Eligibility and the Kleban Prize

There’s a certain pessimism that allows you to be blasé about not receiving the grants/awards you apply for as a writer. It’s the pessimism that says,  “Chances are I won’t win this, but I’ll try anyway.” Then when you aren’t selected you can say to yourself, “See, I thought so.” Or if you are, you can be pleasantly and genuinely surprised/honored.

I wrote my musical Joe Schmoe Saves the World in reaction to not winning the Richard Rodgers award one year, dissatisfied with the artists who had.  I thought of the Stravinsky quote: “The one true comment on a piece of music is another piece of music.” Resentment/bitterness/sour grapes can be transformed into something truly worthwhile.

Often I find I can learn a lot from people who receive grants/awards for which I also applied. It introduces me to a new type of work or a new way of thinking. It gives me inspiration to see other peers finally receive due attention. It forces me to pay attention to what people are responding to and strive for greatness in my own work.

On the other hand – sometimes it’s just down right frustrating.

An example of just how frustrating it can be arrived in the form of the announcement of this year’s recipient of the Kleban Prize for Promising Musical Theatre Librettist.

For context – the Kleban Prize is given by New Dramatists and funded by the Kleban Foundation in honor of Lyricist/Lbrettist Ed Kleban (A Chorus Line). The prize is awarded annually to a Lyricist and a Librettist, who each receive $100,000 paid in two annual installments. It goes without saying that this kind of money and validation can be a huge boon to a promising up-and-coming writer.

This year, the Lyricist was just such a writer who will undoubtedly benefit greatly from this attention. His name is Daniel Zaitchik, and he is known for having written Picnic at Hanging Rock and most recently Darling Grenadine. I met Daniel last year at the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed, where he was working on Darling Grenadine. His voice is fresh and unusual, and I am inspired to see him receive this prize.

The Librettist this year was promising young up-and-coming musical theatre writer Lisa Kron.

::sound of a record scratching::

Wait, what?

If you don’t know – Lisa Kron won two Tony Awards for her work on Fun Home (her second play to be on Broadway). It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has been produced across the globe. She is a well-known and esteemed writer, with an accomplished career. In short – she is no promising up-and-comer; she done up-and-came.

I was heartened to know that my frustration with this result was shared by other writers in my peer group. From here I hand this post over to playwright/librettist Peter Duchan. Peter penned an incredibly well-articulated letter to the Kleban Foundation urging them to reexamine the eligibility requirements for this prize. I asked him if I could share his letter here and he agreed.

Peter Duchan

ENTER PETER

January 17, 2017

To the Directors and Officers of the Kleban Foundation:

It was with great dismay that I greeted yesterday’s announcement of this year’s Kleban Prize winner for “most promising musical theatre librettist.” I would have thought Lisa Kron a writer too established and rewarded to be deemed “promising.” The fact that Kron is eligible for this year’s honor exposes, to me, the need for a conversation about the eligibility guidelines.

A little personal context might help to explain my position and my fervor: I am a librettist myself. I wrote the book of the musical Dogfight, produced by Second Stage Theatre in 2012, and my work has been developed and/or produced at Lincoln Center Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Intiman Theatre, and NAMT Festival. Though I have submitted libretti for Kleban Prize consideration in the past, I did not apply this year, so I hope I may share my feelings on this matter without being subject to accusations of sour grapes.

I write with great respect for the individuals on the selection committee and for Kron. That I believe she wrote a terrific, moving book for Fun Home, is irrelevant to this conversation. Kron’s work certainly merits recognition but I am disappointed that a writer of her stature is eligible for this particular honor.

Lisa Kron is a successful and celebrated artist. So far we have seen two productions of her work on Broadway, Well and Fun Home, and the latter earned her two Tony Awards, for both her lyrics and libretto. Fun Home was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has won three Obie Awards and is the recipient of Guggenheim, Sundance, and MacDowell fellowships. Kron’s commitment to a life in the theater is inspiring to me. I do not consider her a writer of promise; hers is already a distinguished career. She has been embraced by the commercial and non-profit theater communities as well as the critical establishment. She has received the highest honors afforded those in our profession.

Yet she remains eligible for the Kleban Prize. The current application guidelines stipulate, “any individual whose work has been performed on the Broadway stage for a cumulative period of two years prior to the date of the application is ineligible.” I am concerned this is an inappropriate metric for determining whether a writer is “promising” or well on his/her way. I worry these guidelines inaccurately position the dividing line between early-career and mid-career.

By these guidelines – and by my calculations – the only reason Jason Robert Brown could not submit himself for the “most promising musical theatre lyricist” prize is the fact that he already won it. How can that be? Brown has had five Broadway productions of shows he wrote or co-wrote, winning him three Tony Awards. But, because those productions cumulatively played fewer than thirteen months on Broadway, his career fits within the eligibility requirements. Also eligible: lyricist/librettist Michael John LaChiusa (3 productions, 7 months, 5 Tony Award nominations), librettist Christopher Durang (5 productions, 11 months, 1 Tony Award), librettist Richard Nelson (7 productions, 16 months, 1 Tony Award), and librettist Tony Kushner (3 productions, 22.75 months, 2 Tony Awards, 1 Pulitzer Prize). I do not believe it was Ed Kleban’s intention the “most promising musical theatre librettist” prize would subsidize artists already considered among the best in their field. LaChiusa has had at least fourteen productions in New York City, but according to current guidelines, it seems he has yet to fulfill his promise. Bright Star ran only four months on Broadway; does that mean its librettist Steve Martin will be eligible to receve next year’s Kleban Prize? If these artists qualify as “promising,” who is considered a success?

I am saddened by the message being sent to aspiring lyricists and librettists. I had understood – perhaps misunderstood – the goal of the Kleban Foundation was to honor rising talents, offering temporary reprieve from the financial insecurity associated with our profession. This would presumably allow those honored to apply themselves to their craft and, hopefully, contribute to the longevity and vitality of the musical form. I fear honoring artists who are already well respected and well compensated does not serve this goal. Forgoing new voices in favor of established voices does not serve this goal. I am concerned truly early-career writers will take one look at the successful career of this year’s prizewinner and assume the Kleban Prize is not for artists of their standing. And that would be a real shame.

I believe it is incumbent upon the administrators of the Kleban Prize to reconsider its eligibility requirements moving forward. In an industry where the majority of new musical work is first seen in limited runs at non-profit theaters, perhaps twenty-four months of Broadway exposure is not the only or best indicator of career achievement. Perhaps major industry recognition – winning a Tony Award, for example – should disqualify a writer. I do not claim to have the solution but I believe it to be worth pursuing nonetheless. It seems to me the current eligibility requirements are not consistent with the realities of forging a career writing musical theater. The Kleban Prize has the potential to positively affect the lives of early-career writers as well as the future of the musical theater form I urge you to please take these concerns seriously and recommit to investing in the careers of promising writers.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Respectfully,

Peter Duchan

RE-ENTER BRETT

I must admit that Peter’s expression of what early-career writers might think upon seeing the success of this year’s prizewinner was something that did cross my mind. “Maybe this prize just isn’t for me given where I’m at.”

I also think his concern for the longevity of the musical theatre form is legitimate. The emergence of new voices in major theatres is dwindling in large part to the financial risk of producing unknown work by unknown writers. A well-funded prize such as the Kleban has the great power and freedom to offer validation to new voices that can in turn be translated into less risk for theatre companies looking to produce new work. If you take away pipelines like this, it becomes a self-defeating cycle.

What are your thoughts about these guidelines and who is ultimately awarded these opportunities?

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btryback@gmail.com

Actor / Writer / Idealist I believe a good story has the power to change the way people feel, think, and act. I'm a storyteller with a passion for changing the world and leaving it better than I found it.

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