Director Lonny Price concedes that he was "blindsided" by the hostile reviews "Urban Cowboy" received. The musical, based on the 1980 movie (starring John Travolta and Debra Winger), opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, March 27.
"I don't understand the outpouring of anger, the vitriol. We never purported to be 'Sweeney Todd' or 'Sunday in the Park with George,' " Price points out during a phone interview. "I wish we could go back to the era of Walter Kerr, a critic who would say, 'Here's what the creators of a show attempted to do. Here's where they succeeded, here's where they failed.' I'm not saying it's the critics' job to reflect popular taste, but it might be nice if they acknowledged the fact that others are having a good time in the theatre. We are heartened by the audience response."
"Urban Cowboy" 's scene: a blue-collar, trailer park community in Houston, Tex., circa 1978; the story: a goodhearted farm boy arrives in town, falls in love, and marries a tomboyish girl, who in turn leaves him for an outlaw. The characters—there are several leads and an equal number of subplots—have difficulty communicating. Nobody knows how to swallow his or her pride. But in the end, everyone is reconciled with everyone else. Much of the action takes place in Gilley's, a good-old-boy bar, awash in drunkenness, lewdness, and line dancing. Riding a mechanical bull without getting thrown is Gilley's centerpiece event. All the action is punctuated with old pop standards and some new country-western-like songs.
Price, best known as the director, co-author, and star of the Tony Award-nominated musical "A Class Act," came on board late into "Urban Cowboy" 's rehearsal process, having replaced the late Phillip Oesterman, who was scheduled to direct the piece. He says not being with the project from the outset was the biggest challenge and, paradoxically, a source of liberation.
"I didn't have time for a lot of preparation, but also I was freed because I didn't have to plan everything," recalls Price, a likeable 40-something New York City-born native. "That was new for me. I had limited rehearsal time and had to allow things to happen, and trust that they would work out. The more secure you are as a director, the more you can leave things to chance."
Still, Price had his work cut out for him. "It's true that when you turn a movie into a show, structure, plotline, and characters are in place. At the same time, because it's a familiar movie, audiences come with preconceived notions of what it is they should be seeing. The movie is dark and violent and the creators [Aaron Latham, Phillip Oesterman] felt that that would not work as a musical. This is a sunnier version.
"I don't just stage a piece," continues Price. "I construct and conceive it so that there's one unified vision. When I inherited the project, I did not feel the songs were motivated—the music was decorative—or that the chorus was incorporated into the storytelling. I hired Jason Robert Brown to write new songs to reveal character in specific ways and plot the songs so that they musicalized the story. Gilley's has become a place of release and fantasy where music and singing is natural."
In addition to the aforementioned "A Class Act," Price's previous credits include directing Joan Rivers in her Tony-nominated turn as Lenny Bruce's mother in "Sally Marr…and Her Escorts" (Broadway), "Visiting Mr. Green" (with Eli Wallach), Jules Feiffer's "Grown Ups," and the revivals of "The Rothschilds" and "Juno" (Off-Broadway). He has also done some TV work, earning a 2002 Emmy Award for his film of "Sweeney Todd in Concert" (PBS). Most recently, he directed the original cast reunion performances of "Falsettos" that opened Playwrights Horizons' new complex on Theatre Row.
Price is currently helming Athol Fugard's " 'Master Harold'…and the boys" with Danny Glover. The emotionally charged play, about race relations in South Africa in 1950, curiously enough brings Price full circle. The play, which made its debut in 1982, starred Price in the title role (Price worked as an actor for more than a decade) and featured an unknown Danny Glover as Price's young servant. This time around, Glover plays the older servant and, as noted, Price directs the piece. "Master Harold…" is slated to open on Broadway at the Royale Theatre, June 1.
Brought up in Queens, the son of a trumpeter—who "owned a car leasing firm to make a living"—Price wanted to be in theatre from the outset, first as an actor; directing came later. "My mother loved musical theatre and I was taken to the theatre all the time," Price remembers. "My birthday present was always a trip to a Saturday matinee of some musical. I wanted to be Bobby Morse."
Price graduated from the High School of Performing Arts, during which time he also worked in Hal Prince's office as a gofer. "I copied scripts, hung around, and learned about story and structure. It was a great experience."
Price's stint at Juilliard, however, was not. "They had the idea that they had to break you down to build you up. I hated the way they treated students. They took the joy out of acting and I dropped out after a year."
Nonetheless, within short order he was a steadily working actor, appearing on and Off-Broadway in straight plays and musicals, including "Merrily We Roll Along," "The Immigrant," and "Burn This," earning Obie, Theatre World, and Drama-Logue Awards. On film, he made his mark in "The Muppets Take Manhattan," and as Neil, the hotel owner's geeky grandson, in "Dirty Dancing."
His roster of acting credits notwithstanding, in 1990, after 10 years, Price felt the time had come to switch gears for several reasons, not least the typecasting he was encountering.
"I was limited by my physicality and constantly playing short, bald Jews who were either nerds or accountants. I thought I had more to say and the roles that were coming my way were less and less interesting.
"I also found the life of the actor less appealing than I once had," Price continues. "I didn't like not knowing where my next job was coming from, even though I worked regularly. More important, I always felt like a child, begging for a job and for approval. I didn't want to be the child anymore. I wanted to be the father [the director]."
Although there were some psychic shifts he had to make moving from acting to directing—like "losing the narcissism and learning to see the whole"—his years in acting have served him well as a director. "I know what actors are going through, I can identify with their problems, and I can communicate with them."
Price is equally clear about what he wants from his actors. "I like serious people who regard it as an honor—no, privilege—to work in New York, especially on Broadway. I respect people who respect themselves, who show up on time. I want to see joy and playfulness and a sense of proportion."
He adds, "I also want actors to understand that it's not how they feel when they're up there, but how we [the audience] feel. They have to accept the idea that I, as the director, can see what they may not be able to see."
While Price is now busy in rehearsal with " 'Master Harold'…and the boys," his thoughts are still with "Urban Cowboy," which was for him, he says, a "spectacularly joyous experience."
Naturally, he hopes audiences concur. "I'd like them to leave the theatre having forgotten their troubles for a couple of hours. I hope they can appreciate the fresh young talent that's up there and celebrate that!"