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InDepth InterView: Hal Prince

 

 

I recently conducted an illuminating InDepth InterView with legendary producer and director Harold Prince in which we discussed his singular career, having won more Tony Awards than any other person on the planet for his near one-hundred productions since his start as George Abbott's assistant producer over fifty years ago. He produced such landmark musicals as DAMN YANKEES, THE PAJAMA GAME and WEST SIDE STORY in the 1950s and then went on to become a director in his own right with Kander & Ebb's FLORA, THE RED MENANCE (Liza Minnelli's Broadway debut), CABARET into the Sondheim series of masterpieces in the 1970s - COMPANY, FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, PACIFIC OVERTURES, SWEENEY TODD - bridging into his two biggest commercial successes, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals EVITA and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Celebrating its 23rd year on Broadway in January, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is the most successful entertainment of all time, more than any other musical, television show or even feature film in history. It's a juggernaut like no other and the mystery, magic and majesty that had made the show such a rousing success is thanks to the masterful eye-of-all-eyes, the true master director of the American Theatre, Harold Prince. But, will he be doing the sequel?

In this InDepth InterView: Harold Prince we discuss his involvement (or lack thereof) in the troubled sequel, LOVE NEVER DIES, the untrue rumors that have made it into print about it, and PHANTOM's 23rd year and its 10,000th performance on Broadway. In this interview we discuss it all - COMPANY, FOLLIES, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Andrew Lloyd Webber, EVITA, PHANTOM, WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, as well as the new generation of composers he has worked with such as Jason Robert Brown on PARADE and Michael John LaChiusa on THE PETRIFIED PRINCE, in addition to a candid discussion of his new musical PARADISE FOUND, and thoughts on GLEE, NEXT TO NORMAL, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON and the state of Broadway today - as well as some truly sage-worthy advice from the Sage of the Stage himself, master director and producer Harold Prince.

PC: Tell me about working with Michael Bennett, specifically on FOLLIES.

HP: Of course, we did COMPANY before FOLLIES. That's where I got to know Michael well. I actually saw his choreography in a musical that did not succeed with a bunch of kids that had been done with Don Ameche.

 

PC: HENRY, SWEET HENRY?

HP: HENRY, SWEET HENRY. And his choreography was spectacular! So, I asked to see him and then I said, "How would you like to do COMPANY?" and he said, "Yes," and I said, "There's very little dancing to do." We had a cast of fourteen - dare I say - mostly klutzes. So, when we staged "What We Do Without You" he staged it for a bunch of happy-go-lucky amateurs. In fact, that was its huge charm.

PC: Yes, of course.

HP: He was a very complicated guy. Very. Incredibly talented. It's sad as hell that he died as young as he did. He was so talented and FOLLIES was such a natural thing to collaborate on as co-directors because there was enough work on FOLLIES for both of us to work all the time, never stopping. And, at the same time, I can't actually imagine one director doing it because the book was so knotty and so complex and the tone so specific. And then the dances - there were so many of them!

PC: Thirty-three songs!

HP: So much movement in them. So, we really just kept dovetailing all the work that we did. But, we worked independently of each other most of the time.

 

PC: What do you think of Ted Chapin's fantastic book about the making of FOLLIES, EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE?

HP: I think it's very, very - you said it - accurate and worthy document of what I consider as good a musical as I've ever worked on.

PC: To hear you say that! So, it's in the pantheon, then.

HP: Oh, yeah. It's one of my favorites surely. You know, I'm sitting her talking to you in my office staring at the original poster of FOLLIES that I chose to put on my wall.

PC: Fosse died far too young, too. Tell me about working with him.

HP: Well, I had seen the segment Bobby did for the KISS ME KATE film that he did with Joan McKracken.

PC: Broadway is such a welcoming community, more than Hollywood, do you feel that?

HP: Yeah, I do feel that way. Yes. But, Broadway has changed a lot.

PC: Let's talk about that. It's dire times right now. I'm 26, I don't remember a time before PHANTOM was on Broadway.

HP: (Laughs.) Well, you see, the point is - I have said this often, and I still mean it - given that I was born in 1928, I always thought - and I think Steve Sondheim and I both have said to each other, I know we've said to each other - "Aren't we lucky we were born when we were born?" It's true, it does make you much older. But, on the other hand, it makes you have an experience that is unavailable to you.

PC: Right. If you're not born, you can't do it!

HP: For example, I saw PORGY & BESS, the original. I saw Orson Welles at twenty-one in JULIUS CAESER at the Mercury Theater.

PC: Wow!

HP: I saw ON THE TOWN about nine times. I discovered it. I loved it. I was in college.

 

PC: What a score!

HP:So, really, those are all firsthand experiences that you can wallow in reading about but you can't experience them the way I did. And I'm very grateful for that.

 

PC: But you did give my generation PARADE at Lincoln Center, as good as any of the best of your shows or anyone else's.

HP: That's just terrific of you to say. Because, as you well know, PARADE was not what people were looking for at the time. Not that I ever worry about that. It was - from my point of view - a very successful enterprise. On the other hand, it was not a long-runner. And it was not appreciated by an awful lot of people in the theatre who would have appreciated it thirty years earlier.

PC: How interesting to hear you say that. I just premiered a new Jason Robert Brown song in my column on BWW last week. He should have a such a huge career.

HP: It's very sad. All these guys are not having the careers they should have had. Because there isn't the opportunity. Because the people who are producing the shows are looking for... I don't know what they are looking for. I think they are looking for sure hits and that's never been the formula for success in the arts. And, they're also certain - dead certain - that the future of the musical is in the rock, hip-hop business. And it isn't. Lyrics can't do what they do - or should do - when you're creating a musical with rock lyrics. There's plenty of room for rock musicals, just not all rock musicals.

PC: Jonathan Larson did it, but he's alone in succeeding.

HP: He really did it. And did it very skillfully. And he was appreciated, which was the best of it.

PC: So you think RENT is a legitamite show?

HP: Oh, absolutely.

PC: You don't think it takes advantage of the audience's emotions?

HP: Oh, that's another issue. The issue is that the man could write scores.

PC: Did you ever work with him or meet him?

HP: No, I never met him. I never met him. (Pause.) You know, that's a terrible thing to have said. It's very possible that something may have crossed my desk and I was blind and didn't realize how good it was. But, that's happened before and will probably happen again.

 

PC: What do you think of NEXT TO NORMAL?

HP: The composer is a good friend of mine and I am so happy for his success. I don't really want to talk about the material that's on Broadway right now, though.

PC: OK, since it doesn't start until next Monday: BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON? I love it - though you could have improved on the staging.

HP: No, but I hear it's wonderful. I do intend to see it. Mandy Patinkin's wife called me the day right after she saw it and said, "You've got to see it!" But, I had just gone into rehearsal and I was not quite ready to see something else at that point. It already gotten a good review in the Times so hopefully they stick to their guns.

PC: What about the future for the Patinkin show, PARADISE FOUND?

HP: We were thinking we were going to open somewhere else with it. A big production. That fell through. That's a story of money. Really, what we did was: the Chocolate Factory people wanted to do it, so we did it. It's a very small theatre, as you well know. They have a very good record of doing revivals. I think the fit of me, the material and the theatre were not particularly a good fit. I was thinking bigger. Sometimes I think small - I.e. COMPANY - but, in the case of this, it should have had a large chorus and quite a lot of scenery. For me, when the dust cleared, I got to learn a lot. For one thing, I learned that I had the best cast conceivable and that Jonathan Tunick had done a miraculous job of creating - with seven instruments - a beautiful sound for something that should have had something like twenty instruments. Mostly, what I thought was, it's like taking THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and trying to put it on a postage stamp sized stage and that's not the best idea.

PC: You started PHANTOM on a postage stamp sized stage at Sydmonton back in 1985, didn't you?

HP: No, I didn't. I have never seen a Sydmonton production. I did EVITA and I did PHANTOM, but not there. I've never seen them. I did see one tape of the Sydmonton production [of PHANTOM] and it was characterized by an awful lot of laughter. PHANTOM did not garner an awful lot of laughter when it was ultimately produced on the stage.

 

PC: You made it what it is onstage. Earlier, it was a mess.

HP: I think there was a sense of sending it up a little bit, like a horror film.

PC: Campy, too.

HP: That I didn't do. When I did SWEENEY TODD, Steve told me that he saw a production in the East End of London where they served meat pies at the intermission. Well, you wouldn't find meat pies served at my SWEENEY. It would be extremely inappropriate. I think they were pieces that were more for laughs than I came up with.

PC: Do you find there is a Brecht influence on COMPANY and FOLLIES? HAPPY END and the concept musical...

HP: To be absolutely honest with you: none at all. Brecht had absolutely no influence on any of my work at all. It's all Meyerhold, the Russian director who thought big. Alienation, which was what Brecht was always labeled with - and I have huge respect for them - but I was not an alienating director. I wanted the audience to get into the emotions of the piece. He always went to the edge, when the got emotional he broke immediately and reminded them that this was a polemic, a political polemic so, that's why Brecht had not anything like the influence on me that other people did like Meyerhold.

PC: So "A New Argentina" in EVITA is not Brecht influenced?

HP: "A New Argentina" I can tell you immediately was influenced by living newspaper, and a great director who came to this country and studied and taught for years: Irwin Piscator. His wife saw EVITA in London when we did it, and said to somebody - very flatteringly - "If you want to see what my husband did, go see EVITA." And I think that was much more accurate.

 

PC: Let me ask you about a few of the less well-known shows you have worked on. First. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman's WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND?

HP: It was wonderful material. The title song was just great. The reason that we didn't go on with it - he did go on with it in London - is not really something I would want to go into. I thought it was a very interesting piece of material. I thought about sixty to seventy percent of it worked very well. But, there was an element in the collaboration which didn't exactly work. But, we worked very well together.

PC: THE PETRIFIED PRINCE by Michael John LaChiusa. What a fascinating piece - a puppet sex farce!

HP: I've always thought it was fascinating. We didn't pull it off but I was always more worried about just doing it rather than if it would work or not.

PC: So you look back favorably on the whole experience?

HP: Oh, sure. It was a huge learning experience for all of us and I thought elements of it were very daring and very successful.

PC: They can't all run for twenty-three years!

HP: The idea is to work and to experiment. Some things will be creatively successful, some things will succeed at the box office, and some things will only - which is the biggest only - teach you things that see the future. And they're probably as valuable as any of your successes.

PC: Speaking of the future and the present: what do you think of GLEE and the state of musical theatre in popular culture?

HP: I don't know. I really reserve any judgment. At this moment, it's not the richest period in the life of musical theatre, is it?

PC: No.

HP: There certainly is a lot of talent around. There are a lot of terrific composers and lyricists and so on. The problem is, there aren't a lot of producers willing to take chances and the cost of everything is outrageous. So, of course, it cuts the opportunity to do work. We used to do a musical every year.

PC: Imagine that!

HP: Kander & Ebb did a musical every year. Sondheim did a musical every year. Bock & Harnick did a musical every year. That's lost. And that's a shame.

PC: Are you directing the sequel to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, LOVE NEVER DIES, on Broadway?

HP: No, of course. No, I'm not. I don't know why there's such a rumor.

 

PC: Michael Riedel wrote in his column that you did, plus Andrew Lloyd Webber just announced two new productions in Toronto and Australia before it comes to Broadway.

HP: No, I wasn't asked to and that "famous" lunch that I noticed was in the newspapers was to discuss something else entirely.

PC: That's what the Riedel column was all about, the lunch.

HP: Yes, well we were talking about something else entirely.

PC: Thank you for setting the record straight.

HP: No, we are not talking about LOVE NEVER DIES.

PC: Congratulations on 22 years of PHANTOM on Broadway.

HP: Thank you. Twenty-three in January!

PC: Did you ever think?

HP: No. Does anyone ever think?

PC: It would have been impossible to guess.

HP: Yes.

PC: Define collaboration.

HP: Collaboration is just, really, a group of people getting in a room with their eye on a very similar prize and wanting to come out with the same show. The director, ultimately, is the guy in front of whom the buck stops. So, he has to have the courage to prevail. But, he has got to have a huge amount of respect for his collaborators.

PC: Totally. No one deserves more respect in the American theatre than you do. Thank you so much, Mr. Prince.

HP: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

 


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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)