Lonny Price is known to musical theatre fans as a featured actor in Merrily We Roll Along and Rags, two Broadway musicals of the 1980s whose rich, heartbreaking productions closed prematurely, but whose scores live on in memorable cast albums. Over the years, Price, 40, evolved into an Off-Broadway director and artistic director of Musical Theatre Works, a new works development program. He's now helming the pre-Broadway tryout of a revival of Finian's Rainbow, which begins Oct. 12 at Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse before moving to Cleveland and, in early 2000, to Broadway. Price talked with Playbill On-Line about reworking the classic musical ("Ol' Devil Moon," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?," "If This Isn't Love"), a groundbreaking work that is part romance, part social satire and part musical fantasy.
PBOL: I love the score to Finian's Rainbow -- with "Necessity," "Look to the Rainbow," "Something Sort of Grandish," "The Begat," "That Great Come and Get It Day" -- but it's not a show I've ever seen on stage.
Lonny Price: Very few people have; it's hardly ever done. That's part of the reason why we're doing it, is to work on it so it'll get done more.
PBOL: Producer Rodger Hess initiated the project, right?
LP: He's had a passion for this show for 20 years or something; he's wanted to do it forever. It's very unusual to have one man's name over the title in a Broadway musical. It's very rare these days. It's all him.
PBOL: What did you think when he first said "Finian's Rainbow" to you?
LP: I guess, like everybody, I had known the score, and thought it was just glorious, one of the Top 10. I had never even read it, although I had heard about it. I think I had seen the film, which was very unfortunate -- it's very weird and its style is very strange. When Rodger sent it to me, I was astonished at how beautiful it was, that what it was trying to do was so noble and daring for its time. I was very attracted to the material and the score, and a lot of [lyricist-librettist] Yip Harburg's philosophy in the show is very intriguing to me.
PBOL: I love Harburg, not just for his liberal sentiments, but because his playful, language-bending lyrics tend to create and fill in new worlds, as in "The Wizard of Oz," Jamaica, Flahooley and Finian's. Were there any trunk songs available to you? Were there a lot of numbers cut before the 1947 opening?
LP: I was told that there wasn't a lot, and I didn't look that deeply. I have a feeling there isn't. I don't think they did a lot of changing in terms of the music. PBOL: Peter Stone has written a new book and deepened the script's references to racism, which, he says, had become stale with the passing of time. You're coming at this like a new show.
LP: Absolutely. Peter will be here for the first preview. He's been very hands on. When I first read it, as much as there were so many wonderful things in it, the dramaturgy was very bizarre. The classic example is [the opening number] "This Time of the Year." It's this song with people chanting, "Woody's coming, Woody's coming" [to save the day] and at the end of the number, they all run off stage, they do another scene, and then they bring him on. It was like doing the "Hello, Dolly!" number and she doesn't come down the stairs! There was a lot of dramaturgical work that we did. The songs are in a different order now, "Necessity" has a completely new concept, which I think strengthens not only the number, but the whole show. But this great score felt a lot like stage weights because the events of the scenes were before or after the numbers. The numbers weren't very well motivated. We've done an awful work to at least put the score in an order where when the songs come, they are plugged in in such a profound way that they're as joyful as they are on the record, which I didn't feel when I saw other productions of it.
PBOL: Brian Murray, the British actor known for classical work at places like Lincoln Center, plays Finian, the Irishman who bring a stolen crock of gold to Missitucky, USA, with a leprechaun in hot pursuit. The role is traditionally a non-singing one.
LP: Actually, we've given "Look to the Rainbow" to Finian this time around, because he had no musical profile at all.
PBOL: Murray has told friends and colleagues that he's always dreamed of being in a big, tuneful Broadway musical...
LP: That's exactly what he says! And he's terrific; I feel so honored to be working with him and Austin Pendleton and the company.
PBOL: Are you making any cuts in the score?
LP: No, not a note cut. In fact, we've added a lot of underscoring. Eric Stern in the musical director, vocal director and dance arranger this time out. He's the Rolls Royce of all of this. Eric and I go back a long way, as friends. He did Duddy Kravitz with me, and Rags...but he's the first call, always, when I do anything like this.
PBOL: These next three month in Miami and Cleveland, is the show still very fluid?
LP: Oh, God, yes! This is a tryout. The reason we're here is that I could get a six-week sitdown in Florida, instead of doing a pre-Broadway tour, with two-week stops, or three-week stops. This allows me a real chance to look at it in front of an audience and for Peter and all of the collaborators to really evaluate it. It's a tricky piece.
PBOL: In the original show, a racist white Southern senator is magically turned black "so he could know what that world is like"; and by the end he is white again, but enlightened.
LP: This is one of the big changes we've made and I feel strongly about. In the original, the leprechaun does an incantation which takes away his bigotry and I thought that was a cop out. Bigotry's not something you can wish away. We have a brand new scene where [Senator] Rawkins experiences what it's like to be a black man under his own Jim Crow laws. His transformation is internal, it's not done by magic. It's done by having experienced what he's done to other people. He sees the light. Peter has written a very powerful scene that's very moving and solidifies the point. And getting an actor of Austin's caliber to play this is enormously helpful.
PBOL: And Austin does this in blackface?
LP: He does. We've sent this to [African-American actor] Ossie Davis, and Peter's had a talk with [Public Theater producing director] George Wolfe. It is tricky. The show was written to be healing, it was written because Yip Harburg felt the question of race was not being addressed well in this country, and there were bigoted senators he wanted to expose. He wanted a dialogue. He wanted it to be healing. That's what we're all hoping.
PBOL: My memory is that there are a couple versions of the script, including a 1960 version with Glocca Morra rhyming with "Zsa Zsa Gaborra," where the original had "red propaganda" rhyming with "Carmen Miranda."
LP: We're doing "red propaganda," it's a bit spicier. There are more than two versions. I think Yip never really stopped working on it. There was an animated version planned with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald that never got off the ground, and there was [Harburg and co-librettist Fred Saidy's] version of the screenplay, which is very different from the one that got made. Peter and I were working from a lot of versions of Yip's work to try to be true to what he wanted.
PBOL: What has scenic designer Loren Sherman come up with for the world of Rainbow Valley?
LP: It's very abstract, the show. It's a real challenge. It's not realistic, but it's not a cartoon. I wanted something poetic and magical...a world that could allow for leprechauns and bigoted senators from the South -- getting a political satire, and romance and a fantasy into one room was tricky. We've done something very abstract and very nonrealistic, and beautiful. It's not gonna look like a lot of revivals that you've seen.
PBOL: You've said you don't want Finian's Rainbow to come off as children's theatre. Do you remember the first time you went to a legit show, as a kid?
LP: I sure do. I grew up in Queens and part of my birthday gift, always, was a Saturday matinee of whatever hit musical there was. When I was three, I saw Oliver!. If you don't want your little boy to go into show business, it's better to not take him to see Oliver! I was sitting on a phone book. And I remember that design vividly, but it started to snow onstage, and I just wanted to be up there more than anything. They all looked like they were having a great time. I remember Georgia Brown's red dress. I go to see a lot great theatre in those years: Fiddler, Mame, Half a Sixpence, the City Center revivals. When I was old enough to take myself into the city, in the 1970s, I really grew up on all the great Sondheim-Hal Prince shows.
PBOL: And you starred in their Merrily We Roll Along.
LP: I worked for Hal when I was 15 , on Pacific Overtures, in his office, I was an office boy. I was going to the performing arts high school, and I wrote him a letter saying how much I admired his work. I said, could I work for you after school? He said, come on up. I was the luckiest 15 year-old in the world. I would copy scripts, but he would just let me hang around and observe him and Sondheim, and [designer] Boris Aronson was a big hero of mine. I learned a lot about how important material is. The most important thing is the writing.
-- By Kenneth Jones