From Sondheim To South Africa


The Tony awards passed him by on Sunday, but director Lonny Price is having an exceptional year on Broadway. He directed what critics panned as one of the season’s stinkers, the musical version of the 1980 honky-tonk film "Urban Cowboy." When the show closed in May after 60 performances, Price seemed nonplussed. "It just wasn’t a New York show, it turned out," he said.

No stranger to the short run, Price, 44, started out on Broadway as an actor. His first role was as a chasidic Jew in "The Survivor," a play about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that closed after eight performances in 1981. Later that year, he played a lead in the original run of Steven Sondheim’s "Merrily We Roll Along," also starring Jason Alexander. That show lasted only twice as long.

The closing of "Urban Cowboy" left Price to focus on a proven New York hit. With the blessings of South African playwright Athol Fugard, Price has staged a revival of the apartheid-era play " ‘Master Harold’… and the Boys," at the Royale Theatre through July 27.

Price, a Queens native and Juilliard dropout, won the title role of "Hally" in the original 1982 production with only nine days to opening. Always up for a challenge, Price took on the role alongside actors Zakes Mokae and Danny Glover.

Fugard directed the autobiographical play about a white boy’s relationship with his family’s two black employees. "He walked me through it," Price said recently, while breakfasting on eggs over easy. "He really kind of painted [the role] on me."

The revival, which has been praised in the press, stars Glover as Sam, Hally’s surrogate father figure. Michael Boatman (of TV’s "Spin City") takes Glover’s former role as Willie, and newcomer Christopher Denham plays Hally.

Price had his directorial debut at the American Jewish Theater, doing "The Education of Hyman Kaplan," a George Abbott musical based on Leo Rosten stories. Since then, he’s had success directing and writing, notably with the 1987/88 play "Sally Marr…and her escorts," starring Joan Rivers as comedian Lenny Bruce’s mother, and "A Class Act" of 1994, a show about composer Edward Kleban. Price’s staged version of "Sweeney Todd" was filmed for TV in 2000 and won an Emmy award.

A lifelong theater buff, Price credits his parents for his career choice. Frustrated performers, they took Price and his sister to the theater on weekends and special occasions.

"A few more trips to the museum of natural history might have swayed things," Price said. "But we were going to Broadway shows."