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A Great Pearl of a Price

From Merrily to Master Harold, director (and sometime actor) Lonny Price has had one busy season. logo
Lonny Price at the Merrily We Roll Along
reunion concert in September 2002
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Has anyone in the theater ever had a more tumultuous season than Lonny Price? Think of it. He started 2002-2003 in Japan with A Class Act, the musical for which he was a bookwriter, director, and star -- joining only George M. Cohan, Noël Coward, Orson Welles, and Anthony Newley as having had those three credentials for a Broadway musical.

While in Japan, Price got a call from Chase Mishkin asking him to take over the direction of Urban Cowboy when he returned -- now that Phil Oesterman, who was to helm the project, had died. "I said I'd dramaturg it," Price told me last week. "Yet after I read it and met [co-librettist] Aaron [Latham], every time I came up with an idea, he'd say, 'I've wanted to do that for years.' I knew I'd have no prep time and that the show was already cast. But Chase had been good to me over the years, and finally I said, 'Okay, I'll start it after Merrily.'"

Price meant that literally. The 21st reunion concert of Merrily We Roll Along, in which he again played one of the three leads, took place on September 30 and rehearsals for Urban Cowboy began on October 1. He didn't even have a chance to savor the resounding huzzahs that greeted the concert or read the sterling reviews -- though, in the latter case, he wouldn't have read them anyway.

"I gave up reading reviews long ago," he said. "If they're good, you almost always feel they're never good enough, and if they're bad, they're painful." He paused to reflect. "Though after I was told that my [1989] production of The Rothschilds had opened to good reviews, I did want to see what John Simon said about my direction. And what he wrote -- I still remember this verbatim -- was 'The best thing to be said about Lonny Price's directing is that it kept him from being in the show.' I thought, now that's both elegant and brilliant. He was able to destroy both ends of my career in one sentence."

Though Price doesn't read notices, he certainly knew the tenor of those for Urban Cowboy on March 28 that resulted in the closing being announced for March 29. He was in the Broadhurst that Saturday night, preparing to announce after the final curtain call that the cast would perform a song that had been dropped. But mid-performance, Mishkin came up to him. He assumed she was going to say "Don't do the song" and he was going to plead for it, because the cast had liked it so much and was sorry to see it go. But instead, Mishkin gave him the miraculous news that she'd changed her mind and that the show wasn't closing. Price felt as if he'd had a last-minute reprieve from the governor. "And, certainly, the cast felt that way, too," he said. "No one saw it coming. I'll never forget how the audience went wild when I said we'd press on," he added, referring to what may have even eclipsed Merrily as the high point of his season.

But the show just didn't catch on. On Sunday, May 11, the night before the Tony nominations were announced, Price wasn't counting on any, so he and choreographer Melinda Roy (who, in fact, would be nominated) decided to give out their own awards "to support the cast and make them feel loved. We called them the Chesters, because when we were trying out at Coconut Grove, Melinda was sitting next to a woman who fell asleep at the downbeat and didn't wake up until the curtain call, when she turned and asked Melinda, 'Where's Chester?' So that had to be the name of our awards."

Actually, Price said, that snooze was an atypical reaction from the Coconut Grove crowd: "Florida loved the show so much that I was deceived. Things I didn't like, they did, so I started thinking, 'Well, maybe it's me.' Then we got here and the audiences didn't like it in a profound way. We had to do a lot of work, and while we didn't solve the show for the critics, we did solve it for the audiences that came."

In the middle of it all came the Falsettos reunion concert on January 11. Price had performed in the William Finn musical years earlier but stuck to directing duties for the concert. "I had a wonderful time acting, but I much prefer watching other people do it and inspiring them," he told me. "I originally thought I'd be an actor for the rest of my life, but an actor's life is horrible. No -- hard, not horrible. You have to be made of steel and be vulnerable at the same time."

His wanting to concentrate on directing brought on another big change: Though he'd been artistic director for Musical Theater Works for the past few years, Price suddenly resigned. "I love directing, but I don't love raising money or sitting behind a desk," he explained. "I'm not good at it. What I want to do is put together shows and be in a room with actors. I was doing that less and less, so it was the wrong fit for me. At least the Merrily concert was done as a benefit for the company; and it made money for them, so I could leave them in the black."

Christopher Denham (in the role that Lonny Prince originated)
with Danny Glover in "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Now it's on to Athol Fugard's "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys -- another show with which Price has a history, for he played Master Harold in the original production in 1982. What's even more fascinating is that for Price, the 1981-82 season in New York and this one, too, began with Merrily We Roll Along, had Falsettos in between ("I did a reading in spring 1982 at Playwrights Horizons, when the show was called Four Jews in a Room Bitching") and ended with "MASTER HAROLD."

While he enjoyed the challenges of Urban Cowboy, he did concede in reference to the Fugard play that "It's nice to be directing a show where I'm not helping to rewrite or reshape it. If this play doesn't work this time out, it's my fault, for it's a proven piece of material. And the play's in my bones. Not just my blood -- my bones. I'm surprised how much I remember of it from 21 years ago. When I did the Falsettos concert, I found I remembered none of the show, and I did it almost as long ago as 'MASTER HAROLD.'" He paused. "Merrily the first time around? I remember every second."

When he initially auditioned for the role of Master Harold in 1982, he lost it to Zeljko Ivanek. Price went to see that actor play the part in New Haven "because I loved the play and just wanted to see it on stage." As it turned out, he saw it from the stage for 344 performances: Ivanek landed a lucrative movie role and left. Price had to learn the demanding role of Hallie -- a spoiled young man who abuses his father's servants -- in nine days before the show opened in Philadelphia and then New York.

This time out, Price had the idea of asking Danny Glover -- who had played the smallest of the three roles in "MASTER HAROLD" in the original production "before he became DANNY GLOVER," as Price put it -- to take the lead. "It's great to be back with him," Price said, "except that he's told me that many of my relatives have accosted him at airports saying, 'We're related to Lonny Price!'" He told me that directing a major star hasn't been a problem thus far: "Danny calls me Hallie a lot. He sometimes corrects himself, and he sometimes doesn't. I'm fine with either. Now, if he called me Hallie and didn't want to take my direction, that would be another story."

Christopher Denham is playing Hallie now, and Price is making no effort at all to turn the actor into himself -- although he is 23, the precise age that Price, now 44, was when he had the part. "Chris is a very different physical type from me, which is one reason why he's giving a very different performance," said Price. "You have to believe that he's a 17-year-old; luckily, he has the right type of freedom, joy, and playfulness that's hard to find in an actor in his 20s. I wish I were as good then as he is now."

"MASTER HAROLD" opens June 1. The next day, Price will be back at Musical Theater Works, teaching a class on auditioning techniques. In other words, his 2003-2004 season will be getting off to a busy start -- and we haven't even talked about his commitments to direct Patti LuPone in Passion, Kristin Chenoweth in Candide, and a musical called Doll. Could Lonny Price wind up having an even more eventful season than the one that's just now ending?


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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