5 Questions: Barry Kleinbort Confesses “13 Things About Ed Carpolotti”

Just one of those 13 things: Penny Fuller in Ed Carpolotti. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Just one of those 13 things: Penny Fuller in Ed Carpolotti. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

You can just forget whatever else you’ve heard or whatever else anyone has told you. Ed Carpolotti was a good man. Sure, he died and left his wife the galling news that he was in perilous hock up to his eyeballs, and not just in-hock-to-the-bank hock but in-hock-to-the-mob hock and in-hock-to-embezzlers hock. For his widow, Virginia, he was still a good man. She loved him. And he loved her.

And so the stage is set for 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti, a musicalization of one of three monologues from Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Three Viewings, which will run through Dec. 30 at 59E59 Theaters. It stars the great and ever-enduring Penny Fuller, whose first major break on Broadway came in 1964, playing Corie Bratter during the long, long run of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, and whose even bigger break came six years later when she originated the role of Eve Harrington in the Tony-winning musical Applause. (Her innumerable credits on stage and also on TV, earning her an Emmy, are well-known to all with Main Stem mania.)

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Of special note, however, is Fuller’s successfully collaboration, since 2001, with the versatile and insightful songwriter and director Barry Kleinbort on a series of cabaret performances that have deepened the visceral connection Fuller forges with her audience.

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This sets the change for her deft, empathetic portrayal of Virginia in 13 Things, a woman who must not only learn the painful ropes of widowhood and confront her husband’s previously undiscovered legacy but also figure out how to deal with the present: an anonymous blackmailer who demands a cool million dollars from her or else will air every bit of poor Ed’s dirty laundry for all the public to see. How Virginia carefully (and later very cunningly) navigates through these painfully murky, eye-opening waters — and how Fuller puts it all together, emotionally and cognitively — is a testimonial to the cohesion in Kleinbort’s writing. (He also wrote the book for the piece, and directs.)

If you’re unfamiliar with Kleinbort’s achievements through the years, what rock have you been living under? Here, read this:

Barry Kleinbort has earned the prestigious Edward Kleban Foundation Award for Lyric Writing, two Gilman-Gonzalez Musical Theatre Awards, the Second Stage Musical Theatre Writers Award, the Jamie deRoy ASCAP Foundation Award, two Back Stage Bistro Awards and ten Manhattan Association of Cabarets (MAC) Awards for his directorial and songwriting efforts. Mr. Kleinbort has directed and/or written material for Brent Barrett, Petula Clark, Marvin Hamlisch, Kaye Ballard, Regis Philbin, John Barrowman, Penny Fuller, Tony Roberts, Anita Gillette, Karen Mason, Rita Gardner, John Epperson (aka Lypsinka), Sylvia McNair, Harolyn Blackwell, Heather MacRae, and many, many others. He wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Was (music by Joseph Thalken), which was the inaugural production of the American Musical Theater Project in Chicago. He co-wrote, with David Levy, Perfect Harmony, a musical play about the lives of the Barry Sisters. A highly acclaimed revue of his theater songs, Big City Rhythm, is available on Harbinger Records. Most recently he did the English music and lyrics for Metropolita(i)n, a bi-lingual musical revue, which has successfully played both Paris and New York. He also provided scripts for eight PBS TV specials and, most recently, was an artistic consultant for Cathouse: The Musical for HBO.

And now, 5 questions Barry Kleinbort has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Well, this wasn’t a question, but an observation. And it’s had a profound effect on my work ever since. I was working on a musical with a wonderful writer, Denny Martin Flinn. He was doing the book and I was writing the music and lyrics. He handed me a scene and I wrote a song for the character in that scene, an out-of-work jazz musician who just arrived in New York City from his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The song was called “Milwaukee.” After I played the song for Denny, he said “that’s the difference between you and me. I’m a craftsman and you’re an artist.” I said, “Why do you say that? What’s the difference?” And he said, “A craftsman sees what’s there and an artist sees what isn’t.” I don’t know if I’m truly an artist, but from that moment on, I’ve always tried to see “what isn’t there.”

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I think the winner in this category would have to be an exchange that happened this summer when we performed 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti for one night at the O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. A singer whom I have known for years was in attendance. And she knew that, among other things, I put together a lot of cabaret acts for people. After the performance of 13 Things, she came up to me and said, “That was fantastic. You amaze me. How did you ever find all those songs to fit into that story?” I couldn’t believe it. I said, “I wrote them.” And she said, “You write?” For starters…there is a title song in 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti. What did she think, I found a song with that title and then decided I’d call the show that?!! Moral: Even when you think people know what you do, they really don’t know what you do. And let’s get on with it.

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3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I had put together a revue of my theatre songs called Big City Rhythm. It had a wonderful cast of four Broadway singer-actors and we enjoyed a successful run in New York at the Triad Theater. We even recorded the show on a CD. A woman from a theatre company in Florida contacted me, as she had bought the album and just loved it. She wanted to know if her theatre could license the show for their small cabaret space. I said, “Sure.” Then came this question: “How big is the size of the cast?” I said, “Four.” She said, “Is it possible to do it with a smaller cast?” I said, “…three?” She said, “Smaller.” “…two?” She said, “Yes. With four, we lose money. With three, we break even. With two, we make a profit.” I asked her how she would manage the opening number which is written as a counterpoint ensemble for three voices? “Hmmm,” she said. “I’ll get back to you.” I never heard from her again.

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Barry Kleinbort

4) Given what happens before 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti begins, is it fair to say we can never really, truly know everything about those to whom we feel closest? If so (or if not), how do you write about that?
I think there is always some bit of information that every single one of us takes along with us to the grave. Something that we never share. A secret. Maybe not as big as the one that Ed takes with him in this play, but something. We all have our own life experiences, recollections, touchstones. We know things about the people in our lives only to the extent that we ourselves are capable of knowing them. Even if someone tells us something, we may not process it the way they are telling it. We only have our own perspective to go by. I hope this makes some sense. Jeffrey Hatcher wrote the play that the musical is based on, so he started this particular ball rolling. What I discovered, as a songwriter, is that the character of Virginia can explore in song a non-realistic form of communication, feelings that she probably had never shared with Ed when he was alive. That’s the joy of writing for the stage: layers. Music telling us one thing, words telling us something else. And then we as an audience put it all together.

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5) What is the biggest difference between a song inspired by your own personal emotion and a song dictated by the needs of a character? How often do your songs represent both types of inspirations?
I attended an interview recently where Stephen Sondheim was asked if “Anyone Can Whistle” was his most “personal” song. And he emphatically replied, “NO! It was written for a character to sing in a musical. Every one of my songs is about me…and none of them are about me. They’re always about the characters who sing them.” Amen. Every song I write is from my personal emotional arsenal. And, in the writing, I often connect with some part of me that I didn’t even know was there. I can’t speak for other writers, but when I hear a song performed by somebody months after I have written it, I have no recollection of having written it, no idea where that expression came from. Listening to it is an out-of-body experience. To write a song, I have to find that thing about the character, the situation, the “moment” that interests me enough to invest the time, sweat and servitude. Every time I write something, whether it’s a comedy number or a serious ballad, it costs a little piece of me. My DNA is in everything I write. Otherwise, why bother?

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Bonus question:

6) Ed Carpolotti is not dead — he’s in the Witness Protection Program and living abroad. You have five minutes of unfettered access with no restrictions on what you may discuss. What do you ask him? What do you want him to say?
No questions. I would only want to say to him, “You lucky son of a gun. Even with all of the mishegas you’ve saddled your poor wife with, she still loves you unwaveringly. When somebody has a love like that, they should consider themselves truly blessed.