Friday July 13, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE - Director Robert Moss is well used to working on plays with playwrights in the room, asking questions of them and making tweaks as a new production comes into focus and heads for opening night.

This process is not as familiar, though, with a musical that was first produced 12 years ago and whose creative team captured Tony nominations for their efforts.

But as Moss works with a company of eight early-career actors in Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Company for this production of "A Class Act," a musical about the life of composer/lyricist Edward Kleban, he has benefit of fresh re-writes from someone with a unique perspective on the show - writer Linda Kline, who collaborated with Lonny Price on the show's Tony- nominated book, and was also Kleban's longtime partner.

"A Class Act" officially opens Saturday night at BTG's Unicorn Theatre, where previews began earlier this week.

The founding producing director at New York's Playwright's Horizons and a 15year artistic director at Ithaca's Hangar Theatre, who also spent 10 seasons as artistic director at Syracuse Stage, Moss is well experienced in bringing new plays to the stage and working with emerging artists.

But things were a bit different on this show, which was first produced in 2000.

Moss said his collaboration with Kline began with a simple question about a stage direction in the original script, in which the life of Kleban- best known for his Tony- winning lyrics for "A Chorus Line" ( which is playing at BTG's Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield) - is told through the framing device of his memorial service, at which he's present in phantom form.


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The script stipulates that Kleban's ashes are presented in aWesgewood urn of the type originally awarded for Britain's Sir Laurence Olivier Award, but this detail was not explained onstage. Moss contacted Kline to ask if there was a way to clue the audience in.

"It's a wonderful idea, let's put it in the play! That I was able to ask her that and she was able to take a new look at that little section enabled me to ask about other things that weren't as obvious and were a matter of taste," Moss said in a rehearsal break in a studio at BTG's Lavan campus.

"Once the door gets kicked open where you have that relationship with a writer who is taking you seriously and engaging you in conversation, I felt free to ask other things," he said.

Other changes include a new ending to act one - the original was "particularly gloomy and dark and torturous," according to Moss - and the inclusion of a song, "Harold," not included in previous productions. ( Kline also contributed to a 2009 production of the musical at Cape Rep, for which she suggested including "Mr. Sheep," a favorite stuffed animal of Kleban's, as part of an effort to make his character more sympathetic.) "A Class Act" was originally a fulfillment of a wish described in Kleban's will - that his friends take his existing work and turn it into a Broadway show.

Though he was a prolific composer and lyric-writer with a circle of devotees, and some of his lyrics from "A Chorus Line," like "One" and "What I Did For Love," are considered classics of the genre, Kleban died at age 48 in 1987 (after a brutal fight with cancer) without having achieved his ambition of seeing a show of his own music produced on Broadway. He engaged in a series of fruitless collaborations that never made it out of the workshop stage.

"A lot of things he worked on did not work out. And, he was difficult (to work with)," says Kline, in a telephone call from East Hampton. "I think that part of the experience in 'A Class Act' that we all live in is that there is a mystery to it - that he could not answer, either."

Though "A Class Act" had only a three- month run on Broadway, it did net Kleban some of the recognition he craved for his music composition - a posthumous Tony nomination for best score.

It pays particular attention to his collaboration with composer Marvin Hamlisch on the songs for "A Chorus Line." Kline says it's fascinating to hear his "Gauguin's Shoes" in this context, which she sees as a stepping stone to his iconic work.

"I don't think he ever could have written 'One' if he didn't write 'Gauguin's Shoes,'" Kline says. "A Class Act" also includes the song about an auditioning Broadway dancer, " Broadway Boogie Woogie," that she says netted Kleban his job on "A Chorus Line."

Moss says it's a particularly special opportunity to see this musical and its more famous predecessor in the same season at BTG.

"It gives you a whole new insight into 'Chorus Line,' for one thing," he says.