Awards for the 33rd annual Kleban Prize for Musical Theatre, totaling $100,000 each and payable over two years, were presented to Most Promising Musical Theatre Lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver (35mm: A Musical Exhibition; Jasper in Deadland; ¡Havana!) and Most Promising Musical Theatre Librettist Ethan Lipton (Tumacho; No Place to Go; and The Outer Space) by the Kleban Foundation on Monday, February 6, at 5 pm, in a private invitation-only reception and ceremony held by ASCAP and BMI, at BMI’s New York City headquarters at the World Trade Center.
The star-studded event was co-hosted by Tony Award winners and Kleban board members Richard Maltby, Jr. (Miss Saigon; Ain’t Misbehavin’) and Maury Yeston (Nine; Titanic), offering introductory remarks about the Prize and reminiscences about its Bronx-born founder Edward L. Kleban (1939-87), who died of complications from throat cancer at the age of 48, leaving provisions in his will for the establishment of the eponymous organization in 1988, and its awarding of annual prizes since 1991.
Maltby, in addition to his comment that the $100,000 cash award is one of the largest available to theater artists, noted that this was the first live in-person Kleban Prize ceremony since the pandemic shutdown began in 2020, with the past three years presented virtually, thereby reaching new audiences beyond NYC. To continue the additional accessibility, the 2023 awards presentation was recorded and will also be available on the free ad-supported Broadway On Demand SmartTV channel beginning on Friday, February 10, at 8 pm, for viewing through Thursday, February 16.
After Yeston took to the mic to share personal backstories about his best friend Ed – most widely known as the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist of A Chorus Line – Maltby returned with specifics about the Kleban’s application and blind-judging process, with the readers of this year’s 200 entries selecting 20 finalists to advance for review and determination of winners by a trio of judges (director Leah C. Gardiner, playwright Julia Jordan, and actor Orville Mendoza). And he observed that, unlike most awards, the Kleban isn’t given for specific past work, but for work not yet written, on the basis of talent.
Special guest and Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell (Kiss Me, Kate), then introduced Lipton and Oliver, who were presented with their prizes, preceded by his reading of a witty letter of congratulations from past recipient David Lindsay-Abair (Kimberly Akimbo) and his own insight that “In the beginning was the word,” so an actor’s first obligation in musical theater is to the writers of the libretto and lyrics.
Each of the winners delivered a gracious acceptance speech, expressing gratitude to their families, friends, and colleagues for their support and to the judges for finding promise in their work, and introduced attendees to the performances and contexts of a selection of two of their own original songs, for which they wrote both the music and lyrics. Lipton, who acknowledged that he is not a musician, sang a cappella versions of “To Suffer” from Dan the Man (a play with music, about mathematics) and “Mostly Dead to Me” from The Seat of Our Pants (an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth) in his amusing signature style.
Oliver’s chosen numbers featured special appearances by two of his most acclaimed long-time friends – Tony Award nominee Alex Brightman (School of Rock; Beetlejuice) and Tony winner Lindsay Mendez (Carousel), accompanied by Joshua Zecher-Ross on piano. Brightman performed a profoundly affecting and sensitive rendition of “Cut You a Piece” from 35mm: A Musical Exhibition (inspired by the photography of Oliver’s husband Matthew Murphy) and Mendez brought her powerful voice to “Map of Scars” from his Southern Gothic musical thriller We Foxes (which he told me is his own favorite work).
I spoke with Lipton and Oliver during the awards reception, to get their reactions to winning the prestigious awards, to find out their plans for the two-year duration of the prize, and what advice they would give to emerging artists. Ryan said he felt a combination of disbelief, joy, and excitement when he was contacted by Kleban board members Maltby and Elliot Brown and told me that he wants the generous prize to support him, but also wants to enjoy it. His best advice to future applicants is to “work hard, don’t give up, and write a new show every year,” as he’s always done and will continue to do for the next two years and into the future.
Ethan revealed that he was driving when he got the news and was so thrilled and excited that he was “squinting” (and joked that he probably shouldn’t have taken the call in the car)! He’s now working on a variety of different projects, including We Are Your Robots, and said that he is “deeply grateful and so delighted to be considered promising – it’s the greatest gift you can give an artist.” And he wants prospective Kleban Prize applicants to know that he had applied eight or nine times before being selected, so the most important thing is to “keep trying!”
To date, the annual Kleban Prize for Musical Theatre has awarded over $6,000,000 to more than 80 artists who have collectively garnered four Tony Awards (with nearly 30 Tony nominations), 59 Emmy Awards, three Grammy Awards, ten Drama Desk Awards, nine Outer Critic Circle Awards, four Obie Awards, two Olivier Awards, and two Pulitzer Prizes. Among the past judges were such theater legends as Stephen Sondheim, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Jerry Herman, Marsha Norman, and Marvin Hamlisch, and along with Lindsay-Abaire, the impressive list of previous Kleban Prize recipients includes Joe Iconis (Be More Chill), Jason Robert Brown (Parade), Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), and Lisa Kron (Fun Home). Congratulations to Ryan Scott Oliver and Ethan Lipton on joining their illustrious ranks!