How Lonny Price Found His Treasure Trove of Original Merrily Footage

Seth Rudetsky   How Lonny Price Found His Treasure Trove of Original Merrily Footage
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Gavin Creel describes working with Bette Midler, and Lonny Price uncovers the story of making his Merrily We Roll Along documentary and finding “destroyed” footage from the original.
Seth Rudetsky and Lonny Price
Seth Rudetsky and Lonny Price Joseph Marzullo/WENN

I just got back from New Orleans where I did a show with Gavin Creel. Let me first say: His voice is unbelievable—the tone, the musicality, perfect! Here’s my deconstruction of his amazing vibrato:

He’s about to play Cornelius in Hello Dolly! He said they recently did a two-week meeting and Bette Midler is such an incredibly hard worker. When she started singing the title song, Gavin said you know that voice so well and you feel like you're hearing an old friend. When she got to the lyric “Wow, wow, wow, fellas! Look at the all girl now, fellas!” everyone in the room had tears in their eyes. P.S. No matter what the song, Gavin sounds phenomenal. Come see us in Fort Lauderdale on December 30 at the Parker Playhouse.

I had the wonderful Lonny Price on my Sirius XM radio show to talk about his documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened to give me the backstory on how it happened. It all began when Lonny was a young, obsessed theatre fanatic, specifically Sondheim/Prince. Lonny went to a theatre camp called Camp Lexington and Mary Rodgers’ daughter went there, as well. When he was 14, in 1974, he saw a New York Times ad for an upcoming Sondheim tribute and it said “paid for by the friends of Sondheim.” Well he knew Mary Rogers was a friend of Sondheim so he wrote her a letter asking if she could help him get a ticket (he only had $25). He added how much he loved Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince and how he would cut school to go to the box office on the first day tickets will go on sale for one of their shows.

Well, suddenly Lonny got a letter at his house in New Jersey and when he opened it, he saw it was from Sondheim. Cue: fainting. Lonny got to see the benefit concert (“It was like the best night of my life!”) and he and Sondheim kept corresponding. Lonny thinks Sondheim got a kick out of a 14-year-old kid who was obsessed specifically with his shows. Lonny asked if he could work for him, but Sondheim said he didn’t have an office so he should write to Hal Prince. You can see the letter he wrote in the documentary. Note to everyone: Save everything! You never know when you’re going to make a documentary. (Note to my Mother: That doesn’t mean you. Throw out the stack of People magazines from 1981.)

Lonny started to work for Hal when they were putting up Pacific Overtures. He would stuff envelopes for group sales and keep the script up-to-date with a very old-school copy machine. Imagine: He was obsessed with Sondheim and Hal Prince from simply seeing their shows and was suddenly working on their new show…meaning he had full access to the Winter Garden Theatre where it was playing and he got to go to the recording session. And he was 15 years old!

He kept in touch with Sondheim and when he was 20, Lonny invited him to a reading of a show called Four Jews in a Room Bitching, which turned into March of the Falsettos. (He played Mendel.) He thought Sondheim should hear this new composer (William Finn who, at that time, played Marvin) and he also thought Sondheim would love the orchestrator. Of course, Lonny was right: Sondheim came to see it and wound up using Michael Starobin to orchestrate Sunday in the Park with George. It was also the first time Sondheim heard Lonny sing. The next day (!), Lonny was asked to audition for Merrily. Lonny got the part of Charley and they did a reading of the show…on the Evita stage (!) and you can see it in his documentary!

Back when Merrily was being put together, a news show on ABC was filming everything for a special about the new Sondheim/Prince show. Well, after filming the auditions and the reading, it was discovered that ABC had invested in Merrily and even though Lonny said it would now be called “synergy,” back then it was called a conflict of interest and they pulled the documentary. Then ABC found out they would have had to pay every single person in it union minimum, so they told everyone they destroyed the footage. Lonny never really believed it was gone and would constantly ask people from ABC if they knew where it was. (When he was on Desperate Housewives he asked Marc Cherry if he knew about the footage. The consensus from him and everyone was that it had been destroyed.) Finally, Lonny hired someone whose job it is to find footage. So specific! And, P.S. Everything about this guy was that specific. After Lonny gave him all the details about the missing documentary, the specialist told Lonny he had a 50/50 chance of finding it. Actually not at all; he told Lonny there was a “nine percent” chance of finding it. NINE per cent!

Yes on the specificity! No on the devastating chances.

Well, the guy went to all the ABC databases and typed in “Sondheim” and “Hal Prince” and “Merrily” and “Alvin Theater” etc. Literally every key word about the show. Nothing came up. Finally, he went back one more time and typed in “B’way.” And 37 boxes of film popped up on the screen! Can you imagine how Lonny felt when they told him it was found?! Not since Linus and the Great Pumpkin! Because it was still in the form of undeveloped negatives, it had to be stored in a cool place. Hence, every one was in a mountain in Connecticut. ‘Natch. Lonny got it all, plus permission from the unions, song rights holders etc and it’s incredible! It’s so cool/moving to see this clear-as-a-bell footage from 35 years ago of the cast of Merrily We Roll Along and then see them today. Lonny says that one wonderful thing about the success of the documentary is that Hal has carried around a lot of guilt for years about all the young people in the show and that he “let the kids down.” Lonny just ran into him and he told Lonny “The film fixed it. I know now it’s OK.” Isn’t that great!?!

Get thee to the film ASAP!

Let me close with a sad news: Roger Bart has a wonderful 16 year-old daughter, Eller, (who’s a great gymnast!) and her mom suddenly passed away from a stroke around Thanksgiving. She and Eller lived together and were extremely close. There is a fund that’s been started to help Eller with expenses….especially college. If you can, donate at the GoFundMe page, here.

Here is a photo of Eller with a sign made in thanks for her mom’s organs going to save lives.

Eller Bart
Eller Bart Courtesy Roger Bart

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