On February 6, I attended one of my favorite events, the 27th annual Kleban Prize for Musical Theatre presented at ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Named after the late Ed Kleban, the quite wonderful lyricist for “A Chorus Line,” the prize is given to two honorees annually — to recognize the most promising lyricist and most promising librettist in this most difficult of theatrical forms to pull off successfully.
Kleban, who created the honor in his will, realized that, unlike the composer, who usually has piano or other musical skills to support themself as a rehearsal accompanist or otherwise while pursuing their art, the lyricist and librettist are purely creatures of the pen (or laptop), and therefore much less likely to have related marketable abilities to keep from starving. The $100,000 annual prize allays that threat, and this year’s recipients were Lisa Kron (librettist for “Fun Home”) and Daniel Zaitchik (lyricist for “Picnic at Hanging Rock”).
Among this event’s allures is the chance to rub shoulders with veteran musical talents such as Sheldon Harnick, Maury Yeston, Richard Maltby, Jr., and John Weidman, all of whom were present. The amazing 92-year-old, fit-as-a-fiddle Harnick told me that he had just come from Texas, where he worked on a short musical about Lady Bird Johnson.
Judy Kuhn and Emily Skeggs touchingly performed the song “Days and Days” in their mother-daughter guises from “Fun Home.” The delightful Skeggs also enthusiastically described working on “When We Rise,” the ABC mini-series about the beginnings of the LGBTQ rights movement. We could not need a show like this more than right now, and Skeggs plays Roma Guy, the beyond-committed lesbian feminist activist, as a young girl (who eventually grows up to be Mary Louise Parker). Skeggs had no less than Gus Van Sant as director for her segment of the production and said he was wonderful to work with — smart, easy, and approachable.
Kron, who has been married to playwright Madeleine George since 2015, wore some killer-cute sensible heels and raved about what a thrill it was to be even standing in the same room as Harnick. She recounted a story of a young man driving her in a hired car, with whom she starting chatting about music. It turned out the lad had moved to New York to pursue his artistic dreams but was feeling discouraged and seriously considering moving back home. Kron decided to put on her inspirational persona and told him that she was a composer who’d also had rough times, but was glad she had hung on for those 30 years to see a show of hers finally running on Broadway. The young driver cried out, “You mean I gotta wait 30 years?!”