Michael Price's Goodspeed Opera Doesn't Just Try Out Broadway Hits—It Creates Them
In East Haddam, Conn. the play's not the thing, the theater is. No matter what musical show, old or new, smash hit or turkey, is playing at the grand old Goodspeed Opera House, the loyal audiences flock there, fill every seat and applaud every performance. "The people are faithful," observes Goodspeed's latest star alumna, Andrea (Annie) McArdle, 16. "Sometimes the show is not quite ready, and the audience is, umm, very kind."
That indulgence has been hard-won. The Goodspeed, now under taskmaster-director Michael Price, 41, has become probably the major American stage for reviving and spawning musicals. Its credits range from Man of La Mancha in 1965 to Annie itself.
The Goodspeed first reared its twin cupolas on a promontory over the Connecticut River in 1876. A local merchant prince, William Goodspeed, built it to house his general store and serve as home port for his steamboat fleet. On the top two floors he put an acoustically marvelous theater where he could indulge his passion for drama. For the next 25 years luminaries like Minnie Maddern Fiske and Henry Ward Beecher declaimed from its stage, and Goodspeed brought entire Broadway shows up the river on his boats. After the turn of the century, the house lapsed into decline and finally went dark in 1920. A near ruin in 1959, the Goodspeed was saved from a wrecker's ball by a group of preservationists.
After a million-dollar restoration, the old house reopened as a strawhat theater in 1963 with Price, a recent graduate of the Yale Drama School, as general manager. He was perfect on paper: a B.A. in communications from Michigan State, an M.A. in theater from the University of Minnesota, and a veteran of TV commercials since his childhood back in Chicago. "I wasn't a good actor," he admits, and after his first season at Goodspeed, Price's backstage abilities seemed equally dubious, like the time he forced tap dancers to rehearse on a cloth covering to preserve the newly veneered stage. "I was terrific," he winces. "The whole damned place nearly came to a grinding halt." After one season, he reports, "they threw me out."
Undaunted, Price left East Haddam and worked his way up from stagehand at the Metropolitan Opera to stage manager and producer at Salt Lake City's Valley Music Hall. When that ill-fated venture was about to fold in 1969, the Goodspeed's board of trustees thought Price was ready for a second shot. By then, says Price, "the Goodspeed had hit pretty hard times." The summer season ran just 10 weeks, and most shows played to barely 50 percent capacity. Within two years, Price had found a workable formula. "We decided to become the home of the American musical theater. We dedicated ourselves to putting life into the classics of Kern and Gershwin, and to add to musical theater by doing new works." The season has expanded to 33 weeks, including two revivals and one new show a year.
The results have been phenomenal. No fewer than six Goodspeed musicals—including Shenandoah, Very Good Eddie, Something's Afoot and Whoopee—have traveled the two and a half hours to New York in the wake of La Mancha. The curtain rings down this week on the current season with most of the 398-seat house booked for next year.
Price's reign, he concedes, is "a benevolent dictatorship." He supervises everything from the selection of toilet paper for the rest rooms to the smallest production detail. He is known as a "snarler" by actors, and he is equally stern with audiences, refusing to seat latecomers and insisting that everyone remain through the curtain calls. Every evening after the show, however, Price waits at the foot of the grand staircase to thank and chat up the customers. It was there in 1969 that he met his future wife, Jo-Ann Nevas, 38 (the meeting was set up by mutual friends). The Prices live across the river now, in a 1746 Colonial house, with Daniel, 5, and Rebecca Sara, 4 weeks.
By now Price has become so involved with Goodspeed that he no longer has ambitions to be a Broadway impresario. "I would go," he says, "only if I could stay here too. I want the best of two worlds."
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