Exit, Mr. Goodspeed
It's going to be strange not to see Michael Price in his office tucked away off the cozy lobby of the Goodspeed Opera House, sitting in his barber chair, holding court with guests during intermission. Or stationed at the bottom of the theater's grand red staircase, smiling broadly, shaking hands and receiving compliments from members of the crowd leaving a show.
After all, no single person has been associated so long with an arts institution in the state — or almost anywhere else in America — than Price's nearly half-century association with the theater.
A Yale School of Drama grad, he was there for Goodspeed's first season when the renovated 1876, six-story, wooden Victorian-era building on the banks of the Connecticut River reopened as a theater in 1963. He was dismissed after a year by the theater's first executive director Albert Selden ("Everybody thought it would be best that I left," he says now) and exited East Haddam for gigs on Broadway and beyond.
But the theater struggled in its first years and he returned in 1968 when it was on the brink of closing, and he has been in charge ever since.
As its artistic and business leader, he has shaped the theater's programming, grew its endowment, extended its performance weeks from eight to 35, increased its subscription basetop by 16,000, and built the sprawling theater campus in two towns that includes rehearsal hall, scenic and costume shops, a library, artist housing, a winter theater festival, a grand waterfront restaurant and a second theater — now celebrating its 30th anniversary.
He's adapted to the times, both good and bad, and even changed his style of management, learning to dictate less and delegate more. He was there when the river overflowed its banks and into the theater's basement — twice. He was there for the raging storm on opening night for "Annie." He was there when a little show called "Hubba Hubba" because a surprise hit and saved the theater from closing.
Touching on every decade from the '60s to the 21st century teens, Price guided the theater as it slowly built its identity: as a finder of overlooked American musicals, as a producer of classic titles, as a nurturer of new shows and talent, balancing its hominess as a local venue with its reputation as a regional and national theater. The theater is the only one in America to receive two Tony Awards: a special one for its contribution to the American musical and later as outstanding regional theater.
He did it all, one could say, in the middle of nowhere.
Far from the buzz of Broadway and other urban theater centers like Chicago and Seattle, Price slowly, methodically, built a musical empire centered on a 19th century theater whose capacity to produce major musicals on its miniscule stage such as "Show Boat," "Carousel" and "Brigadoon" defies all odds.
Luck helped, of course, along with a supportive spouse Jo-Ann, who one day on a trip to London reminded him how infectious a song was from a show he had turned down. So he changed his mind and produced the world premiere of "Annie." It went on to be one of Broadway's biggest hits, super-sizing the theater's already growing reputation as a developer of Broadway-bound work. ("Man of La Mancha" and "Shenandoah" had already transferred to New York to become Tony Award winning hits), and as well as its multi-million dollar endowment.
He worked with David Merrick on the legendary producer's last hurrah, with both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, Charles Strouse, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, William Finn, Stephen Schwartz and Richard Maltby worked on new shows here. Julie Andrews directed. And even the Muppets took bows here.
Price was also a savvy politico, serving as chairman on the former state arts commission under both Democratic, Independent and Republican governors, standing up for the state's cultural institutions in budget-cutting times.
But not all things went his way. The arts commission was absorbed into the economic and community development department and lost its status, size and significance. A musical magazine project failed. Some shows that turned out to be hits slipped by him. Many musicals that transferred to Broadway were successes but just as many flopped. Most heartbreakingly, plans for a new theater in Middletown that would enable Goodspeed to finally maximize its gross box office potential became the victim of political maneuvering.
The place he leaves is in fine hands. Staff members who have been part of the theater's success remain, its economics are stable, its endowment huge and its future well positioned for the theater's next stage.
They also have learned from Price's personal touch.
"He was very public and very personal to his attention to the work — and to his audience," says Howard Sherman who worked at the theater as general manager in the '90s. "It gave Goodspeed a quality which was very unique. People could go to Goodspeed and may not enjoy the show every time but they loved the experience of being there. That qualitative thing that Michael fostered was very special."
Even as he leaves the center stage spotlight, Price keeps his puckish, ribald and sometimes eyeball rolling humor. "I came here with black hair and a Fu Manchu mustache and I'm leaving with white hair," he says. "But the time has come."
He says he is looking forward to spending time with his grandson, Ezra, who is almost 3 years old. Last month, Price took him to see the Broadway revival of "Annie," which began at the Goodspeed Opera House almost 40 years ago.
Oh, the tales he will tell Ezra.
And the memories he has left Connecticut theater goers.