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The Lonny Price of Fame By Peter Filichia

Last week while I was attending the 29th annual Festival of New Musicals at New World Stages, a certain program bio caught my eye.

The single white sheet for Prom Queen – which details Marc Hall’s struggles to take his boyfriend to The Big Dance at his Catholic School – provided information on its director Lonny Price.

Listed were the seven shows Price had staged on Broadway, the seven concerts he’d directed in New York, the couple of directorial stints in the West End, his Emmy for directing and finally the two films he’d piloted.

Price also mentioned that he co-wrote two of those seven Broadway shows: Sally Marr…and Her Escorts as well as A Class Act, for which he received a Tony nomination for Best Book.

What Price doesn’t mention, however, is that he starred in A Class Act, too. In fact, Price doesn’t mention any of his seven appearances as an actor on Broadway or his eight stints off-Broadway starting with Class Enemy, a 1979 play for which he won a Theatre World Award.

Imagine being so accomplished, acclaimed and frequently employed in one theatrical discipline that you don’t even feel the need to mention all that you’d achieved in another.

This is especially remarkable considering that Price appeared to great acclaim in the now-legendary original production of Merrily We Roll Along.

How well I remember that first preview of the very highly anticipated Sondheim show; after all, the previous one had been no less than Sweeney Todd. The show’s first two numbers had received decent but not extraordinary applause. Then Price electrified the crowd with “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” – a one-man musical scene that, not so incidentally, the actor had to learn in a hurry because it wasn’t in the show when rehearsals began.

This musical rant that’s part complaint and part nervous breakdown involved two-miles-a-minute patter as well as some sound effects. Price mastered them all.

If you’ve heard him on the original cast album, you may wonder how many takes and edits he needed. My guess is one, for that’s how many he had on that first preview, and, my, was he able to do it perfectly at that first-ever performance.

Price also got the show’s Big Song: “Good Thing Going” – words that described a once-budding romance that petered out to the point where it was “going, going, gone.”

It’s a song for which Charley Kringas, Price’s character, had written the lyrics. Frank Sinatra covered it and did a fine job, of course, but Price conveyed the pride and love a songwriter has when delivering something he’s written.

Price also partakes in Sondheim’s tribute to the old Julius Monk revues that played supper clubs around the city in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” takes us back to the days when we assumed that the Kennedys would be around forever and would, you should pardon the expression, make America great again. The song is meant as lovable satire, and the way Price says “Together?!” in response to an unlikely pairing of an opera star and a ballet legend will give you a big smile.

Although Price was involved in five other numbers, he didn’t have nearly as much to do in Rags, the 1986 musical that he nevertheless desperately tried to save from its four-performance fate.

After the third official performance – a Saturday matinee — he made a curtain speech and asked those in attendance to march with him and other cast members to the TKTS booth and encourage those already in line to buy tickets to Rags.

Hundreds of people followed Pied Piper Price which resulted in the evening performance having 784 more people than it might have entertained at the (fondly remembered) Mark Hellinger Theatre. Alas, the theater’s capacity was almost twice that, and that now-legendary performance of Rags was the show’s last.

Thus came to an end Price’s performance as Ben Levitowitz, a young man pursuing the American Dream as a salesman. We get the impression that he’ll do well because he’s selling this new-fangled invention called a gramophone. Showing it to his girlfriend made for a charming song, “For My Mary.”

Don’t infer that the girlfriend’s name was Mary; in fact, it was Bella. But the recording Ben played had an Irish tenor singing “For My Mary,” which Ben troubled to override by singing “For My Bella.”

His next song displayed that his gramophone could also record. Price was quite the salesman in the way he had Ben position the invention as “The Sound of Love.” Advancing the action is always welcome in a musical theater song, and by song’s end, Ben had sold a device at $25 each – over $600 in today’s money! — to an Italian, an Irish and a Jewish immigrant. Charles Strouse provided a whirlwind of a melody and Stephen Schwartz’s witty lyric managed to include all three immigrants with a triple rhyme of signora, begorrah and hora.

Price wouldn’t appear in another musical for fifteen years, and only then because the first man — and the second one too – to have played the lead under his direction of A Class Act wound up not doing the show. The lead producer begged him to take on the role of Edward Kleban, who became both a multi-millionaire and virtual recluse from having written the lyrics to A Chorus Line.

As co-bookwriter (with Kleban’s one-time girlfriend Linda Kline), Price had to sift through the dozens of songs for which Kleban had written lyrics and music, mostly for musicals that were never produced. (Perhaps he feared that critics would say, “Well, his lyrics aren’t up to A Chorus Line, and as for his music, he’s no Marvin Hamlisch” and kept them from the public.)

The cast album shows that Price was able to convey Kleban’s neuroticism while not making him off-putting. Price has a real “theater voice” – meaning one that doesn’t get him signed to do solo albums but does express character and an understanding of lyrics. That’s why “Light on My Feet” is an unmitigated delight and “One More Beautiful Song” emerges as exactly that. He’s an old-world showman (and, in fact, played Jimmy Durante in an ‘80s bio-musical) so he makes “Gauguin’s Shoes” seem to dance on the recording.

Price also delivers a marvelous inside joke during “Better.” Every character gets a chance to proclaim a recent accomplishment; Kleban’s is “Barbra Streisand is recording one of my songs!” Indeed she did – and the song was in fact “Better.”

Alas, she didn’t officially release it until long after Kleban’s death in 1987. No wonder the guy was neurotic.

“Better” is the show’s second-act opener and a perfect one at that, for it revives the pace that was accelerating until the intermission. Take it from one who has seen each and every jukebox musical produced on Broadway for the last forty-plus years: A Class Act is the one where you’d most swear that the songs were specifically written for the book and not just random previously written numbers that were inserted into a text that was concocted later.

Hmmm, a book is far more often the tsetse fly in the musical’s ointment. Given that Price did so well with A Class Act, will he continue writing more libretti? Maybe the day will come when Lonny Price’s bio will only mention his writing credits.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.