Goodspeed Annual Gala

Michael Price is retiring at the end of 2014. (Stan Godlewski / Special to The Courant / August 11, 2012)

Tevye may not be the only person talking to God in East Haddam.

This summer I suspect there will be many prayers to heaven asking divine questions as the search for the successor to Goodspeed Musicals' longtime executive director Michael Price enters its interviewing and vetting phase.

But those heading the search — as well as those considering the position — should get some down-to-earth answers first.

What is Goodspeed's role in creating new musicals? For the first half of the Goodspeed Opera House's 51-year-run, the theater was often a source for new work. But for more than several decades it has mostly done the same revival titles that countless other theaters around the country do — though with exceptional polish.

Now theaters producing new musicals outside of New York are plentiful. You only have to look at the exciting work Yale Repertory Theatre and Hartford Stage have recently done — "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" won the Tony Award for best Broadway musical this year — to see that the creative energy is now spread far and wide.

For the most part Goodspeed's transfers to New York over the past few decades also have been disappointments. One wonders if it wasn't for the financial windfall that long-ago shows like "Annie" brought into its now $23 million endowment, would Goodspeed have survived over the years.

What is the role of Norma Terris Theatre in Chester? It's been tumbleweeds across the stage this year at Goodspeed's second theater with just one new production slated, hardly enough to sustain, much less build, an audience for new work.

Does Goodspeed need a new theater? How long can the Opera House, with its limited gross potential, keep doing major shows without charging exorbitant ticket prices? Is a new theater with a larger gross potential that allows for shorter runs in the cards or will the new exec be faced with a financial endgame at some point?

The famously tiny stage is legendary but as amazing as the skill-set of its designers, some shows just don't make a good fit, both physically and by ambience. Though the quaint details of the Victorian theater are adorable, modern musicals aren't always a natural match in that lovely but limited space.

How do you position the theater for new work while keeping the faithful yet conservative and aging audience? Ah, perhaps the hardest question and one that is not unique to Goodspeed. Further complicating the answer is that because of the theater's remote location it is especially dependent on those that see the place as a destination.

How important is transferring shows? Very, both in maintaining a reputation as provider of viable musicals for the field but financially, too, earning revenue from productions of shows it helped develop. Doing festivals, readings and workshops are helpful for the field but unless it results in full productions, the theater does not profit.

How local does the new person have to be? You need an executive well connected nationally to bring in the projects, talent and money but first and foremost, you have to tend the local garden. A "commuter exec" would change the personal dynamic that the theater has carefully nurtured over the years and has given the theater its suis generis distinction

How do make the theater more attractive to actors? The runs are notoriously long and the pay is modest — in the $800 range for main stage shows for most actors and much less for workshops. And from that salary is then subtracted agent and manager fees and union dues. Many actors just don't want to commit to 14-week runs for scale in an area that is isolated with few amenities. (New actor housing is a plus but without easy access to transportation they're stuck in a hamlet without a grocery store, and other necessities to make life away from home tolerable.)

Will the theater go it alone? Or will alliances and co-productions be sought? Goodspeed has generally produced its own shows on its stages but it may be time to go beyond its "Brigadoon"-like setting in sharing costs and risks.

Other revenue streams?: It's earlier venture into producing shows in East Haddam and putting it on the road flopped. The institution also owns Gelston House, so do you want sparkling or still?

Finally, who is out there? Ah, who indeed? Unlike the list of usual suspects or artistic directors for most regional theaters, Goodspeed Musicals calls for a person of unique talents, being familiar and well connected with both the not-for-profit and commercial theater worlds, someone who is both a national figure as well as one who can be grounded mid-state; a savvy producer and an entrepreneur most of all.

Well established folks in musicals and institutions like Eric Schaeffer (Virginia's Signature Theatre), Darko Tresnjak (Hartford Stage), Christopher Ashley (San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse), Susan Booth (Atlanta's Alliance Theatre) and Ted Chapin (American Theatre Wing/Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization) seem to be doing just fine where they are, thank you. Someone with a past Goodspeed producing history like Sue Frost is well along with a career in commercial producing. (She won a Tony Award for "Memphis.") Jenny Gersten who ran Williamstown Theatre Festival is the new head of New York's high-profile Highline.

I wonder if Mark Brokaw, who runs the Yale Institute for Music Theater, is being wooed? Or Rob Ruggiero, who is producing artistic director of Hartford's TheaterWorks and who has staged some of Goodspeed's best shows in the past decade and knows the theater — and the field — well. Director Scott Schwartz, who was a finalist for the Hartford Stage job, certainly knows musicals well and is well-connected, too, as is an out-of-the box choice like John Barlow, longtime Goodspeed board member, marketing and public relations expert and someone who has a full Rolodex.

One might look at second or third-in-command folks at places like Lincoln Center, the Roundabout Theatre Company, the Encores! Series and other musical-rooted institutions. But this is all early speculation. A short list of names will emerge in the coming weeks.

How independent will the new person be? That's the final question for anyone interested in the job. With Price's participating on the search committee, one might question how free the new person will be to set his or her own course. Can Price, who lives in Chester and is active in state arts, completely let go? Should he? Will the board support the new person not only with words but with money? And speaking of dough, at least there is likely to be a six-figure windfall for the theater since the exec is hardly likely to command Price's not-for-profit salary that is $400,000-plus a year.

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