Podcast Episode 74 – Lonny Price
Ken: Hello, everybody on the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Welcome back to the show. So my introduction to today’s guest was seeing him play the lead role as Ed Kleban in the beautiful musical A Class Act. If you don’t know it, go check it out. So I remember watching this show and falling in love with his performance and with the production, thinking “Who directed this show?” and, wouldn’t you know it, it was the same guy. And then I looked again at the title page and noticed that he wrote it too. That talented man is none other than triple threat actor, author, director, Mr. Lonny Price. He’s here today – welcome, Lonny!
Lonny: Thank you! Thank you, thank you. I have to say I co-wrote it with Linda Kline, just for full disclosure, but thank you.
Ken: We’ll give her props there as well.
Lonny: Yes, please.
Ken: Lonny also directed the revival of 110 in the Shade on Broadway, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill with Audra McSixTonys or however many she’s got now. He just got back from London where he directed Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard which has gotten a whole bunch of people talking about a transfer – maybe he will give us a clue on that later – he’s directed a ton of these incredible musical concert shows like Sweeney Todd with Patti LuPone, Candide with Kristin Chenoweth, Company with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert and a lot more. He’s worked with everybody, this guy. Lonny.
Lonny: Yes, I’m exhausted from hearing that.
Ken: How did you get started on this exhausting career of yours?
Lonny: Well I grew up in Queens, I was taken to shows when I was a kid – you know, nice Jewish boys go to matinees of musicals when you grow up in New York and your parents are that way inclined – I think for my fourth birthday I saw the original Oliver! at the Imperial. I just wanted to be an actor and my parents were very stupidly supportive of it, they loved the theatre, my mother was a frustrated actress, I think, in some ways, and my dad was a trumpet player, so with my sister, for our birthdays, we’d get to see whatever hit musical happened to be around. So I always knew I loved it, we had all the albums at home and we would play them, so I was very focused about it and I went to a performing arts high school then Julliard for a year – I dropped out – and then I started getting work as an actor. Before that, as you all know, I wrote to Hal Prince and worked for him in his office as an office boy after school, after performing arts high school I’d go over there in the afternoons in the summer and I was a PA on Pacific Overtures’ when I was 16 and watched them put together that show and as they were recording the album. Hal and Steve were my heroes so I wrote them letters when I was a kid and they wrote back and sort of invited me into their world which was just like asking a kid who likes stars “Do you want to go to the moon?” and I was invited to the moon so I guess for the last, God, 40 years I’ve been trying to stay there. I’ve been doing this a long time now that I think about it.
Ken: Obviously you were involved with Mr. Sondheim as an actor as well – one of your first big breaks as an actor.
Lonny: Oh, yeah, sure, Merrily We Roll Along, which was a huge fantasy come true. In fact, I just finished a documentary which will be out, I think, in the fall, which is called The Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened and it’s about the making of Merrily and what happened to all of us in it and it comes out, I think, in the fall, so I’ve been reliving a lot of that in the last… actually I’ve been working on that for seven years but we finally have a cut that we all feel good about so I hope it will happen. Merrily was a huge, huge amazing dream, to get to do that.
Ken: But it didn’t work.
Ken: So tell me about that experience of “Oh my God, this amazing dream.” You’re working with the people who invented the space shuttle to get people to the moon.
Ken: And then it didn’t work. How was that for you and being around all of them?
Lonny: We were very protective, honestly. Steve wasn’t around a lot because he was writing but Hal was very loving to us and kept us really protected. Looking back now – because I’m a little older than they were when they wrote and directed the show – the pressure they must have been under must have been just ridiculous but they never showed it and they never let us feel like we were letting them down. If anything, it was always Hal, certainly after the opening, he let us down, and he still feels that way, like he let the kids down. He came into my dressing room the night after we opened and he said “I wanted to give you a hit. I’m sorry I didn’t give you a hit. I think I gave you a good show but I didn’t give you a hit and I’m sorry,” and that was Hal, he was like an uncle. I’ve known him since I was 14 years old. They were just great. We worked really hard, there were a lot of changes always. I think, looking back on it, that they would not have given that many changes a day to adults. I think adults would have said “No” but we were too stupid to say “No”, we were just “Jump!”, “How high?” whatever they wanted we did as best we could. But they worked really hard, it was a real lesson. It got postponed two or three times because the lead was fired and the choreographer was fired. It was right in the middle of a fish bowl and they just were on fire with making it better and I guess, if you asked me, the truth is I always thought they would so I knew it was problematic after the first preview, or actually after the Gypsy run where it was very clear that something was not good but I always thought “Well, it’s Hal and Steve, they’ll fix it,” and I honestly never was worried about it, really worried about it, and was very shocked when the closing notice went up so quickly because I had worked on Pacific Overtures and they ran that six months and I thought “We’ll run six months. Pacific Overtures, that’s got to be a harder sell”. Well, no, it wasn’t. Hal has often said to us that the audiences were unhappy with it and he didn’t want to put us through half houses and disgruntled audiences. He didn’t want the kids – we were the kids – he didn’t want the kids to go through that, but we just loved doing it so much we would have done it for three people, we didn’t care. It was very depressing, very devastating when it closed, mostly because I just wanted to do it more, I just loved doing it. I knew very well as an actor I would never get material that good and I didn’t and there isn’t, really. It spoils you – you have Steven Sondheim writing songs on you and you get pretty spoiled pretty fast.
Ken: Have you ever directed it?
Ken: Would you?
Lonny: No. The film about it is as close to it as I think I’m ever going to get to it. I just think there’s too much in the way of me and it and also it’s very different now, they’re rewritten it so extensively, it has very little to do with what we did in large ways and, so, no. Once in a while I’ll go to a production of it – I just saw one at Yale that Ethan Heard directed, who has assisted me on some stuff, and he did a fantastic job, but it’s hard for me to look at it without just being immersed in sense memory and emotions, and not even sad or particularly depressing emotions, I can’t watch it, it’s too connected. Like I said, the film is my statement about the experience and I think that’s enough.
Ken: When did you start to think about doing something else besides acting?
Lonny: I only wanted to be an actor for my whole life and then I was working at a little theatre which is now the Citizens Brigade Theatre on 28th Street, between 8th and 9th, and at that point it was the American Jewish Theatre and before that it was the Roundabout, it was their original space. It was under a supermarket and had an 8ft ceiling, maybe a 10ft ceiling – you could touch the lights. Well, I couldn’t, but if I stood on a chair I could. I was doing a play called The Immigrant and the artistic director there, Stanley Brechner, said “We’re doing a musical. Do you have some suggestions for us, for the director?” and I gave him several and he said “What about you?” and I swear to you, Ken, it had never occurred to me to be a director, ever. It wasn’t anything I had any interest in, I didn’t study it, I didn’t know anything about it, I don’t think I particularly paid attention – I mean I had good directors and bad directors, or less good directors, but I thought “Wow, well either I’ll be an actor who wasn’t a good director but I’ll learn something or maybe I’ll like it and be good at it and maybe this could be another thing to do,” and from the minute I started it was just “Oh, this is much better. I like this much better.”
Ken: What do you think it was, looking back on it now? If you could step out of that experience, what do you think he saw in you that made him think you could do it and do it well? He didn’t just say “Lonny, what about you?” There was something there.
Lonny: Yeah, he saw something. No one’s ever asked me that. I don’t know, except that some of my friends would tell me I had been directing for years and I said “What do you mean?” but a lot of times I had great directors but I also had very ineffectual directors who wouldn’t do anything or say anything. So after a little while I’d go “Okay, I think I’ll come in there and, Gary, you’ll come in through the window. Is that alright with you?” and they’d kind of go “Meh”, you know, they wouldn’t really respond much, and so you wound up taking care of yourself by, sometimes, having to direct yourself, stage yourself, because not all the time the directors, they didn’t care about acting, a lot of them, about the picture, they were very not into it, so I wound up, I guess, learning how to do that and, honestly, I don’t know what he saw in me, I really don’t, but God bless him because, from the very beginning, it felt right. The great thing about directing is you’re not trapped by your physicality. At a certain point my hair fell out, I’m 5′ 6″, I’m only going to play the Jewish nerd accountant and coroner. At a certain point I had said all there was to say about that style and that character so the roles were diminishing in terms of my accessibility, my ability to convince producers and directors that I could be other than what they saw, but when I was younger I was playing South Africans, I was playing east London kids, I was playing everything, but then I directed Irish plays and I’ve directed South African plays and I’ve directed all kinds of plays that have had nothing to do with my ethnicity and that’s very freeing. The other thing I have to say is I really felt that looking in the mirror all the time as an actor was not helpful for me to grow up. I really felt, in some ways, I wouldn’t be a man if I kept being an actor because I was always begging for a job and I was always having ‘Daddy, choose me!’ I like being the father and it suits me better than being the kid, I find that a very nervous place to be, but if I’m in charge I feel okay about that, and I like taking care if people so it was a great way to have that aspect of my character exercised. I remember the costume parade of the first show and a woman came out and I said to the designer “God, I think that’s a really unattractive dress. Can we do something about that?” and the next day she had a new dress and I thought “Oh, well I could get used to this!” As an actor you’re always going “This is itchy!” and “This is a little tight!” and they’re going “Yeah, we’ll take care of it… Don’t worry, just go on. Don’t bother us,” and as a director you just say something and something changes and that’s very heady and powerful and a good feeling, it encourages your critical thinking in a lot of ways. So I just loved it and I haven’t lost my love for that, but performing, really, I was done, I had had enough.
Ken: What do you think is the most important skill that a director needs to have today? There are concept directors that come up with a big concept, there are visual ones, there’s dramaturgical, there’s ones that work with actors better than others. What do you think you need the most and what do you do best?
Lonny: I think you need a combination of all of those to a greater or lesser degree. I’m best with the actors because my feeling, honestly, is if the actors aren’t good and they’re not making a connection with the material and the audience the rest of it doesn’t matter much. A great lighting cue doesn’t save a show and a great set doesn’t. There’s a director – I won’t tell you his name – who came back and told me “I just did this great production of Midsummer. The acting was terrible but it was great,” and I always thought “Now, what was great? Good lighting? What was the great production you did?” So to me, because I come from an actor’s point of view, it’s always been about, are you reaching me, am I connecting with you, do I care about you? So, to me, the acting is the most important thing because I do really think good material and good actors and we could do it your living room and make theatre. I think that’s very important. Certainly the mise en scene and all of that is enormously important because then all the designers and everybody are working on the same show and that’s very important, that even though it’s a shared vision it is one vision that’s driving it and that everybody kind of falls in line, so I think that’s very important, having a great visual sense is important, a sense of movement on the stage I think is important. There is nothing that you mentioned that isn’t important. Certainly for a new show dramaturgical skill is invaluable but everything you mentioned, you need some form of it or some degree of it, otherwise you probably won’t succeed – or you need to get good help around you and know that you don’t know. I mean it’s fascinating, Jerome Robbins, on West Side Story and Gypsy, he had a director who directed the actors. William Daniels, I think, directed the actors in Gypsy and Jerry Friedman directed them in West Side Story. He knew he didn’t know about that and he was smart enough and egoless enough – although I don’t know there’s anybody who would say Jerome Robbins was egoless – but to say “That’s not my… I don’t… help!” I think that that’s a great lesson, that if we don’t know there’s nothing shameful about saying “I don’t do this well. Who does? Who could be of use, of service?”
Ken: So you start directing, you’re starting to build your directing resume, and then where did the writing come into all of this?
Lonny: Peculiarly, I was working with Joan Rivers on a show called Sally Marr and Her Escorts, which was about Lenny Bruce’s mother, who Joan wanted to play and who Joan knew very well. We had a mutual agent, Bob Duva, who said “I want to get you together with Joan,” and I wasn’t directing long. I met her at her place across the street from the Pierre and it was just a bizarre thing. I think Aimee Semple McPherson’s ballroom was her home and it was just filled, I mean the ceiling was all painted and it was all gold leaf, it was just insane, and she had a butler and a maid, and there was Joan Molinsky from Larchmont with a butler. It was a great time and we started working on the play as a director and it needed some work so I started doing some dramaturgical work and she said “Will you co-write this with me?” and I said “Sure,” and then we brought in Erin Sanders who worked with us and I became a writer. I had always loved writing and, funnily enough, Jim Walton and I from Merrily wrote songs together as Charlie and Frank. I actually love writing lyrics and Steven Sondheim was always very encouraging of mine. I had forgotten, I found some things, doing this Merrily documentary, where I did some lyrics and he was like “No, you really should do this,” and stupid me, I was like “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” but he was really encouraging of it and I found it too lonely, writing. I like being in a room with people and the yellow legal pad, by myself for hours a day, was something that, I think, was just too depressing to me. It wasn’t a good fit. But I still loved writing and then co-writing the book to A Class Act, again, came about sort of like that – “Do you want to direct a show?” and then “Do you want to write it?” because my ideas were always very specific and they were writer ideas about how to structure something or a point of view that needed that person to infuse it, if the writing wanted to go in that direction. Then I wrote a show called Kinky Baby which we did at NYMF and I’d been working on that for like 30 years, it’s crazy. I’m a dog with a bone. The documentary took seven years, A Class Act took five or six. For better or worse, I don’t give up. It’s that Churchill thing, never give up. I don’t know, they must have branded me with that at birth because I stick, and sometimes I shouldn’t but I do.
Ken: On something like A Class Act or anything else where you’re wearing multiple hats, how do you maintain your objectivity in those times?
Lonny: Very difficult. A Class Act was an idiot thing to do.
Ken: Well you did it incredibly well.
Lonny: Thank you, I really appreciate that. Really appreciate that. But we had had the lead guy who was supposed to do it and he backed out a week before – literally a week before – it was at Manhattan Theatre Club and Lynne Meadow, who knew Ed Kleban, and just desperately we offered it to like Brian d’Arcy James, we offered it to everybody, and Ed was a slightly attractive guy from the Bronx, bald guy from the Bronx, Jewish guy who wrote lyrics, and I was offering it to Brian d’Arcy James. I was offering to people who really, I guess, weren’t right for it, and Lynne said “I knew Ed,” in fact she knew him very well, and said “This isn’t going to fly unless that guy is right in the center of it. You’re right. What do we do to support you doing that role?” and this sounds very egotistical but I did it because I wanted to protect the show because I thought “She’s right”, and I hadn’t acted for ten years before that. I was done, I was so done, and I thought “Well, this means too much to me.” So I did it and I had an associate director – on Broadway, Stafford Arima was my associate director, eventually. At the Manhattan Theatre Club, maybe Stafford was there at that point. But it was hard on the actors. What was really bad is that you’re doing a scene and then you give the actors notes. They didn’t like that that much and I don’t blame them. So, in retrospect I think the show would have been better without me and I wish I didn’t do it, in some ways, but it wouldn’t have gotten on if I hadn’t done it so it’s a mixed thing, but I don’t recommend it and I would never do that again, ever. It’s ridiculous, lunacy! Directing, co-writing and starring in something, it’s ridiculous, it made no sense at all, so never again.
Ken: Well the final product was truly something special.
Lonny: Thank you.
Ken: It’s one of my fondest memories of the theatre, actually. There was just something very special about it.
Lonny: It’s a beautiful piece and it means a lot to me and I’m glad it meant something to you because it was very much in my heart. That’s another thing – when you find something that you just love like that, I don’t give up on it, I just force it through as best I can. So I’m glad you liked it.
Ken: You’ve been involved with a lot of revivals. How do you approach a revival as a director? What’s your first step? You take something like Camelot – you did a Camelot, right? How do you sit down, like “Okay, I’m doing Camelot? What am I going to do to make that now, interesting today”?
Lonny: Well Camelot is a particular place. We made it very multicultural and, in fact, you know the little boy at the end was of Arab descent so what we tried to do is make it not be… I always try to make it relevant, in some way, to the present and something my set designers James Noone taught me is you don’t just do a show – and Sondheim is like this too – it’s not like you just do the show, it’s like “What is the space the show happens in? What does it mean in this time? What does it mean in this space? Who are the actors?” You take what is there and not try to force them into making a piece of theatre but you make the piece of theatre around what is there and what is real and that has been very useful to me, to look at see what it is I have to work with and not impose some concept on it and shoehorn something together, as opposed to going “Well, we’re in the Philharmonic, we’re at Avery Fisher now, Geffin Hall”. It’s something else, it’s not the same as it opened at the Majestic in the ’60’s, it’s not the same. What is it for this place? What is it when you put 50 orchestra members on stage? What does that do to it? The givens of each production inform the work and how does it reflect the work and, hopefully, what the authors were trying to do? So each revival to me – we just finished Sunset – it’s very different than the original production, which was a little bit grotesque – she was grotesque and grand guignol and Glenn was very open, I said “Gee, let’s do something else,” and she said “Yeah, let’s. I don’t want to do what I did,” and so we deconstructed it and its much more love story now and it’s sexy because they’re doing it and the difference, in 1950, when the film came out, between a 50-year-old and a 30-year-old, it was very “Uh-uhhh!” It’s not like that anymore, there are a lot of relationships that work with a 20 year split, so it’s about a middle aged woman trying to fight for her life and, yeah, she’s crazy and she goes crazier but it’s not this really bizarre story, it’s a love story, it’s a triangle and kind of moving. So we investigated the humanity of it, which is what interests me – what’s actually going on? What are the feelings? What do people need? What are they getting? What are they not getting? What are they frustrated about? What do they want? She’s holding on to her past because she has no present and is terrified of her future. A lot of people can relate to that, and certainly a lot of women in our country and in the UK as well, where there’s so much ageism going on, and particularly for women, and they’re invisible – certainly in Hollywood you’re invisible at 35, let alone 55. So what interests me about the piece is almost always the relationships and the humanity and bringing that out, and hopefully not in a sentimental way but bringing out the truth of it and the universality of it which makes an audience respond to it – but they respond to the people. The other thing is I have, in some ways, been lucky, well not lucky, but because I don’t get big budgets for sets I think that if you give someone a suggestion of something that allows the audience’s participation. If you give them everything, the proper ashtrays, that’s a movie, then they don’t have to work at all. But if you just drop a huge chandelier on an empty stage they fill in the rest of it and their participation is required and it’s an active form of theatre. So the minimalism that my shows have, due to budgetary concerns due to these concerts or whatever I’m doing on limited runs in general, force me to be more creative and force the audience to be creative with me and I think that’s real theatre, I try to do that as much as I can. But investigating the revivals, it’s all about what’s real, what is real today and how does it relate to us today, because I think if you’re doing a museum piece that doesn’t interest me very much.
Ken: Can we get a little gossip on Sunset? Do we think it will make it over the Atlantic?
Lonny: Glenn really wants to do it. I really want to do it. The producers really want to do it. So I’m hoping it will be okay. I can’t tell you when because I don’t know, but I know that there were meetings this week and we’ll see. You know, it’s hard to get a theatre and it would be limited because she doesn’t want to do it forever, so I don’t know but I have a feeling it will be here in some form, I just don’t know when. I hope so.
Ken: So you have worked with these, I can’t even say stars, they’re constellations, they’re so big. I mean Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, all of these major, major stars. What’s that like? Obviously they’re very different from one another, I would imagine, from resume credits to egos, to all of the stuff you have to deal with.
Lonny: I love stars. I’ve dealt with some really tough ones and so none of them intimidate me anymore. I’m not frightened of any of them. Not that any director would be frightened but I guess because of being an actor I know what I’m going through and I’m there to help them and I think they know that pretty quickly, that I’m not beating them with a stick, I’m not there to humiliate them, I’m there to help them. If they’re not good, I’m not good. I only look good if they look good so I’m their best friend. I sometimes think, like with Audra, I’ve been given this gem, this insane jewel, so my job is to set it in a way where the light refracts it most brilliantly and everyone sees how genius and how brilliant that stone is, that gem is. That’s my job, to make them look fantastic, because that’s what we go to see – we want to see a great performer and a great performance, so that’s my goal so we do it together. It’s like “Come on, take my hand, let’s figure out the best way that you’re going to have a triumph in this”, and I love it, it’s just fun for me, and also stars are stars because they are extraordinary, they are amazing. Audra, Glenn, Patti, Emma Thompson, please, you’re in the room with these people and they have so much to give, they come into it so filled with experience, richness and gifts, it’s a pleasure to work with them. I’ve been very lucky. Zoe Caldwell, Eli Wallach, Gabriel Byrne, all of the actors I’ve worked with, what a gift to get to be in the room with them and to watch them put it together and to help them with it. It’s the best part to me.
Ken: I’m just thinking about the words you’ve been using – we hear about directors being called the captain of the ship and all of these things and you call it the father – I like being the father – and you just said “I like to take their hand and do this together”. It’s a real loving relationship, obviously, you have with these actors.
Lonny: I do, I fall in love with all of them. I’m gay but all of the leading ladies, I just fall in love. You can’t not be in love with Audra McDonald, you just cannot be in love with her, I mean how could you not be? You’d be crazy, or Emma. It’s fucking Emma Thompson, holy shit! We’re playing and we’re figuring it out. Emma was a wonderful person to work with because Emma just made you feel like a genius. Anything you said to Emma, it was “That’s brilliant”! Then you become brilliant because you go “Shit, Emma Thompson thinks I’m brilliant”! Well how about this? And she would go “Even more brilliant”! So it’s just the support you got from Emma in the room made you better than you were. They’re all different, which is very challenging. I’m a better director because she doesn’t say yes all the time – she says “Why”? Why? I’ve got to figure out why and I’ve got to make sure it’s smart, because if it’s not smart she doesn’t want to do it and she’s right. So Audra makes me better. Audra totally makes me better. Lady Day was almost like having a kid together – we worked on it just in a room all by ourselves mostly – but it’s really a collaboration. The one thing I will say, if I walk out of this building and get hit by a bus, the only thing I will say about the work is that it’s all collaboration and anybody that takes credit for anything is a fool. I can’t take credit for anything I’ve ever done – it wasn’t just me, it was everybody. It was everybody. Sunset’s good because the set’s good, because the lights are good, because she is amazing, because the rest of it is good, because the orchestra sounds great. It’s not any one person – that’s folly, and it’s the best, most fun thing. The documentary had five editors – I can’t take credit for this. I’ve made a mistake a lot and then I just kept at it until the right people presented themselves and we were able to figure it out but I never say the documentary is mine; it’s not mine, it’s everybody’s. It’s everybody who ever worked on it. That’s a good place to be and to be comfortable with that after all of these years. The best idea wins and it doesn’t have to be mine – it really doesn’t, because I’d rather have much smarter people than me in the room so that I can learn from them and we can exchange ideas and bounce off each other, so yeah, it’s all just collaboration.
Ken: You’ve done a lot of shows that have been recorded or captured – what do you think about this for the future of Broadway? Do you think we should be doing more of this? Do you think every show should be captured? What do you think about streaming theatre or the National Theatre Live concept?
Lonny: I’ve filmed a lot of them and I’ve filmed a lot of mine and I love filming mine, mostly because sometimes when people direct cameras for television they’re what I call ‘covering’ it but they’re not directing it. For instance, just take one of mine, Company with Neil Patrick Harris, a lot of people are talking but what’s interesting is his reaction to them. So I’m on him hearing what they’re saying because that’s what’s going to drive the plot. Someone who was just capturing it would be on the person talking because that would be the logical way but that’s not directing it because I want, subliminally, you to get inside his head, which is where I think this is happening. So there is directing and there is covering, so I think when they’re directing they can be thrilling. I just did Gypsy with Imelda Staunton and I saw a screening of it last night on the big screen, because I never get to see it on the big screen, and you can’t buy a close up, what that means, to see a performer that good, that committed, close up and see both their eyes. Now we’re talking and if there was a camera here, if it was a single – or if it was the theatre, no camera – they’d just see half our face, but I’m here and I see both your eyes. I’ve directed stuff for camera that I’ve directed for stage and I’ve gone “Oh my God, that’s what they were doing?” because I only got half of it, but you get all of it and when the actors are good it’s thrilling. Audra, on the HBO Lady Day is very different – she was beyond everything on stage. It’s a different kind of beyond when you’re just looking at her eyes and seeing what’s internally going on. So the answer to your question is I think everything should be filmed. I’m so sorry that all the shows I saw as a kid are memories to me. I love the Lincoln Center library – if I die, if I ever leave any money, they’re getting it – those captures, and now they’re beautiful, they’re three cameras or two cameras, but it’s also very important – and I said this to Patti once too – I said “They need to know what you were great at. You’ll be in books of the great Patti LuPone but if they can’t see it, it won’t mean as much”. It’s important to capture those great performers for the next generation. I don’t know who Ellen Terry was, I never saw her. I don’t know who Laurette Taylor was except for ten seconds of a film – why was she great? I have no idea; I just have to take it for granted. “Oh yeah, I guess she was great because they said she was”. But you capture any of these people and I get e-mails from Australia or something going “I never would have seen that, I never would have seen those people,” so I think it’s a service to do it and it’s really important. When it’s done well, even better. But, yeah, to answer your question, these all should be filmed and it all should be filmed well. People should take the time and do it. I edit for months, those things, and it’s real important to me that it’s forever and that they represent what we did well.
Ken: Any shows that you would love to do that you haven’t yet? Is there something on your wish list?
Lonny: I don’t have a lot of that, I’ve got to tell you. I don’t really have a lot of that. I always wanted to do a Brigadoon because I just find it moving. I find that whole idea of the village coming back to life for love just kind of swell and great, and I’d love to do another Night Music, I’d really love that. I’ve kind of actually done, in the revival thing, most of what I wanted to. I’ve done almost all of Steve’s except for Merrily and I’ll not do that one. What excites me is performers – like I love looking for things for Audra, looking for things for Emma. That excites me, when I find an actor that I love, thinking “What else could we do together?” So a lot of times they’re actor-inspired. Gabriel Byrne and I keep wanting to work together again, so what would be fun for Gabriel? So I kind of think more as an actor, how do I get to work with these other actors again? And then how to create for them, because that seems to be sort of the arc through it.
Ken: You got a lot of great advice when you were starting out – any advice for the 16-year-old kids, 18-year-old kids out there, that are like “I want to be Lonny Price when I grow up!”?
Lonny: Get a better dream! That would be my advice. What piece of advice? It’s so hard, I think it’s a really hard business, I think it’s a really brutal, really hard business, and what I say to actors a lot is if there’s anything else you could do, you should do it, and do this on the side. Do this on Saturdays and on weekends and at night. Amateur theatre is a great thing because no one’s trying to be a star, they’re just doing it because they love it. I clear rooms – I’m not the most positive person. Even though I’ve been really lucky I find it a very painful business – a very frustrating, painful business filled with a lot of desperate people and it’s hard to maintain your sanity in it and your presence of mind and I think it’s really hard so, to me, it’s like theatre can be done anywhere and thinking that it only happens in these twenty blocks is not real, it’s not true, so my advice is try to talk yourself out of it and if you can’t, those are the people who have to be here, but there is a price to be paid. I know people who are very famous, I know people who are starting out, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t paid a great price to be in the theatre and to be part of it. There is great joy in it but it aint for sissies, it’s a tough place to be, the New York theatre. If you have to do it, do it, but if you can do anything else, go and do that and do this on the side and you’ll still love it, you won’t get bitter.
Ken: Okay, my last question, which is now being called my Genie Question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to you and says “Lonny, I want to thank you for your incredible contribution to the theatre by granting you one wish.’ And the genie asks ‘What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway?” That makes you so mad, that keeps you up at night, that gets you go angry that you’d want the genie to wish away – and you can only pick one.
Lonny: You know, it’s so easy – it’s all too expensive. It’s just easy, it’s just you put a set in your theatre for $1 million and you take it out for $1 million, $2 million of your budget has gone to put something in and take it away – there’s something wrong; it’s not right. I’m in cabs where older men talk about how they used to love going to the theatre and they can’t afford to. They talk about when they saw Pajama Game, and when’s the last time? “Oh, I haven’t been in a long time”. We’ve priced ourselves out of the world. I think it also means that the kind of theatre we see is catered, in general, to people who have the kind of money to pay $150-250 a ticket. That doesn’t seem, to me, to be very healthy. Hal Prince said many, many years ago why he left the league of theatre, the producers and all of that, is he says “Shut it down, let them strike, start again. This isn’t working and it’s going to get worse”. But, you know, people didn’t want to stop the profits of Cats at that time, or whatever it was, that was hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Eh, just keep going, it’s fine, it’s alright:. Well now it’s $1 million to put the show in, and I don’t blame the stagehands because I love the stagehands, but there’s something wrong and it does not encourage creativity and it certainly doesn’t encourage new writers and new composers and lyricists because who’s going to take a chance and spend $12 million on a maybe? So then we get branded things and things that have been rehashed from other sources and things you know and that’s not the theatre I grew up loving so I think we need to stop and figure it out. I don’t think that will happen because it’s “best season ever!” I love that – ticket prices just went up, of course it’s the best, you made more money because the tickets are more expensive. Don’t be ridiculous. But it’s all that sort of propaganda too – Broadway is doing well but what are we putting on and how much of it is good? We’re just catering to tourists and, I don’t know, I think there’s something sad. But then a Hamilton will come along and you’ll go “It’s alive and vital and great!” but not enough chances being taken and I don’t blame the producers because I just think it’s too much money. When I was a kid I stood through Pippin for $2 at the Imperial. I know it’s a long time ago but now it’s $80 or whatever it is to stand. That’s a lot of money, it’s too much money to spend to stand. How do you inspire people? The other thing is then they only see one show a year and it’s just all bad. So I wish the ticket prices were half of what they are and I wish the shows cost half of what they cost and then I think we’d get a lot more interesting shows happening. That’s my wish.
Ken: I want to thank you so much for that terrific answer.
Lonny: Do you agree? Is that part of your genie wish?
Ken: Listen, I think Hal had a very good thing going for him when he said that, and it’s no one’s fault because the problem is we were built on a foundation that has crumbled a little bit and we just keep stacking floors on this foundation instead of addressing the underlying issues for everybody.
Lonny: Agreed, agreed.
Ken: And that’s when you just keep building another floor on top of it and don’t address what’s underneath.
Lonny: Well maybe you’ll solve it, Ken.
Ken: We’ll end with that! Thank you so much for sitting down with us. Thanks to all of you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe and we’ll see you next time!
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.