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BWW Interviews: Kleban Awards for Mills and Wyner

It's that time of the year again for the recognition of some amazing up and coming talent on the theatre scene, specifically, the 20th Annual Kleban Awards. The Kleban Foundation is pleased to announce that the 20th Annual Kleban Prize for the most promising musical theater lyricist has gone to Peter Mills and the award for the most promising musical theater librettist has gone to Barry Wyner. The 2010 awards will be presented on June 21, 2010, in a private ceremony (by invitation only) at ASCAP.

Mills recently wrote music and lyrics for Golden Boy Of The Blue Ridge, a critically-acclaimed bluegrass adaptation of J.M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World set in 1930s Appalachia. He was the recipient of the 2007 Fred Ebb Award for emerging songwriters, the 2003 Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award from the ASCAP Foundation, and a 2002 grant from the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation. In addition, he received 2006 Drama Desk Award nominations for his show The Pursuit Of Persephone (Best Music and Best Orchestrations).  He supplied lyrics for Iron Curtain, (book by Susan DiLallo, music by Stephen Weiner), which received the 2006 IT Award for Best Musical and was selected for the 2008 Eugene O'Neill Musical Theatre Conference. Illyria, a musical adaptation of Twelfth Night, had its regional premiere at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Fall 2004, with a cast album released in April 2005.  His first full-length show, The Taxi Cabaret, was published by Samuel French in Fall 2004. Marco Polo, written with composer Deborah Abramson, was selected for the ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop in 2000, and Peter and Deborah were chosen as 2000-01 Dramatists Guild Fellows. As composer/lyricist, other shows include The AlchemistsLonely RhymesThe Rockae and Honor. Peter holds an M.F.A. in Musical Theater Writing from New York University's Tisch School for the Arts and a degree in English/Dramatic Literature from Princeton University. He is a founding member of Prospect Theater Company. For more information visit

Wyner wrote the book, music, and lyrics to the musical Calvin Berger, which recently had a critically acclaimed production at George Street Playhouse (New Brunswick, NJ) under the direction of two-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall. It also has had full productions at Gloucester Stage Co. and Barrington Stage Co., and is currently under commercial option for New York City. Barry is a previous winner of both the Richard Rodgers Award and the Jerry Bock Award, and received an IRNE Award nomination for best new play (Independent Reviewers of New England). He has had developmental readings of his work at Manhattan Theatre Club, NAMCO (Barry and Fran Weissler, producers), Musicals Tonight, and Blue Spruce Productions (Scott Delman, producer). Barry has composed original music for a Terrence McNally world premiere, several Israel Horovitz world premieres, a BBC Radio play (starring Jill Clayburgh), Boston Theater Marathon, Actor's Studio, Wings Theater, Access Theater, AMDA, The Battery's Down, and many more. One of his songs was published in the BMI Workshop Songbook and subsequently recorded by Neil Patrick Harris. Barry was also the original arranger and music director of Gutenberg! The Musical! at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. He received a BA from UNC-Chapel Hill and MFA from Queens College, both in music composition, and is currently in the BMI Advanced Musical Theatre Workshop. For more information visit

The Kleban Foundation was established in 1988 under the will of Edward L. Kleban, best known as the Tony® and Pulitzer Prize winning lyricist of the musical A Chorus Line.  The will made provision for two annual prizes, each in the amount of $100,000 payable over two years, to be given to the most promising lyricist and librettist in American Musical Theater. The judges making the final determination this year were Craig Carnelia (Tony Award nominated lyricist, Working and Sweet Smell of Success), Susan Drury (Grants Administrator of the Dramatists' Guild Fund) and playwright and librettist Jeffrey Sweet (Luv and I Sent a Letter to My Love).

"For two decades, The Kleban Prize has recognized and honored the American Musical Theatre's brightest developing talents," says Tony Award winner Richard Maltby, Jr, President of the Kleban Foundation. "The Kleban Prize is unique in that it is bestowed not just for an artist's previous achievements, but for the promise of creativity to come. In Ed Kleban's experience, young composers always seemed able to support themselves in the theatre, but promising lyricists and librettists often had to struggle. This Prize was Kleban's attempt to help promising writers when they needed support most -- when starting out. The Prize has recognized musical theatre artists who went on to create such notable productions as Avenue QGrey GardensThe Wild PartyParade, ShrekThe Last Five YearsThe Little Mermaid, AssassinsThe Wedding Singer and Legally Blonde." 

Previous recipients of the annual Kleban Prize include David Lindsay-Abaire (Shrek), Jason Robert Brown (ParadeThe Last Five Years), John Bucchino (A Catered AffairIt's Only Life), Gretchen Cryer (I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the RoadThe Last Sweet Days of Isaac), Michael Korie (Grey GardensHappiness), Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), Michael John LaChiusa (See What I Want To SeeThe Wild Party), Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid) and John Weidman (Pacific OverturesRoad ShowAssassins).

The opportunity presented itself to talk to the award winners about the awards and to find out a little more about their past, present and future plans.


Congratulations on this prestigious award.  How did it feel when you first got news of this honor?

MILLS:  It was a strange day.  After many long uneventful weeks, during which it felt like I was mostly waiting for things to happen-the announcement of the Kleban Prize among them-suddenly I got two very momentous phone calls within a few minutes of each other.  The first was some shocking and sad family news; the second was from Richard Maltby.  I was already stunned from the first news, so getting this wonderful news on top of that made the whole morning feel downright surreal.  Fortunately it was April 2, otherwise I might have suspected it was an elaborate April Fool's Day joke.  It also happened to be Good Friday-and looking back, that seems somehow appropriate to the ambivalent mixture of joy and sorrow I felt that day. 

What would you say has been the defining moment in your life that made you think, "I want to do this for a living."?

MILLS:  I am not a decisive person, so I don't think I ever "decided" this was what I would do.  If anything, it was more like I never made the decision to stop doing it.  I started writing songs during college, and found that it was something I could do.  So after school I moved to New York to keep doing it, though I was hardly certain that it would be my career.  I thought I would try it for a few years-but I could still decide to go to law school, right?  In a field like musical theater writing, there is the constant nagging suspicion that this is not something reasonable to be doing with one's life.  And yet, year after year, I continued to get a lot of satisfaction from it.  There were difficult stretches, but there always seemed to be just enough encouragement and validation to keep me going.  Before I knew it, fifteen years had gone by, and now I'm starting to think it's too late to be a lawyer.   

How will winning this award affect your career?

MILLS:  I think it might lead to more people seeking me out as a lyricist.  Almost all of the projects that I have worked on to date have been shows that I conceived with my collaborator (and wife), Cara Reichel.  For the last ten years, we've created a new musical every year-all of them produced off-Off-Broadway by Prospect Theater Company, of which we are founding members.  Only very recently have I begun to have some significant opportunities outside of those self-generated projects.  I hope that the prestige of this award will help to get my name out there and lead to more instances of producers saying, "Hey, let's get that guy."  Of course, I also hope that it will spark some interest in my existing catalog of shows.  I have written a lot of musicals-and I hope more people find out about them and want to produce them!

Who would you say has been your inspiration for your work and why?

MILLS:  As I mentioned above, all of my shows have been projects that I created with my wife.  In fact, many of them began as an idea of hers that she convinced me to work on with her.  So I don't know whether it's more accurate to say that she supplies the inspiration or the instigation.  But in either case, the shows wouldn't have happened without her.  She has been my producer, my director, my editor, my co-writer-and my collaborator in all endeavors.

What is your outlook on musical theatre coming up in the next decade?

MILLS:  Oh, gosh-I don't think I have much perspective on it at all!  Most of the time I'm too absorbed in my own struggles with writing to stop and look at what's happening to the business as a whole. I've been told it's dying out ever since I've been aware of it.  And yet it seems like there's more and more of it all the time.  Every season, I'm amazed how many new musicals come along.  And in such a niche field, I'm also amazed how often I've never heard of the writers.  The graduate program I attended has continued to grow and grow, turning out more writers every year.  More and more regional theaters are developing new musicals.  More and more universities have musical theater programs, some of which have also gotten involved in developing new work.  Meanwhile, on Broadway itself, there's less and less new work.  I don't know what it all means, or what my own place in the changing landscape will be.  My hope is that through some sort of pop-cultural cross-pollination, musical theater will have a renaissance, and we'll have another Golden Age with dozens of new musicals opening on Broadway every season.  That would be nice. 

Was your education important in getting you where you are today?

MILLS:  Absolutely.  I was an English major, with a concentration in Drama.  I think I've now done musical adaptations of at least three of the plays that I studied when I was an undergraduate.  College gave me a good grounding in theater-primarily the non-musical variety, though I did write my senior thesis on musical theater.  Also, I should mention, it was my extra-curricular involvement with the Princeton Triangle Club, an undergraduate group that puts on a student-written musical every year, which got me interested in musical theater and gave me my first opportunity to write.  A few years after college, I went back to grad school at NYU's Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program.  There, I was exposed to a wide variety of other writers.  As a lyricist, I collaborated with a dozen or so different composers, and learned a lot from that experience.  I also learned from my fellow lyricists in the program, getting a sense of my own voice among a spectrum of styles.  Both my undergraduate and graduate experiences formed certain habits in me: as an undergraduate, I worked on a new, original musical every year-and I have continued that pattern.  And in grad school, weekly assignments taught me to write to a deadline, and having a deadline is still the main thing that gets me to write.    

Do you have any upcoming works being presented in the near future?

MILLS:  I have a CD release coming up on June 30th:  the original cast recording of my bluegrass musical, Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge.  I'm very excited about that, because I don't have many studio recordings of my shows.  This will be the first show of mine available commercially, on iTunes and such.  And then my F. Scott Fitzgerald show, The Pursuit of Persephone, has been optioned and I'm in the midst of rewrites.  With any luck, there will be a reading or workshop of that coming up in the not-too-distant future.  

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to venture into this field?

MILLS:  I can only speak to the particular choices I made.  Being part of a theater company has given me the invaluable experience of doing actual productions-going through the full process with actors and designers, seeing my work in front of audiences, getting reviewed by critics.  However, it hasn't always been easy, and there are times when I think it might have been wiser to concentrate on one longer-term project-developing a show through a series of readings or workshops, making a fancier demo recording, and waiting until it was truly ready.  It's hard for me to give anyone advice, because I don't feel like I have the answers.  I'm still trying to figure it out.  The only thing I can tell others is the same thing I say to myself:  be patient; find a way to keep doing what you love, and eventually success will come-I hope. 


Congratulations on this prestigious award.  How did it feel when you first got news of this honor?

WYNER:  I screamed quite loud on the phone, including many profanities. It probably hurt their ears.  I'm lucky they didn't change their minds right then. I've just always had a reverence for writers who won the Kleban. It's a pretty elite group. I had applied for it 6 or 7 times before. By the way I take back everything I said about the committee members (and their mothers) all the years they did not select me.

What would you say has been the defining moment in your life that made you think, "I want to do this for a living?"

WYNER:  I had that moment halfway through college-summer before junior year. If it were a musical, I would have burst into a big "I Want" song. I was pursuing a major in advertising because it seemed like a safer career path than musical theatre. That summer I interned at an ad agency, and kept trying to get assigned jobs that were isolated ("I'll clean that closet... I'll pick up your dry cleaning") so I could listen to showtunes on my Discman. I felt nothing for the advertising industry, and I felt more strongly than ever that musical theatre-- life set to music-- was my true purpose. When I got back to school I switched my major and started writing musicals. I haven't stopped since. 

How will winning this award affect your career? 

WYNER:  For the Kleban committee to have chosen my work makes me feel so legitimate and worthy. It changes how I view myself and I suspect how others view me, too. I hate talking about money, but everyone knows this prize comes with a lot, and that is simply life-changing for me. When you're worried about how you're going to get by, it is difficult to get into that relaxed, creative zone mentally. At least for me it is. There are many costs of trying to make it as a writer that people don't realize: recording studio time, rehearsal space, paying actors, photocopying scripts, seeing colleagues' shows, FedExing a script, large amounts of alcohol to calm the nerves.... Things add up. Plus, those printer ink cartridges are such a rip-off.

Who would you say has been your inspiration for your work and why?

WYNER:  I draw a lot of artistic inspiration from the older generation. The work is witty and original, yet structured and clean. I especially love Bock and Harnick, Frank Loesser, Rodgers and Hart, and of course, Sondheim. At the personal level, I draw more inspiration from the newer generation. Writers in the so-called Golden Age were in such a different climate that it's tough to relate. Dozens of new and original musicals were done on Broadway every year. They didn't require 10 million dollars and 20 producers above the title, and weren't workshopped for 7 years first. In the modern era, I draw my inspiration mostly from Jonathan Larson, Adam Guettel, and Bill Finn. Jonathan Larson inspires me for his perseverance and faith. Adam and Bill inspire me for their originality and artistic true-ness. They write what they hear and don't cater it to outside tastes or styles. It's not that I want my work to resemble theirs. Only Adam could have written Piazza and only Bill could have written Falsettos. My goal is to have a "voice" in my writing as unique and recognizable as theirs, and as true to my own personality and experience.

What is your outlook on musical theatre coming up in the next decade? 

WYNER:  I think the genre needs to update with the times and stay relevant, but I do not think it needs reinvention. Not that I am old-fashioned. I just think the nuts and bolts of a good musical-you can even call it formula- became convention because they work. And I think there will always be room for good solid shows that play by some or all of the "rules." Art always has that tension between tradition and innovation, and I think the key is finding a happy medium. Every year, there's at least one musical that I find encouraging and exciting, like Next To Normal, [title of show],  or In The Heights. I can't say I love the current trend toward safe-ness through recognizable music and titles, but of course I get it. And who am I to tell producers to be risky? I don't mind that schlock gets done, as long as the good work gets done, too. As long as there is the potential for a show like Next To Normal, which had no star and nothing recognizable, to break through, I remain very optimistic.

Was your education important in getting you where you are today? 

WYNER:  I studied music at the bachelors and masters levels. It's tough to know the exact role that training has played since I can't consult some alternate universe where I studied plumbing, but I suspect it has helped a lot. The danger of formally studying your artform is that academics find patterns and call them "rules." Once you start thinking that way, it's easy to write inside the box, and hard to get out. Mozart often wrote in sonata form, but I doubt he saw it as a rule, just an aesthetic. And besides he often twisted it. I found the BMI Workshop incredibly helpful and would highly recommend it. I cherish what they taught me, but even more the artistic community and support. That is what I needed, and I'm not sure I'd even be giving this interview had they not provided it.

Do you have any upcoming works being presented in the near future? 

WYNER:  My musical Calvin Berger just had a first-rate production at George Street Playhouse, directed by Kathleen Marshall. I am hoping for a New York incarnation in the near future. Other than that, I am working on a new project but nothing I want to reveal. It's like pregnancy. I just want to make sure everything is progressing healthily before telling everyone.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to venture into this field? 

WYNER:  Be patient. Musicals are inevitably a tortoise industry. Your show might take 5 years of development to get 5 weeks of recognition. Not a great ratio, so if you're only after the recognition there are probably better ways. That said, there is nothing more thrilling than having actors bring your words to life, so I say it's worth the wait. The game of writers marketing themselves has really changed, and I think we need to be careful not to focus on the self-promotion. I don't think having a song in a benefit concert every week or getting a thousand hits on YouTube will sustain a career or create a body of work. Shows do that. I would also encourage writers to understand convention before breaking it. You can chart that evolution in the work of almost all artistic giants, whether it's Beethoven or Sondheim or the Beatles. The last thing I'd say is be judicious whose advice you follow. Some people are smart and nice and really want to help you, but some just want to hear themselves talk. So if you have a strong instinct, trust it.

On behalf of, I would like to offer our sincere congratulations to Mills and Wyner and look forward to seeing more exciting works from them.

Photos (From Top): Peter Mills, Barry Wyner

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