Interview with Lonny Price
by Matthew Murray
Though Lonny Price first made his name as an actor, appearing on Broadway in productions of major shows such as Merrily We Roll Along and Master Harold ... and the Boys, he has become increasingly prominent as a director in recent years, staging the high-profile 2000 Sweeney Todd concert (which was filmed for television) and the musical A Class Act, which had its Broadway run in the spring of 2002. Price, who also starred in A Class Act on Broadway, discusses the Pasadena Playhouse production (which runs through June 15), the show's history and future, and his own work as an actor and director.
Matthew Murray: In recent years, you've made a new name for yourself as a director ...
Lonny Price: Before A Class Act I hadn't acted for ten years.
MM: How did the change come about?
LP: Well, I was doing a play at the American Jewish Theatre called The Immigrant. The artistic director (Stanley Brechner) asked me for suggestions of the next show they were doing, and it was a musical, and I gave him some and he said, "What about you?" I had never really thought about being a director, which is really weird, though my friends had told me in all the shows I'd ever been in, I'd been directing them anyway! Which I didn't think was a compliment, but a lot of times you'd have a director who didn't say anything, and finally someone had to say, "I guess I'll come in here and go to there, and then you do this and you come here and you do that," and then I'd turn to the director and say, "Is that okay with you?" and usually he'd go, "Uh huh." A lot of them just didn't have much to say.
So I guess I was kind of bossy and I'd been doing that for years. I did The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, which was a George Abbott musical and the first thing I directed, and I loved it. It was great for me to worry about them and not about me. It was great to put my focus on them and not on myself. And I found that very enlivening. Also, my type was getting more and more limited. I'd lost my hair, or most of it, or some of it. When I started acting, I was playing east end London kids in Master Harold ... and the boys, and as time went on, I was playing the Jewish accountant in the corner. And that started to be less and less interesting. So, when I started directing, I found I really loved it. I did an Irish musical and I did a Jules Pfeiffer play, and I did Neil Simon ... As a director, I got to do all kinds of theatre, and I found that really exciting. And you're in control of your life. As an actor, you're always waiting for someone to give you a job, and as a director, I can create my own opportunity, and that was very interesting to me at the age of thirty.
MM: How do you feel that your work as an actor affected the way you direct?
LP: I'd like to think I'm a good actor's director. I understand the process, and I feel like I can be helpful and nurturing and supportive. I feel like I know how to talk to actors, and some people who direct musicals don't. So, I think that's always been an asset. I also think the performances are the most important thing. I think you can do without the set, and you can do without some of the lights ... What an audience responds to is people, humanity. So I really enjoy making a connection with an actor and helping them through their performance. I love that part. My favorite thing in the world is being in a room with actors ... and good material. Which you don't get all that often!
MM: How did A Class Act originally come about?
LP: Well, Linda Kline, my collaborator, had these songs ... actually years before that, Ira Weitzman had sent me a bunch of Ed Kleban's songs on some tapes which I really loved and didn't know what to do with. And then I did this play, Sally Marr ... and her escorts, the Joan Rivers play, and Linda Kline had seen it and for some bizarre reason thought I would be right to direct a musical of Ed Kleban's work. So she got in touch with me through a musical friend, Grant Strierali, who was actually one of the pianists on the original Gallery and he's an old pal of mine and we did shows together and stuff. So, I went over to Linda's apartment and listened to the songs and fell in love with them again and got very excited about the idea of putting them on the stage. The conventional wisdom, of course, was to do a revue, but I actually don't like and/or understand revues, it's just not a form that I admire particularly. Though I admire people who do them well, I don't understand why they work, so I felt I was the wrong guy. I like book songs, I like songs that are about characters. So, I said what about a book show, and she said great, she was very excited about it.
As we got into the material, it occurred to us that Ed's material was so idiosyncratic, so specific, so urban, it had a unified voice. You couldn't do this kind of show with Stephen Sondheim's music, for instance, because Pacific Overtures does not sound like Company which doesn't sound like Night Music, I mean, he's so chameleon-like, and Ed really was a very specific kind of guy. I never met Ed. And Linda, I think wisely, wanted somebody to work on the material who had never met him. She wanted a fresh voice, someone who would freshly respond to his material. So, essentially, that's how it came about and we did six years of readings at Musical Theatre Works and it was terrible for a long time and my best friends told me to abandon it, and no one liked it, and then, finally, it just sort of took shape and we did yet another reading, the Manhattan Theatre Club and they liked it, and Marty Bell came, and rest, as they say, you know. That's how it all happened.
MM: What was your concept for the show?
LP: What I hated about the British shows is they seem as though an audience's involvement is not necessary. They're like these big machines that start, and I always think the building could fall down and they would still go on. That they're very machine-like, they're like these steamrollers, they're very powerful and they're very loud, they're very mechanized ... What I wanted to create was a show where Sara [Ramirez, the original Broadway Felicia] could stop the show. That there were laughs that would change the timing. That there would be a kind of flow that the audience's participation was important, that you weren't just watching it as a bystander. You were part of the night by their reaction to it. A lot of these shows, I find, are very like a wall in that, I could cough or throw up or laugh or not laugh, and it would come in. I think the stage managers must get it in at the same time each night, because there's no kind of life in them in that way, and I believe in theatre where, if it's going to be live, I want it to be influenced. The show is also built very definitely on everyone having a moment. Everybody in that show had a moment to shine, where it was their ten minutes, and I felt really strong about coming from the factor that there would be no bad part in the show. And I worked really hard on that. I think part of that--maybe why it changed so much--is that people are hotter one night or not, or the audience liked this guy more than they liked this guy. I very much wanted it not to be mechanical, and I had a great company of actors who never phoned it in, I just never felt anyone walked through that show ever.
MM: How much did the show change from its original form?
LP: A lot. First of all, there was a wonderful song that Ed wrote called "Harold." The lyrics are great: "Harold is nice, so shy behind the glasses, you'd hardly know he was there / Don't ask him twice, the boiling point of gas is / In a storm he'll clothe and feed you / He's his own encylopedia."
It was this little girl singing about this friend that she loved. We decided to make [the show] about a guy named Harold who was a composer and a lyricist. And then we sort of got the idea through a lot of people - Joe Masteroff is one, Stephen Schwartz is another - who said, "Look, unless you name the names and really say this is about the guy who wrote A Chorus Line, no one's going to be interested." Once we decided to tell the truth about Ed and name the names and stuff like that, then it started to fall into place a little bit. So, yes, enormous amounts of changes. I mean, in six years, as you can imagine, there were a lot of versions!
MM: How have the actors helped shape the show?
LP: The original ones, enormously. We wrote it on them, there's no question. That original cast will always be the template for who will do them from now on. Something as silly as their vocal ranges or why the vocal arrangements are the way they are. But they had a lot of input and I'm enormously grateful to them, because the show improved because of their suggestions, always. David Hibbert, Ray Wills who did the original, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Daisy Prince who did readings of it, Randy Graff ... It's incalculable how much better the show is because of them.
MM: What changes were made between the Broadway and Pasadena versions of the show?
LP: In Pasadena we made a few changes, very minor. Getting into "Under Separate Cover," which was always kind of a very strange kind of thing, we made a little clearer. The reason that song is in the show is my stage manager, Heather Fields, had heard it and said, "Oh you've just got to have that song." What else is different? The monologue for Lucy at the top of the show is shorter, before Sophie comes in, we did a cut and paste in there, Mona's monologue in the opening of the second act is a bit different. We made some changes, not a lot. And, you know, there are still some I'd love to do if I ever have the time.
MM: How do you think the show will adapt to other directors' visions?
LP: It'll be hard to let go, I think, but I'll be fascinated to see what another mind does with it. I loved, when I did The Rothschilds or something like, to be able to reinvent a show visually, the way it moves and all that, is very exciting. So, I wish them well, I hope they do a good job. I know they'll do a good job.
MM: So the Pasadena version of the show is going to be the final version?
LP: More or less. I think, if ever I direct it again, maybe I will try again, but it's been a lot of years and I think Linda and I just want to let it be for a while. We've poked at it so much. She's amazing. She always can find another way in. She can look at the same scene ninety-eight thousand times and I'd go, "There's nothing else to say, there's no other way to rearrange this puzzle," and she'd go in, e-mail me a scene that's essentially the same ... but better. She's a great collaborator and I was very lucky to get to work with her.
MM: Did you feel that the reception of The Producers affected A Class Act in New York?
LP: I don't. I don't blame anybody for anything. I think The Producers is a great show. First of all, we opened Off-Broadway before them, we opened ON Broadway before them! We might have won a few more Tony awards, that would have been nice. I think Ed really had a shot at the music and lyrics, which would have been great, we might have gotten a few more nominations here and there. Probably we would have done better at the Tonys. But, whether that would have made a difference ... It's hard to say. I sure don't begrudge them anything that they've gotten--they've well deserved all of their success. The reason I wanted it on Broadway, one of the reasons, is that I really wanted an orchestra, I didn't want four pieces ... I wanted twenty. On Broadway, it was a nine piece orchestra, but was very well orchestrated so it sounded like more. But if we went Off-Broadway we probably couldn't have done more than six or five and I really wanted it to sound like a Broadway show, because I thought that's what the music wanted or demanded. So I was one of the proponents of, "Let's do it there." Really, for me, mostly because we get more instruments. That's honestly, really, what I wanted. And, also, I wanted the cast to be paid a decent wage, which they deserve.
MM: How do you feel the show translates to audiences not part of the New York theatre culture?
LP: That's what's interesting. I think really well. The audiences there are enormously responsive. We got a lousy review in the L.A. Times. They sent the dance critic so that was upsetting. But the Hollywood Reporter was great, and Variety was great, and the radios were all great. It's only theatre people who seem to feel it's inside. People on the outside seem to find it universal. It's a weird position to be in. You think, "Well, the people they're worried about are fine with it, why doesn't everybody just be fine with it?" I actually think the show has much more universality than some people think. I'll tell you, people are very moved by it, it seems to me, wherever we play. When we were playing downstairs here in 70-seat theater, a year and a half ago for seventy people, they were crying. I don't know ... It's a show that seems to speak a lot of kinds of people, so I don't think it's inside.
MM: A Class Act has been staged in a number of theaters of very different sizes and stage configurations. How well do you feel the show adapts?
LP: Well, the Ambassador [where the show played on Broadway] has a particular problem in that it's very wide, and when you don't have a spectacle ... I loved the way it looked there, but I come from a world where ... I saw Company when I was a kid, and it was eight or ten people or whatever it was on a single unit set. I don't go to the theatre for spectacle, I go for relationships and material and good songs and stuff, I'm in that minority. What I like just doesn't exist much anymore. I was hoping that A Class Act would bring about a renaissance in that kind of show, but because we didn't make money, probably we didn't, which I'm sad about.
MM: The show is also being done in Washington and Boston next year, in addition to the Pasadena production, so it is having a good post-Broadway life.
LP: It is, which is very heartening. And there's talk about a Toronto tour and stuff, so it'll have its life.
MM: There's also the Tokyo production. Is it going to have the entire original cast?
LP: The entire original cast, but Randy Graff is going to be in Night Music in Washington. So, so far, the entire original cast but Randy.
MM: Who will play Sophie?
LP: Michele Pawk, which I'm thrilled about. I'll miss Randy because she's the greatest, but I think Michele will be wonderful, and I've always wanted to work with her. So I called her up, and she's in Hal's play in Chicago--the Carol Burnett play--and sent her the script and the tape and she said sure. So, I'm really delighted about that.
MM: When is that?
LP: All July. Three weeks in July.
MM: And it's going to be broadcast on Japanese television?
LP: That's the point. That's the whole point.
MM: Is there any chance it might show up in the states?
LP: Sure. I mean, if we can get a DVD deal, it will.
MM: What's the Pasadena Playhouse like?
LP: It's like a little jewel box of a Broadway house. Beautiful. I actually think this 700-800 seat theater is perfect.
MM: You have reassembled the original creative team for the Pasadena production. How is this production different from the Broadway one?
LP: What we have is an iris curtain in the back because we couldn't fly the panels, and actually that has given us a little more movement. It's very similar. The clothes are the same, the lighting plot is based on Kevin [Adams]'s original ... It's pretty close.
MM: And the cast. Robert Picardo ... ?
LP: He's great. He's just terrific. I'm very lucky to get to work with him. He's really wonderful. Very original, very unique, I love watching him do the show, which is sometimes odd for me, but it isn't when I watch him, I just think he's terrific.
MM: How is his take on the character different from what you originally envisioned?
LP: I think he's right in the pocket of what I conceived. We're different people so our response to different things is obviously different. But he's very funny, extremely moving, and I think he's terrific, I really do. I think he makes the play work great.
MM: Is he registering with audiences who might know him from his TV work?
LP: I don't get the idea that he's overly recognized. I was over there through previews and through opening night and I guess they do, but they don't seem to be visibly throwing them from engaging him in his character.
MM: And Luba Mason is Sophie ...
LP: Yeah. She was Felicia in a very early reading here when Peter Scolari was playing Ed. She's terrific as Sophie and she sings the hell out of her song. She's wonderful.
MM: And Donna Bullock, from the Broadway company, is back as Lucy ...
LP: Yeah, I loved Donna. Donna and I go back a really long time. We played the love interests in a show called Amateurs in Cincinnati twenty years ago. She's just like a really true, good old friend. I love working with her and I think she's great in the show. I think, if anything, her performance has deepened and richened ... Not that it needed to! I loved working with her.
MM: And the rest of the cast?
LP: They're all new and they're all great. Lenny Wolpe is Lehman Engel. He was in Onward, Victoria! here, he did a bunch of musicals here. He's great as Lehman. Michelle Duffy as Mona is wonderful. Will Jude ... Andrew Palermo was the Indian in Annie Get Your Gun, he's great as Michael and great as Bobby. They're all wonderful, there's not a dud in it. They're all great, and they have to be, because they carry the show.
MM: How was it working with this new cast?
LP: It was great. The hardest thing was me being in it and directing it at the same time. It was hard for me in a bunch of ways, but what was really hard was the original actors, particularly at the Manhattan Theatre Club, I think felt very compromised that they didn't have a director who was out there watching all the time. What was good about this production was, there was no question that I was the director and they trusted and relied on me. I think I did well by them, they all got great reviews, and I think it was a simpler process. They're also coming to a show they know worked to a degree, it received attention in New York and people liked it. But they're coming into a show that had a little heat on it as opposed to the original company which was, "What is this? We kind of like this and wish we had a director who wasn't also singing at us." I think that they would have preferred that I didn't do it.
MM: Is there anything else you'd like to tell people about the Pasadena production?
LP: Go see it! Go buy a ticket! I love the show, and I think it is, in every way, as valid as the Broadway production. I think the actors are splendid, I think Bob is sensational. I tell you that freely--he's great. I want people to come in and have a good time and enjoy it.
Search What's New on the Rialto