To ask Lonny Price, director of Guild Hall’s current revival of Murray Schisgal’s 1964 hit show “LUV,” what jobs he’s done in theater would be to miss the point. The more salient question would be “What jobs haven’t you done?”
“I’m a moving target. I try not to get hit,” he joked during a break from a casting session on Sunday. He’d always wanted to conduct an orchestra, he said, and three years ago, for his 50th birthday, he did just that, putting together a 27-piece band in a show for friends and family.
The highest compliment that can be paid to an actor in theater is to call him a triple threat, meaning he can sing, dance, and act equally well. Mr. Price does all that and much more.
Born in Fresh Meadows, Queens, his annual birthday gift from his parents while he was growing up was an evening at a Broadway play. The family collected and listened to the cast recordings of each musical of the era, and what a rich era it was, with composers and lyricists like John Kander and Fred Ebb, Jerry Herman, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, and Marvin Hamlisch, and shows like “Hair,” “Chicago,” “Man of La Mancha,” and “A Chorus Line.”
Mr. Price wanted a life on and around the stage since he can remember, and on his 11th birthday, that annual trip to the theater proved cathartic in more ways than one.
“I saw “Company.” I fell in love with the sound of [Stephen Sondheim’s] music. It was thrilling to me then, and it is thrilling to me now.”
“Company” was a very adult musical look at contemporary morality and sexuality in relationships, and is considered one of Mr. Sondheim’s masterpieces.
“Craig Lucas once said, ‘If I could have dated “Company,” “Follies,” and “A Little Night Music,” I would have.’ That’s how I felt about ‘Company.’ ”
Mr. Price became obsessed with Mr. Sondheim’s work. “I was kind of a groupie for him,” he said. Mary Rodgers, the daughter of Richard Rodgers, Mr. Sondheim’s mentor when he was young, was a close friend of Mr. Price’s parents. “She passed my letter onto Steve,” Mr. Price said, and much to his surprise, Mr. Sondheim responded. The two began a regular correspondence that continues to this day.
At that point, Mr. Sondheim was already legendary. He was the lyricist for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and the composer and lyricist for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” but it was “Company” that first teamed him with the director Hal Prince, a team that revolutionized musical theater during the 1970s.
Mr. Price eventually became part of that revolution, with both Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Prince mentoring his career. Hired as an assistant on the 1975 production of “Pacific Overtures,” he reported to the theater every day after school.
When he was 21, the team cast him as one of the leads in “Merrily We Roll Along.” Though considered at the time a flop, closing after only 16 performances, the show launched Mr. Price’s career, leading to his being cast in the original Broadway production of Athol Fugard’s seminal “Master Harold . . . and the Boys” the following year.
Despite his success as a stage and screen actor, Mr. Price said his greatest joy in contemporary theater is as a director. In 2011 he directed, in collaboration with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Lincoln Center and working closely with Mr. Sondheim, an orchestral version of “Sweeney Todd,” in which Mr. Price staged the actors amid the symphony. He had collaborated similarly with the orchestra on Leonard Bernstein’s classic “Candide,” and directed a Sondheim retrospective, “Sondheim: The Birthday Concert,” in side-by-side collaboration with the composer, filming it for PBS as it was staged at the Philharmonic in March 2010.
At Guild Hall Mr. Price is returning to straight theater with “LUV,” a three-character play that examines, as in “Company,” relationships and contemporary mores.
“It’s a play I read when I was younger,” he said. “Josh Gladstone asked me if I wanted to do a play in the Hamptons this year.” Mr. Price previously worked with Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, a experience he treasures, and so he accepted Mr. Gladstone’s offer, and the two agreed on “LUV” as the perfect vehicle.
The play has aged enough that it is now seen as a period piece, but one that is in many ways prescient. “It’s an absurdist comedy,” said Mr. Price. “Everybody is completely narcissistic and self-involved. People haven’t changed, certainly not in my life. ‘We’re all just living in our little compartments,’” he added, quoting from the show.
The director enjoys the change of pace in the transition to straight theater. In a musical, he agreed, the book is subservient to the songs, with the catharsis coming in the music. In straight theater, the cathartic moments are in the language, or perhaps more accurately, in the moments the language creates.
“It’s all about subtext,” Mr. Price said.
His next theatrical journey will be to the Bucks County Playhouse, where he is directing an homage to Rodgers and Hammerstein, reprising the 1993 Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway review, “A Grand Night for Singing.”
“I’ve been lucky,” Mr. Price said. “It’s been a dream to work with these guys. I like surrounding myself with talented people. I like building a family.”
In the case of “LUV,” one member of the family will be quite new. Ricardo Chavira of “Desperate Housewives” fame was slated to appear in the production, but had to bow out at the last moment. His replacement was being selected at press time.
The production also stars Robert Stanton, whom Mr. Price worked with at Bay Street, and Jennifer Regan, who auditioned for the show “and nailed it.”