Interview: With Lonny Price, Broadway Title Tunes Merrily Roll Along
Well, of course, Lonny Price — the actor of Merrily We Roll Along and Rags, and director of Camelot and Company concerts — is partial to Broadway title tunes. You could even say passionate, as he is now directing a whole musical extravaganza that prances out 27 or 28 of them in a row.
Show of Titles, premiering Sunday, June 13, at 7pm ET and available for four days only, will turn scores of Broadway talents loose on these numbers — worthies like Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Osnes, Glenn Close, Jake Gyllenhaal, Darren Criss, Norm Lewis, Patti LuPone, and Kelsey Grammer. There will also be introductions and special appearances by Danny Burstein, John Lithgow, Bryan Cranston, Phylicia Rashad, BD Wong, John Leguizamo, and Broadway Inspirational Voices. All proceeds will benefit the Actors Fund.
A title tunefest is an idea whose time has come, but Price insists it's not his. "That's Jeff's baby," he says upfront, referring to Jeffrey Richards, who is executive-producing the show. It's coming at a time when title songs are inching toward the extinction list. A half-century ago, there were show staples. Now, they're rarities. Which makes this show something of a bygone salute.
Assembling the songs was the first order of business for Richards and Price. Unashamedly, they played their favorites. Apparently, the selections were favorites of others as well because the guest-list of participants grew accordingly. "It started much smaller," Price recalls, "but Jeff really wanted it to be epic, so the song list just kept ballooning and performers kept being added."
Efforts were made to fit the song to the singer rather than the other way around. "We started with the songs and tried to find performers who would serve the material best — vocally as well as essence-wise. When we got to people singing what they made famous or what made them famous, it's a no-brainer to get the original stars. Like "Hallelujah, Baby!" Leslie Uggams was one of the first people asked. She did that song in 1968, got a Tony for it and is still in fabulous shape.
"There is a series of people re-creating their original performances. Patti LuPone is singing "Anything Goes." Kelli O'Hara is singing "Light in the Piazza." Melba Moore is singing "Purlie." Michael Rupert sings "Sweet Charity." Will Swenson and Gavin Creel do "Hair."
There are some oddities along the way. "Dance a Little Closer" is a title song with a romantic surge from a fast flop by Charles Strouse and Alan Jay Lerner (it closed on opening night), and it's assigned to Glenn Close. "I was looking for something for Glennie, something juicy for her to act."
A full band will accompany the singers. "Jason Howland did all the arrangements. Some of them are highly traditional, and some he has been extremely creative with. I think it's a nice mix."
Built into the show is a tribute to 95-year-old Angela Lansbury — a source of considerable pride for Price. She does the intro herself. "That seemed like a good idea," Price beamed. Otherwise, picking the presenters required thought. "I'm not going to say it was random, but we would think of what songs needed an introduction," says Price. "You don't have to introduce 'Hello, Dolly!' You don't have to introduce 'Anyone Can Whistle' or 'On a Clear Day.' Everyone knows what they are, but some of the more obscure ones we thought needed a little bit of help. Also, I didn't want to have a night that was schematic where a narrator introduced a song, did it, then another introduction. That would be boring. We tried to group them together in a way that set them off."
Currently, Price is working with his regular associate, Matt Cawart, and editor Jim Glaub putting the show together. "Everybody had to film it themselves so we're in the process of gathering all the material. We'd talk through how it could be filmed, and people filmed it from their homes. Their husbands are filming it or their wives or their best friends. Everybody's kinda pitching in."
"Because of the contract we're on, we're not allowed to be in the vicinity of the performer, which was challenging. Jeff had a contract with his Spotlight on Plays, which only allowed a certain kind of flexibility with the performers so we had to adhere to those restrictions. And we did."
"Challenging" is the nice way of saying it, but it has been Price's biggest headache doing this show "that I can't be with the performers while they're working on the material, that I can't make suggestions. We kinda have to take what they've done because we can't bother them to do it over and over again. Just as a director, being a control freak, you wish you could have been in the room with them a little bit. And that's hard for all of us for this whole period of time. We all love being in a room together so it can be very frustrating that way. Also, not to be able to film them — to plot camera moves and stuff like that. None of that is possible. That's just the limitation of it. I think it's been difficult — the amount of restrictions, just how much there was."
The only Broadway title tune that escapes Price-Richards's scrutiny is the late-blooming one — the one written when the show turns to film. It happens: Charles Strouse and Lee Adams got an order for a "Bye Bye Birdie" title tune to build up Ann-Margret's role. As for the Oscar-nominated "Funny Girl," Jule Styne and Bob Merrill dropped it on the road but restored it in the film.
"If there's ever another edition of Show of Titles," promises Price, "they may be in it."