Would the story of the Goodspeed Opera House make a good musical?
The thought occurred to me while I was interviewing Michael Price, who's been with the Victorian theater on the Connecticut River in East Haddam for 46 of its 50 years. During lunch at the Gelston House restaurant (which Goodspeed Musicals also owns), the longtime executive director says there is plenty of material that could lend itself to the larger-than-life dynamics of a musical.
Drama? There was the time when the banks of the Connecticut River overflowed in the '80s — twice — and flooded the basement of the theater.
Cliff-hangers? There was the time in the early days when the theater was on the verge of closing, when a little show called "Hubba Hubba" turned out to be a smash — and saved the theater for a while.
Of course, there were the many door-slamming fights after a show's first run-though, the last minute turnarounds from messes to masterpieces, the egos, the romances and the sex. "Oh, you could talk about the sex," says Price, hinting at the heat generated among close living conditions in the isolated theatrical outpost, "but we're not going to."
Price prefers to chat about the dedication of the multi-tasking staff over the decades, how the theater changed its focus when times demanded, and how he made a pivotal personal decision late in his own tenure that made a significant impact on the theater.
Goodspeed's history reflects the changing tastes, audiences and business of the American theater, say Price, though he prefers to use the word "evolve."
"We kept re-branding ourselves as we went along," he says. "You can't live on what you did in the past."
As the theater prepares for the first show of its golden anniversary season — a revamped version of 1927's "Good News" begins previews Friday, April 12 and opens May 1 — Price, who turns 75 this summer, looks back at the tenuous beginnings, its hits and misses and its gradual development as the leading center for the development of musicals.
Coming And Going
Was there a 50 or even 5-year plan, when the theater re-opened after its extensive renovation in 1963?
"It just happened," says Price.
The six-story wooden building was built in 1876 by William Henry Goodspeed, a local entrepreneur who saw it as a multi-purpose center — general store, post office, dentist's office — with performance space on its upper two floors. The theater's patron died six years later and the theater activity declined until its last performance in 1902 of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Commerce continued until fire laws prohibited its public use.The building slowly deteriorated and by 1950s it was being used as a Department of Transportation garage.
In 1958 a group of residents led by Libby Kaye and Mrs. Alfred Howe Terry, began efforts to revive the theater, supported by then-Gov. Abraham Ribicoff. The newly renovated and updated theater opened five years later.
In 1963 Price was a student at the Yale School of Drama studying lighting and theater management when he first became aware of Goodspeed through an architecture class. He returned later that year with some of his classmates to help open up the first season under executive director Albert Selden.
But when it was time to plan for the second season, "everybody thought it would be best that I left," he says. "I wasn't invited back. I was a young guy straight out of Yale who knew all the answers. It was a good thing that I left."
The 398-seat theater continued for the first five years of its existence essentially as a stock company, presenting its inaugural show, "Oh, Lady, Lady!," followed by "The Mikado," "The Fantasticks" and "A Connecticut Yankee."
Meanwhile, Price moved on to work as a stage hand in New York, and then as stage manager of Music Theater of Lincoln Center under composer Richard Rodgers, presenting shows at the New York State Theater and on tour. Price then moved on to run a 3,500-seat Valley Music Hall in Salt Lake City.
Things were changing at Goodspeed. Selden was having a tough time running the place. His one bit hit, "Man of La Mancha" premiered at the theater in 1965. Eventually, the musical and Selden were moving on to New York.
In 1968 the trustees leased the theater to an outside producing company, led by actor-director Alfred Drake. Price was wooed back to run the business side. Drake left after his failed season. That fall, Price produced , "Peter Pan," which was a hit, and he was named executive director. He never left.
From the beginning, Price says, Goodspeed was a mash of "something old, something new." In 1971 finances were terrible "and if it weren't for the success of WWII Stage Door Canteen-type of show called 'Hubba Hubba' the theater would have thrown in the towel."
The theater began to find a niche in re-discovering and re-imagining forgotten period musicals such as "Bloomer Girl," "Good News," "Sunny" and "DuBarry Was a Lady." It invested in new work and in 1974 one of Goodspeed's premieres, "Shenandoah," moved onto Broadway.
A revival of the 1915 musical "Very Good Eddie" was a Connecticut hit in 1975 and word spread to New York. At its last performance legendary producer David Merrick came to East Haddam, saw the show and decided to take it to Broadway.
"It was hard to contain our excitement," says Price. "Not only were we going to Broadway but we were under the auspices of the producer of his day, playing in a flagship Shubert theater — the Booth where I worked as a stagehand. On opening night [choreographer] Dan Siretta and [director] Bill Gile and I danced up 7th Avenue."
If "Very Good Eddie" gave the theater a brand, "Annie" in 1976 gave it further credibility — and a fortune, putting millions into the theater's endowment over the years. "No process of putting on a musical together is easy but that show was difficult," says Price. "We cut our teeth with that show in a big way." After 'Annie' Goodspeed's phone started ringing with pitches for shows,
In the '80s, things changed again and "we saw our lunch being eaten in three ways."
New York's "Encore!" series became the go-to-venue in the field of re-discovering older or rarely produced musicals. New Haven's Shubert Theater and Hartford's Bushnell re-emerged as major booking houses, And regional theaters started producing musicals. All three factors cut into Goodspeed's ability to attract audiences to the drive up or down Route 9.
"So we had to change," says Price. "The artistic product would be the thing." A commitment was made to more rehearsal time, better production values and new orchestrations. Goodspeed began producing major titles on its main stage while developing original shows on its new second smaller stage in Chester.
Was there a show Price loved but just didn't make it?
" 'The Red Blue-Grass Western Flyer,'" he says, referring to the 1977 new musical that starred Bob Gunton and David Keith. "It was all set to go to Broadway but the Wall Street Journal gave us a bad review and that was that. I would love to see it again, but the rest of the staff says it's all in my fantasy."
He also has great affection for 1970's "King of Schnorrers" with a score by Bernard Herrmann. "That show would have been a hit with the right director. Raul Julia was in it."
When asked to name a disaster, he quickly named the six-actor show, 2002's 'Dames at Sea," "A hideous production. I closed that show early."
Asked if he could have change one thing, Price paused. "My management style."
"My mentors were men like Bernie Jacobs, Merrick, Kermit Bloomgarden — mogul-type people who were micromanagers who spoke from the position of power: The power of the purse and the power to hire and fire. For 35 of my 45 years here I operated like those guys. And it was becoming clear that there was something wrong with the way I was doing business. You could feel the tension in the place. There was paranoia. It was not healthy,
Ten years ago Price sought help from the Yale School of Management and brought in an industrial psychologist. "He spent a lot of time with me and the staff. He said, 'I can help you but it's going to be rough. The problem can be reduced to one sentence. You've got to let go. And I did, painfully so."
"It took a long time for the staff to trust in me that I was no longer the martinet or benevolent dictator. But guess what? Every one of the senior staff blossomed in a way that was incredible. In many ways, they're running the store now and doing a great job."
One disappointment for Price was when plans for a new theater in Middletown were dropped in 2007 when political and financial supported scuttled the project.
"We continue to dream about it,' he says. "We talk and keep that business plan up to date because things could change. Right now it still could be a feasible idea and now I have a board with a different point of view. But whether we do it or not, who know?"
In the meantime Goodspeed Musicals — the umbrella name for all of Goodspeed's activities — "has dug deeper into the art and the craft. What the public sees on stage is only a part of who we are. We are at a great point in our life now."
He points to the 33 buildings its owns around East Haddam, Chester and Deep River. He boasts of the biggest scenic and paint shop in New England, a costume shop with 175,000 costumes, a library and research center, a rehearsal hall and new housing for artists. Workshops, readings and intensive training sessions for designers, directors and dancers takes place year-round attracting people from all over the world. Winter months are now used as incubators for writers, using the talents of students from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford and New York University.
At present there is not an exit plan for Price. "I feel good," he says. "The only thing I can say for sure is if I drop dead today this place would be the same tomorrow or the next week or the next year because I am not the Goodspeed. It's people like [associate producer] Bob Alwine and [line producer] Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton and [music director] Michael O'Flaherty."
GOOD NEWS begins previews Friday,, April 12 and opens May 1 to June 22, , at the theater in East Haddam. HELLO, DOLLY! follows June 28 to Sept. 8. THE MOST HAPPY FELLA runs Sept. 20 to Dec.1. Information: 860-873-8664 and www.goodspeed.org.
THE GOODSPEED 50TH ANNIVERSARY GALA will be held Monday, June 17, on the grounds of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. Tickets are $500 to $2,500., Information 860-873-8664 Ext. 368 and www.goodspeed.org.
Read Frank's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. And be the first to know by following him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.