2021 Kleban Prize Honors librettists and lyricists of extraordinary promise
Lyricist Benjamin Scheuer and co-librettists Melissa Li and Kit Yan have been selected as the winners of the 31st annual Kleban Prize for Musical Theatre. While the award celebrates the artists’ career work overall, all three winners recently created works that center the transgender community and experience.
The 2021 prizes will be presented March 16 during a free virtual ceremony at 10 AM on NewDramatists.org. The event will feature musical performances from this year’s recipients; Tony winners and Kleban board members Richard Maltby, Jr. and Maury Yeston will host.
Scheuer, who won Most Promising Musical Theatre Lyricist, created The Lion. The show follows Scheuer as he (along with six guitars) shares the turbulent story of his family and his own brush with mortality. The show won the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. His album Songs from The Lion was released in 2016 and, in March 2020, Scheuer released the song “I Am Samantha,” the first single off his upcoming album from Canvasback/Atlantic Records and Parlophone.
The music video for the song features 27 trans performers. With playwright Melis Aker, Scheuer is working on adapting his own children’s book Hundred Feet Tall into a musical. With Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, Peter and the Star Catcher) he’s writing a musical about Peter Roget, the fellow who wrote the eponymous Thesaurus.
Li and Yan, who won Most Promising Musical Theatre Librettist, created the musicals Interstate and MISS STEP together. In March, they’ll present their digital variety show Unremarkable!, featuring Marc delaCruz, Ruthie Ann Miles, Stephanie Hsu, and more.
Individually, Li is a recipient of the Jonathan Larson Award, a Dramatists Guild Foundation Fellow, and a Lincoln Center Theater Writer-in-Residence. Her own musicals include Cancelled and Surviving the Nian. Yan is a 2019 Bret Adams and Paul Reisch Vivace award winner and has been a fellow at the Dramatists Guild Foundation, Playwright’s Center, and Company One/Pao Arts.
This year’s judges were four-time Tony nominee Raúl Esparza (Company, Seared), 2020 Kleban Prize winner Mike Lew (Teenage Dick) and performer-director Seret Scott (for colored girls…, My Sister, My Sister).
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. Kleban’s will made provisions for annual prizes, which in recent years have totaled $100,000 each, payable over two years.
Previous winners include Shaina Taub (The Devil Wears Prada), Lisa Kron (Fun Home), Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), Jason Robert Brown (Parade), Michael Korie (Grey Gardens), and Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q).
(Background from Playbill: INTERVIEW: How a Life-Changing Road Trip Inspired Writing Duo Melissa Li and Kit Yan to Pen a Musical)