress Tony for her performance in the show. “As I got to know him, I realized what a deep thinker, a deep-feeling person he was.”
Bronx native Kleban graduated from New York’s High School of Music and Art, then went to Columbia University when he was still in his mid-teens. He had a breakdown while there, returned to graduate, and later worked as a producer for Columbia Records. In the 1960s, he joined what is now called the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, which he’d be a part of for the rest of his life.
Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, “A Chorus Line” has a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante. Kleban wrote the words and Marvin Hamlisch the music for the show’s songs, including “One.”
The musical became an iconic hit with its poignant and sometimes biting portraits of performers auditioning for a Broadway show. In part these were shaped through interviews with the cast. McKechnie remembers Kleban asking her to verbalize her relationship to dance.
“I just stopped in my tracks, I couldn’t talk about it, it was beyond personal,” says McKechnie, who of course eventually did talk to him about it. “I was so stunned when I first read his lyrics, how the poetry captured everything I felt, because I had a hard time expressing myself, but it was so beautifully put into words.”
“A Chorus Line” won nine Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize. It changed all their lives. Kleban worked on numerous shows after that, with Bennett, Paul Rudnick, Neil Simon, and many others, but nothing ever got past the workshop stage. He sometimes told people he was retired.
“The reality, and I was there for it, is that he was working all the time,” Kline says. Kleban could be difficult, but Kline doesn’t blame that for lack of productions. “None of the shows ever came to fruition, each one for a different reason, and I think the cover story was ‘I’m retired,’ to cover the disappointment of it.”
All his feelings were deep, it seems. “If you were his friend, he had a way of knowing you, of really, really taking the time,” says Kline. “He did not have casual friendships. All his many friendships were intensely personal.”
They met in the late 1970s at a party in the Hamptons. He was hot off “A Chorus Line.” She was writing for “Captain Kangaroo.” Turned out they had some high school teachers in common. They became a couple and, though they never married, stayed together for the rest of his life, including the last, difficult year and a half as Kleban, an ex-smoker, fought oral cancer.
Long after his death, when the rights to his unpublished work became hers, she pulled in director Lonny Price, and together they wrote the book for “A Class Act,” which debuted at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000. The show has Kleban watching his own memorial service as friends and colleagues remember him and perform songs for which he wrote both words and music.
“A Class Act” doesn’t stint on his self-doubts and neuroses. But ultimately it’s a loving portrait of the artist, and one that means a great deal to Kline.
The Berkshire version stars Ross Baum as Kleban and is directed by Robert Moss. Kline and Moss decided to add the song “Harold” to “A Class Act,” as well as “Making Up Ways,” which was cut from the show before it moved to Broadway. Moss has made many other small changes, she said.
“It has made the show new for me. I think he is so smart and really digging into the script and really connecting with it,” Kline says.
This production also includes Mr. Sheep, a stuffed toy animal that Kleban kept on his piano, Kline says. (Onstage, a prop sheep substitutes for the real toy.) Mr. Sheep was not in the Broadway production, but returned for a 2009 production at Cape Rep Theatre in Brewster, and Kline was glad: “He made Ed more who Ed was.”
Kleban may have one more show in him, too. Kline is developing a new piece, “Saving the Muse,” based on Kleban’s musical “Gallery,” which was workshopped but never produced.
Speaking of workshops
With the Huntington Theatre Company’s launch of a two-week summer workshop, four Huntington Playwriting Fellows are getting a new outlet for development, and a public stage. The inaugural edition of the program will end with readings of the four plays in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
On July 21, Patrick Gabridge’s “Flight” is first up at 5 p.m. in the Roberts Studio Theatre, followed by Melinda Lopez’s “Becoming Cuba” at 7:30 p.m. in the Wimberly Theatre. On July 22, Martha Jane Kaufman’s “Untitled Play About Dead Bodies” is at 3 p.m. in the Wimberly, and John Oluwole ADEkoje’s “Jagun Fly” at 5 p.m. in the Roberts. Admission to the readings is free, but reservations are recommended at www.huntingtontheatre.org/summerworkshop.