A history of commitment to the American musical

MICHAEL Price drives a vintage Mustang convertible, conducts interviews from an antique dentist's chair, and makes his living producing musicals in a restored Victorian opera house. But ask Mr. Price if he values the antique for antiquities' sake and he'll set you straight. Especially when it comes to the American musical. ``I don't believe theater exists unless it's performed,'' he says atop the gleaming dentist's chair. ``We're taking material off the shelf and breathing life into it. At the same time we're developing new works so 25 years from now there is something to revive.''

As the producing director of the Goodspeed Opera House, Price has been doing just that for the past two decades. In its 22 years of operation, this tiny 400-seat theater perched on the banks of the Connecticut River has been making American musical history -- generating no fewer than 11 Broadway musicals. ``Man of La Mancha,'' ``Shenandoah,'' ``Annie,'' and ``Little Johnny Jones'' all got their start on Goodspeed's diminutive 27-foot stage.

It's a remarkable track record for a theater whose annual $2.2 million budget is less than one-tenth that of the average Broadway musical. Even more impressively, nearly half of those 11 Goodspeed hits were new musicals. If anything characterizes the Goodspeed today it is this commitment to generating new work. At a time when theatrical production costs are skyrocketing and the number of new musicals declining (the Tony Award committee dropped several of its musical awards last year), the Goodspeed figh ts the tide.

Last year the theater upped its annual output from three musicals (two revivals and one new work) to seven (three revivals and four new works). The increase was due largely to the opening of a second 200-seat theater, Goodspeed-at-Chester/ The Norma Terris Theatre, devoted exclusively to the development of new works.

``Harrigan and Hart,'' the first of these ``works in progress,'' landed on Broadway, albeit for a brief run, last February.

``In the old days [producers] threw 30 projects up in the air and two stuck,'' explains Price. ``Today [producers are] tossing up three and hoping one sticks. With [the new theater at] Chester we're trying to toss up a few more projects.''

Despite such ambition, some observers have criticized the Goodspeed for its nostalgia-laced revivals guaranteed not to offend its largely conservative audience. Others insist that Price selects his productions with one eye cocked for future Broadway revenues. (For years the Goodspeed reaped 1 percent of ``Annie's'' multimillion-dollar gross.) The fact remains, however, that the Goodspeed is the only theater in the United States devoted exclusively to the American musical. ``We are [a national theater fo r musicals] by virtue of us being the only ones,'' says Price.

``What the Goodspeed is doing is vital to the preservation of the American musical,'' says Pauline Haupt-Nolan, artistic director of the Opera/Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.

``There are very few theaters today who have the luxury to run a show that costs twice as much as its gross,'' says Joe Masteroff, author of the Tony Award-winning ``Cabaret'' and of ``Georgia Avenue,'' which premi`ered at Goodspeed-at-Chester this summer.

While the number of regional theaters able to produce new musicals dwindles -- ``The fingers on one hand are too many,'' says Fran Soeder, director of ``Georgia Avenue'' -- Goodspeed's commitment continues. Observers agree that it is a unique confluence of factors that distinguishes the Goodspeed from other musical-producing theaters. These include the theater's undeniable track record, its physical facilities and their location (the 109-year-old theater is listed on the National Register of Historic Pl aces), a hefty subscription series and donor base, and the whip-cracking direction of Price himself.

``We're in operation because we've been geared up for it,'' says Price. The average [regional] theater doesn't have access to that kind of personnel for just one musical.''

Price is also frank about his theater's particular economic advantages. ``I've got 8,000 names in the back of our program; that's the largest base of donors of any theater in the country.'' He says the Goodspeed is also blessed by sold-out houses, annual financial support from New York's powerful Shubert Organization, and sufficient remove from Broadway's pitiless critics and demand-ing audiences.

``My shows would not stand up to the New York Times in New York City,'' Price says candidly. ``My ticket is only $22 and a New York [musical] ticket is $45, and for $45 you have to give [the audience] more than just the tunes.''

No mere tryout house (a theater rented to outside producers), the Goodspeed operation runs the gamut from selecting the works to hiring the directors to building sets and sewing the costumes. In the case of revivals, additional songs (culled from the composers' other works) as well as new choreography are added. For works-in-progress musicals, the majority of the work takes place in front of the audience. ``Any show in its original form is just not going to be in good shape,'' says director Soeder. ``In

New York, a show is judged immediately; here we have five weeks to work on it.''

Price's criteria for selecting the new works remain simple: ``Tunes I can hum, plays that move me.'' He says he listens first to the score, second to the ``book'' or story. ``You can always get somebody in to fix the lyrics,'' the Yale-educated director adds. As for the growing trend toward the so-called ``bookless musical,'' Price cautions: ``You need 40 great tunes to fill the 2 hours. Not even Richard Rodgers did 40 great tunes in one evening.'' Trying to appeal to audience whose musical appetite tend s increasingly toward ``one song and a lot of pyrotechnics'' is another challenge.

In addition to facing those difficulties unique to musical theater -- escalating costs, the impact of video and television, and the new marketing of music -- the Goodspeed also wrestles with the challenges common to any regional theater: an annual operating deficit, union regulations, occasionally inadequate physical facilities, and always an insufficient supply of good new work. ``I have a lot of people knocking on my door,'' says Price with a smile. ``A lot of them are going right back out again.''

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