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Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut

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MamasDoin'Fine
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Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut #1
Posted: 5/18/10 at 11:22am
Hal Prince and Susan Stroman talk to The Times about the state of musical theatre today and spar off each other about their pasts.


Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut
Of course it’s rude to eavesdrop, but as I wait for the Broadway titans Hal Prince and Susan Stroman at Prince’s office in the Rockefeller Centre, New York — the walls covered with posters of the many musicals that Prince has produced or directed over 60 years — his commanding growl on the phone is all too audible. “A black background? Black? But the Plexiglas is black ... I’ll tell you what, we wash our hands of this decision . . .. We don’t want to get melancholy. There’s melancholy built into the story. OK, kid?”

He’s polite but firm, and you bet Prince gets his way on the Plexiglas. He is, after all, the co-producer of the original West Side Story (1957; to him, the show’s lyricist and his frequent associate Stephen Sondheim is “Steve”) and then, on his own, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). His first directing hit was the original production of Cabaret (1966). Follies, A Little Night Music, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera would follow. He is also well known for his glasses, which sit precariously tilted on his forehead (“I used to love the idea of wearing them, but now I genuinely do wear them,” he claims).

Stroman’s career, though shorter, has been no less stellar: a former dancer, she has choreographed and directed shows including Crazy For You, The Producers, The Music Man, Young Frankenstein and Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre production of Oklahoma!. The critics are already gabbling excitedly about her next project, Kander and Ebb’s last musical The Scottsboro Boys, which has its premiere off-Broadway later this year.

For now, Prince, 82, and Stroman, 55, are co-directing Paradise Found at the Menier Chocolate Factory in southeast London. It’s a musical about the Shah of Persia who, “bored of life in the harem” (Prince), came to Vienna in the mid-19th century and fell for the Empress Elisabeth, Franz Josef’s wife. The comedy musical ponders whether the Shah can bed her behind her husband’s back. “We’re having a lot of fun,” Prince says.

Why do it in London? Given their reputations, surely Broadway, or off-Broadway, would be the natural place to give it its premiere. “The Menier has a terrific reputation,” Prince says. “We both love working in London. And I’m a little superstitious. The only two shows that required no changes and that went on to become big successes, I first did in London: Evita and Phantom. For both, we had nine previews. I’m hoping lightning will strike for a third time.” If all goes well, they’ll take Paradise Found to Broadway.

There are other, less playful reasons for their off-piste sojourn: the state of musical theatre in the revival-heavy, same-old, same-old Broadway and West End, alongside the more practical problem of Broadway having too few theatres (40) and too many shows queueing up to be shown in them. Some theatres lie vacant, waiting for a hoped-for blockbuster to play in them.

Today, even seasoned veterans such as Prince and Stroman prefer to journey away from the mainstream to showcase new work — and to find a new audience that isn’t rich enough to afford the ticket prices. “They’re only so high because musicals cost such a lot to put on,” Stroman says. Prince adds: “I always say, don’t spend more than $7 or $8 million [£4.8-£5.5 million] to make a musical because you have to pay back your investors. But $20 million is usual these days. The Pajama Game [Prince’s first solo production, in 1954] cost $169,000, Damn Yankees [his second, in 1955], $162,000.”

“Finances are the big issue,” Stroman says. “It’s what keeps investors from investing in younger, fresher talent. That’s why you see so many revivals.”

“Anything that is not easily pigeonholed is done for,” Prince says. “Anything that you can’t immediately say: ‘Oh, I love that movie with Meryl Streep, that should be a musical.’

“I think we both believe the audience is hugely underestimated. They’d like to see something fresh, something which which they cannot instantly identify. The kids who put Obama in the White House are not on Wall Street. We’re not like the producers who copy what was popular last year or guess what the audience wants. That comes from chasing money and a certain kind of arrogance.”

Admittedly, he says, both he and Stroman have reputations that mean “it’s possible to have a pretty good creative life, but things don’t come easily. You really have to scrounge for money. Once, you did a musical a year; now you do one every four or five years.” The Scottsboro Boys, Stroman says, has been in gestation for nearly six years (of its creators, John Kander is 83; Fred Ebb died, aged 76, in 2004).

Prince and Stroman first met when she choreographed a production of Flora the Red Menace in 1987. “I thought it had a real take on sweet, idealistic American Communists,” Prince recalls. “But how in hell did anyone make a musical out of that, I thought, so I wrote her a letter.” Stroman says she was “awed” by the compliment. “I’m still in awe of him,” she adds. “He called me and said: ‘Hello, this is Hal Prince,’ and I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke.”

Paradise Found is not the first time the two have worked together, although it is the first time that they’ve shared a director’s credit: Prince directed and Stroman choreographed a controversial production of Show Boat (1994), which faced protests in Canada by groups angry at the portrayal of black characters sweeping the stage between scenes. “We pointed out that there never was a more politically active or correct man than Oscar Hammerstein,” Prince says. It remains their favourite musical: “The score is exquisite, the story wonderful and sophisticated — writing about miscegenation in 1921. It’s as daring as it is entertaining.”

Both insist that they never argue. “We share a similar mind,” Prince says. “And, most importantly, a passion for theatre,” adds Stroman, who also choreographed Prince’s production of Don Giovanni for New York City Opera. “They call them bread and butter operas,” Prince says, “ones that run and run. One usually runs for 10 years, then gets replaced by another. But the one they replaced Giovanni with was a disaster, so we ran for 16.”

But Prince and Stroman have had flops. “If something isn’t a financial success,” Stroman says, “it doesn’t mean it isn’t an artistic success. Everything is a stepping stone to the next musical that does work.”

Prince laughs. “I had a cycle of eight flops, one after the other, which meant eight opening-night receptions and eight times we opened the papers to read goddamn awful reviews. My wife [Judy], after a number of years of marriage to me, said: ‘I wish to hell you would stop talking about hits and flops and thinking they were the same thing as successes and failures.’ Follies was a very successful show, but lost a lot of money.

“Look, there’s one thing we know. There is no one in theatre, no matter how extraordinary their record, who doesn’t have some failure in store. It’s not something to relish but it’s reality — if you stick around long enough it’s going to happen.”

“And the ninth musical was Phantom. Ha!” Stroman blurts. Theatre, she says, is a “desperate passion, it’s like all being in a pool and you all swim together and win the gold medal, or you drown.”

For both, it was an inevitable profession. Stroman grew up in Delaware dancing to the music that her father played on the piano. “It was a big deal when a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie came on the TV,” she recalls. “They made a lasting impression on me. I had the idea of living my life as a Fred Astaire movie.” But although she sang and danced at the outset of her career, she always wanted to choreograph and direct.

“I never wanted to do anything else,” Prince says. “I grew up in New York. I read plays by torchlight in bed. I saw Orson Welles in Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre when I was 8. That was my first notion of ‘theatrical’.”

He never wanted to perform and secured an apprenticeship with the producer George Abbott. “It was a privilege to be a small part of it,” he says of the original West Side Story. “I knew it was ahead of its time and that its history would gather more and more momentum, although I also remember 200 people leaving at half time at the first performances. It was the movie that sent the profits through the roof.

“I like directing, exercising my imagination, more than producing. I know directors who thrive on crisis, abrasion, confrontation. Sorry to sound like Pollyanna, but we don’t fall into that category. It’s all been too much fun and it keeps you very young, which is important. The energy’s there, I don’t have aches and pains, so what the hell?”

Stroman says she isn’t sure what would have happened had theatre not been there to sustain her after the death of her husband, the director Michael Ockrent, whom she met working on Crazy for You (he was directing, she was choreographing). Ockrent died in 1999 of leukaemia as Contact, the dance musical that he had inspired, opened, directed by Stroman.

“It was because of Mike I could even think of the idea,” she says, her voice immediately clotting. “Losing him has impacted a lot of my work. I was very lucky to have met him.” Could she imagine being with anyone else? “Well, no one could match him, so . . .” Her voice breaks. “I hit the jackpot with him.”

Despite lean financial times, both Stroman and Prince believe the original musical will survive. “It will have to go a different route, like us to the Menier,” Stroman says.

“Besides the money issue,” Prince adds, “the other problem is that popular music today, unlike in my day, doesn’t translate to a stage plot. And it’s too noisy. Also there are 25, 40 producers on any one show, sometimes way more than the actors on stage. They want to put their names above musicals but have no creative input. It’s a cynical bargain: ‘I’ll put money into this show in the hope it wins an award for something I didn’t actually contribute to.’ Why not put money into something you actually want to make money from?”

He and Stroman “came in at the right time,” he says. “You could have a Broadway disaster and 12 months later be up and running with a success, like I was with Cabaret. You try talking a producer today into backing someone who had a disaster 12 months ago.”
He’s never stopped, I say. “Never,” he agrees.
Stroman smiles. “That’s because he’s always looking for the next musical.”

Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut




Updated On: 5/18/10 at 11:22 AM
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Paulyd
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I've got tickets for the 9th June and am quite excited about it, even though i've no idea what to expect. Let's just hope we get Harold Prince on a good day.
victoria saxton
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Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut #2
Posted: 5/20/10 at 11:25am
Money or audience? Which do you think is of greater importance for working on a new musical? Why are they really doing this in London? Is it because they think they'll get a less conservative audience, more open to new works? Or is it because Broadway is too expensive? Or is it both, as the article suggests? I do think its sad that new works like this are moving farther and farther away from Broadway.
The Scorpion
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I saw the first preview on Wednesday. I was really looking forward to it as a big fan of Hal Prince, but...to put it mildly, I found it disappointing. Hopefully they can get something coherent out of it over the preview period, but the audience was not responding at all during the first preview and it wasn't difficult to understand why. I'm not sure I could sit through it again. The cast is great, though.
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MamasDoin'Fine
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What's the story?
Why do you think it isn't working at the mo?
Do you think it can work if worked on?
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Phantom of London
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Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut #5
Posted: 5/21/10 at 11:23am
I am looking forward to seeing this show on my return to the UK, volcano ash permitting.
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Boybooshka
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I saw this on Thursday and have to agree with The Scorpion. i know we have to give it a chance because its in previews, but it needs some serious work if they are gonna make a sucess of it.
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abitoftap
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..the story summary I read seemed pretty confusing..hopefully it'll be watchable by the time we go in the last week!
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Buddy's blues
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Just back from a couple of days in London. Saw this on Sunday and came away with the feeling that it was a labour of love for most of the actors - I don't think anything else could really explain their enthusiasm. A weak plot and not much stronger lyrics totally failed to ignite what should have been an amazing theatrical experience. The only thing that saved it for me and made the visit worthwhile was the aforementioned enthusiasm from the actors. Shuler Hensley gave an incredible performance as did Judy Kaye and Nancy Opel. It was a joy to see them giving 101%. Mandy Patinkin gave a very subdued performance which was either because of the heat(it was very hot in London on Sunday) or because that's how eunuchs are - never having met one I can't really say! Whatever the reason he was obviously enjoying himself. Kate Baldwin looked sensational and did not disappoint either. The other actors and actresses also showed their Broadway pedigrees by making the most of the material they had. It's just a shame that it was not enough. All I can say really is that I came away feeling elated at having seen such a wonderful group of actors but very sad at having seen them given such poor material.

Apart from that I saw Love Never Dies on Saturday afternoon - I love the fridge magnets - enough said? Saturday evening I saw Hair - great energy from the cast and superb performances by Gavin Creel and Will Swenson. Good to see it looking so fresh 40 years on - I hope that never dies!
So now back home in Spain and already looking forward to my next trip to the theatre whenever and wherever it is.
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hotjohn
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“Anything that is not easily pigeonholed is done for,” Prince says.

That's exact;y what I felt about the early closures of both "All About Me" and "Enron" on Broadway. The fact that they couldn't be easily compared to other shows was considered, by the publicists at least, a bad thing. I'd much rather see something that doesn't follow the same, tired old path.
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Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut #10
Posted: 5/26/10 at 5:01am
I'm seeing this next month and didn't really have any idea what to expect anyway. Hopefully they'll have ironed out some of the kinks by then, and if not at least I'll get to see some amazingly talented performers at an intimate venue.
Seen some shows in my time....
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Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut #11
Posted: 5/26/10 at 5:08am
I'm actually a little shocked as the way this has been received in the last few days. Very negative reviews going around for such a high profile production.
I bet they are pleased this wasn't thrown before the Americans first and done quietly in London.
It sounds horrendous to me.
Princeton2
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Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut #12
Posted: 5/26/10 at 5:54am
I always thought the whole story and concept sounded bad, but it is weird to see such negativity for a Menier show. Of course the critics could love it
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Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut #13
Posted: 5/26/10 at 6:34am
I wouldn't say it was horrendous, but the only thing that makes it worth watching is the great cast. Though Patinkin's performance was strange, not necessarily bad just strange, reminded me of Nicholas Cage abit, that kind of off the wall method type thing. Maybe this is how 19th century enuchs spoke and behaved though?

like a car crash between A Little Night Music and a Arabian set panto, sprinkled with one of the lesser Carry on films.

If it is taking a different path, then perhaps we could see about blocking that path off witth some old tree trunks before anyone else is tempted to go down it.

This sounds harsher than i wanted it to, but i mean everyword.

to reiterate though, some excellent performances.
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Prince & Stroman Prepare For Menier Debut #14
Posted: 5/26/10 at 5:58pm
Mark Shenton's post show tweets;

ShentonStage

PARADISE FOUND is an entirely lost cause. Menier got 15 Tony noms, but due only golden raspberries now. Less a try-out than crash landing. Susan Stroman last directed THE PRODUCERS in London about an attempt to produce a bona fide turkey, PARADISE FOUND may be that show.

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