A one-woman, one-act play with the prosaic title of 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti? It doesn’t sound like very promising source material for a musical, but see for yourself what an amusing, emotionally moving show it turned into, this weekend at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab in its Making Musicals program.
Composer-lyricist-adaptor Barry Kleinbort was commissioned by Tony-nominated actress Penny Fuller (Applause, Rex, Dividing the Estate) who had originated the role of Virginia Carpolotti in a trio of one-act plays by Jeffrey Hatcher collectively known as Three Viewings. You see, all three took place in the viewing room of a funeral home.
That was not the biggest obstacle, though. To Kleinbort, who had worked often with Fuller, conceiving and directing seven cabaret shows for her at the O’Neill Theatre Conference, the material just did not sing.
“She called me over to her apartment and she read me this monologue and I said, ‘I believe there’s a slight problem. There doesn’t seem to be anything musical about it.’ Then she said, ‘You’ll think of something.’
“As a composer, you look for musical triggers. But this was all narration and all passive, all stuff that had happened already, which is not good to sing about,” says Kleinbort. “Songs need to be active, something needs to be worked out in a song. I couldn’t figure out why or how she could break into song.”
The story begins as Virginia is widowed from Ed, her high school sweetheart and husband of 40 years. “She suddenly realizes after his death that he was involved in a lot of duplicitous doings that she had no knowledge of,” says Kleinbort. “Suddenly all these debts become due and cause her to question the relationship with a man she thought she knew. Suddenly, the thing that she holds onto — his love of her — is even in question. Was all that real or just imagined?”
Although he had no idea how he might musicalize the story, Kleinbort knew he wanted to give it a try. But not without Hatcher’s sanction. So Fuller arranged for them to meet over breakfast. “It was the shortest meeting on record,” recalls Kleinbort. “Penny told him the idea and that she wanted me to write it and he said, ‘You have my blessing.’ That was it. I translated that to mean, ‘Go ahead, but I don’t want to have anything to do with it.’”
Kleinbort pored over the source material. “I just read the monologue over and over again and tried to find something in it that would give me an impetus, a pulse,” he says. “In it, Virginia had these tics. Whenever she would get nervous, her collarbone turns red and gets hot. I thought, ‘What if she hums instead?’ At least it’s a musical idea that I thought might lead me to something.
“That really was the way in. Once I had an idea of how music functioned from her nervous situation, that opened the door for me.”
He began by writing a number called “The House on Brae Barton,” Virginia’s wistful memory of the home she shared with Ed. “Because it was the first musical moment that spoke to me,” explains Kleinbort. “I made her kind of a movie buff, which is not in the original play. I decided they had gone to see a revival of ‘Gone with the Wind’ and when Ed hears about Tara, he decides they are going to call their place Brae Barton. That really resonates with people. The feeling was absolutely what (Fuller) hoped I would come up with, the yearning of this woman.”
More overtly comic is “At the Liberty Theatre,” in which Virginia had to invent a plot for a movie called My Friend Irma Goes West, a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis picture that she pretends to her parents she saw when she was really out canoodling with Ed. The incident was mentioned in passing in Hatcher’s play, but Kleinbort seized on its tour de force potential for Fuller.
“I said, ‘No, she’s got to act this moment out.’ I performed it for Penny the first time she heard it and she just looked at me, speechless. That number is a part of me, this is what amuses me.”
After a reading at the O’Neill Center, the show snagged an open slot at New York’s 59 E. 59th St. complex. It played there for four weeks in December 2014, garnering some positive reviews. The critical and popular response was even more enthusiastic a year later at Merrimack Rep in Lowell, Mass.
Kleinbort expected productions at regional theaters around the country to multiply, but it hasn’t happened. “The word that keeps coming up is ‘edge’ as in ‘It doesn’t have enough edge.’ It’s a buzzword and I don’t know that anybody knows what it truly means,” he says.
Fortunately, Caryl Fantel — music director of Theatre Lab’s Making Musicals, who worked with Kleinbort decades ago — reconnected with him and asked if he had anything that would be suitable for the series. He sent her 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti, she flipped for it and quickly booked it.
Area favorite Laura Turnbull will be playing Virginia Carpolotti, under the direction of Michael Leeds. That makes this reading the first time Fuller has not played Virginia and the first time that Kleinbort has not directed it. “It will be interesting to see the show as a bystander,” he says.
From the New York production, the show gained a cast recording and soon the script will be published by Dramatists Play Service. Kleinbort remains optimistic that it will spawn further productions, featuring middle-aged actresses from around the country who recognize a juicy role when they see it.
He feels certain that audiences will embrace the show. “I think they will find it amusing, touching and will be able to take its message and reflect on their own lives a bit,” he says. “And that’s why we go to the theater.”
13 THINGS ABOUT ED CARPOLOTTI, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, FAU campus. Boca Raton. 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $20. Call: 561-297-4784.