Published January 10. 2014 4:00AM
After leading Goodspeed Musicals for 45 years, Michael Price will retire at the end of this year.
Price, 75, has overseen the tremendous growth of Goodspeed, as it evolved from a simple summer theater into a Tony-winning institution renowned for the quality of its shows. Since 1968, Goodspeed has produced more than 250 musicals on its main stage at the Opera House in East Haddam and at its developmental Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. Nineteen of those have made their way to Broadway.
"It's been a great run," Price says. "I'm really pleased with the way the theater has grown. I could tell you a thousand things I did wrong, but I think (there are) probably 50 good things - which include having a great staff to carry on the work of the theater and a fabulous board. Between the board and the staff, the institution is in great shape."
While Goodspeed is still primarily known for its stage productions, it has added more to its offerings. It now also trains artists and has become what Price describes as "a campus of musical theater unlike anything else in the country." Thanks to the construction of new housing in 2011, Goodspeed can bring in artists year-round. That has allowed them to initiate programs like the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed Musicals, the Music Direction Intensive and the Audition Master Class.
"The breadth of what we're doing has just become enormous," he says.
When Price started at Goodspeed, it was a very different place. Workers were building scenery in what is now the Opera House green room and were painting scenery in the driveway. Price himself hauled the garbage during the winter.
The full-time staff then consisted of three people. (Now, Goodspeed employs 65 year-round full-time workers, with many more seasonal and part-time people.)
At the time, Goodspeed was dealing with some dire financial straits - until "Man of La Mancha," which was developed at Goodspeed in 1966, became a huge hit, and the royalties saved the financial day.
Another Goodspeed musical became even more well-known than "La Mancha" - a little something called "Annie," which began here in 1976 before going on to Broadway and worldwide fame.
There were a lot of really great shows over the years, Price says, and "there are just great moments - a lot of really great, joyous times."
Price recalls, for instance, that when famed producer David Merrick decided to take Goodspeed's "Very Good Eddie" to Broadway, Price and choreographer Dan Siretta literally danced up 7th Avenue.
John F. (Jef) Wolter, president of the Goodspeed Board of Trustees, says of Price, "I think that he basically devoted his life to Goodspeed. ... He just never gave up. He was like the Energizer Bunny in a certain respect. He built something that I don't think even he envisioned when he first came here. It's an absolute dedication to quality and attention to detail."
As for why he's deciding to retire, Price says, "It's time."
Then, Price - who has a wonderful way with funny stories - told the tale of how, a month ago, he was riding the subway in New York City and a woman stood up to give him her seat. He said, loud enough to attract the attention of other riders, "Are you doing this because I have white hair?" He laughs.
"Not on your life! Sit down!"
Price says he was considering retiring in 2013, but that was Goodspeed's 50th anniversary, so he was convinced to stay for an additional year.
While he is leaving his executive-director post, he'll stay active through 2016 with Goodspeed in advisory and fundraising roles.
The Goodspeed Board of Trustees will conduct a national search for his replacement. The plan is for the new executive director to arrive at the end of this year.
Even when he retires, Price won't be idle. He's on the board of the Johnny Mercer Foundation. He's treasurer of the American Theatre Wing. He's on the management committee for the Tony Awards. He sits on other nonprofit boards.
So he has plenty to keep him busy, including one more thing: "I have a grandson, 2½ years old in Brooklyn, who is just wonderful," he adds with familial warmth.