Howard Sherman speaks with The Prince of Broadway Himself, Hal Prince
It is impossible to overstate how important Harold S. Prince was to musical theatre in the latter half of the 20th century. As a producer, his credits include The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. As a director, he is known for a series of collaborations with Stephen Sondheim – including Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd – as well as musicals ranging from She Loves Me to The Phantom of the Opera to Kiss of the Spider Woman. August saw his newest show, Prince of Broadway, a retrospective that samples material from shows he either produced or directed (or both), debut at Manhattan Theatre Club. September began with the publication of Sense of Occasion (Applause Books), a theatrical autobiography that incorporates and annotates his 1974 book Contradictions, in addition to adding new chapters that cover his career to date. He spoke with Stage Directions about these career spanning projects just one week after the opening of Prince of Broadway.
[Ed. Note-The interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for space.]
Howard Sherman: In Contradictions, you said that you never thought a show would have a longer run than Fiddler on the Roof. In the annotated version in Sense of Occasion, you
note that many shows have run longer and that you were wrong. Do you
think it’s good for Broadway for musicals to run as long as they seem to
now? They seem to be engineered for longer runs.
Hal Prince: Well, I don’t think you can engineer. I don’t think that’s what’s happened. I think what’s happened is Broadway musical theater has become international. What has happened is the shows that are running and running and running do not require your understanding of language. So everybody in the world comes to see them because they have a relationship either to the original material, the book or the movie or whatever, and because they know the story and they’re happy.
We took Prince of Broadway to Tokyo, where no one speaks English. They all adored every moment of it because they had a relationship with most of those shows. I don’t think anything is being engineered. I think what’s happening is our public is vastly enlarged.
My Fair Lady ran five years. Now, I’m not disparaging it, I’m very happy to contemplate 30 years of Phantom of the Opera, but it’s amazing. It has nothing to do with the theater that I started in. However, it certainly has international implications, which most theater did not have when I started. You know, what you did was a musical on Broadway and you went to London and did it in London. Then suddenly Germany entered the picture, and then Vienna, Austria, and now Tokyo. In other words it’s just a whole other mindset regarding musical theater.
At the very end of your program note from Prince of Broadway, you say that it’s much more difficult for people seeking careers in the theater today. Why do you feel that is?
That’s what has changed everything. Of course you couldn’t do Follies today. You can do revivals of Follies but you can’t do a sumptuous revival of Follies equal to the sumptuous production we did, unless the current one in London is sumptuous, which may be true because it’s the National Theater.
You had the opportunity with Prince of Broadway to go back
and look at pieces of your shows from the past. Did that prompt any
thoughts on your part about if you were to go back and redo any of those
shows, would you do them differently, and if so, which ones?
I don’t much think back, I don’t live in the past very much. The only thing that I touch on in the book that is very real, is every once in a while, and there are incidents of such across the length of my career, I think I’m bending a project to say what I want it to say, and I’m not. In other words, Grind is a very good example. I talk about wanting to do a musical about violence. Well that was not the right material to do that about. You know, that’s me fooling myself, which is something that happens occasionally. You don’t always learn the lessons that you should learn, and one of them of course was wishful thinking, that certain things meant something that they didn’t mean, and that you could bend them to mean. That’s something I found out a long time ago, but it’s not necessarily a lesson that I learned. It got repeated, again, with a few shows. Grind is the most obvious choice.
Do you still read new scripts and look for new projects?
I’m looking right now. I know I want to get to work on something. There are three projects right now, interestingly enough, that all have converged here and I want to pick one and go to work, but I’m not going to for another few weeks. I really, I want to be a little cautious.
In Prince of Broadway, we hear your quote, “Never underestimate luck.” But there is also a truism about you have to make your own luck. How much in your career has been luck, and how much have you made your own luck?
Is there a moment in your career that you can point to where you did make your luck?
Oh sure. That story in the book, I think it’s in the book, where I wrote a script for a television series that [George] Abbott had signed on to produce and direct. Over a weekend having read the script that other writers had sent him, established playwrights, and knowing that he wouldn’t like it on Monday morning when he was supposed to go into a table reading, I wrote a script of my own. I heard him bellow in his office, “Oh God, now I have to write a script,” and I walked in and I said, “Mr. Abbott, actually I read that script on Friday after you’d left the office, and I figured you wouldn’t be happy, so I wrote one of my own. Would you like to read it?” He read it and said, “Yeah, it’s terrific. You direct it.” That’s making your luck.
In putting together Prince of Broadway, which has come together over a number of years, and I don’t know how long you were working on Sense of Occasion, were there any…
One of the things that has certainly changed since you began
producing is theater technology, and I’m wondering whether the evolution
in technology has facilitated realizing the work you want to do?
It’s a complex answer. Do I have much respect or interest in LED lights and projections? No, I do not. I like the theater for the relationship it has with a live audience and its inducing a kind of imagination that I think only the theater can create. A compact with the audience. Film and television, you can’t affect what’s living on the stage in front of you, but you can in the theater.
I think it took the enormous skill of Beowulf Boritt to put all those shows on that stage [in Prince of Broadway], which is not the biggest stage in the world. It’s amazing. He’s given a lot of credit to the original designers, because I asked him to please be strongly influenced by them, but just getting all that in that theater is a work of great creativity. I’m not sure it could have been done a number of years ago. However, I do like the theater to find its solutions theatrically, not with high-technology. It doesn’t speak to me in the theater at all.
Another thing that’s changed is the rise of ever more training
programs. Is there a difference in the talent base that you see when you
hold an audition now, versus what it might have been in the past?
Oh well sure. I mean, let’s face it, when I started in the theater you were a chorus singer, or a chorus dancer, or a principal, or a star. The principals and the stars usually were not as good at singing as the chorus singers, or as good at dancing as the chorus dancers. They were uniquely stars, or potential stars. That is not true anymore. You know, people like Gertrude Lawrence were enormously glamorous, seductive creatures and very exciting on the stage. Now, everybody can do everything, and that’s what Prince of Broadway illustrates, there are only nine people doing that show. They’re doing material from 16 musicals.
It’s quite extraordinary how much you get in.
That’s because they are so skillful. Someone like Bryonha [Marie Parham] to do Showboat and Sally Bowles and Amalia’s “Will He Like Me?”, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment. I’m not sure that 30 or 40 years ago anyone could have done those three roles in one show.
What also changed is that 30 or 40 years ago people would not have imagined Bryonha in She Loves Me.
No. Of course not, or you wouldn’t see Chuck [Cooper] singing, “If I Were a Rich Man”. Oh boy, is that a huge sea change in what seems like a relatively short time. I remember when I produced Fiddler on the Roof, Equity came to me and said, “Why do you not have any black people in your cast?” I said, “Well because they didn’t exist in the shtetl. I called Jerry [Bock] and I told him that they were inquiring and Jerry said, “No, I won’t, we won’t have that. I can’t have that. It’s not real.”
Well, we have gone such a distance in, it depends on what one thinks is a short time or a long time, but certainly we have come that distance in my lifetime. Which is quite a long lifetime. If you saw A Doll’s House, Part Two, and if you see the casting there, it’s a real eye-opener. But we’ve done that too in Prince of Broadway. It’s completely easy for the audience to assimilate it. That would not have been so 40 to 50 years ago.
How much do you keep tabs on Phantom at this point in time?
I’m very close to it. After all, I live in New York, and when I used to be a producer, it frustrated the hell out of me that I could never get George Abbott and Jerome Robbins back to see their shows. When I became a successful director, I knew there was an obligation to keep the show in mint condition.
By the way, that also is a huge contributor to the long runs that we now see on Broadway, because the shows not only on Broadway, but on the road, are kept up in mint condition. That was not true when I first came into the theater. Road companies were terrible. We didn’t even send them out on the road in the same condition that they had appeared on Broadway. Now we find the road is a source of huge income to the investors.
Given these reminders of your extraordinary career, and where you
are in your life, you certainly could just relax at this point. What
drives you to keep making theater?
I love the work. I love the activity, I love the theater, I love actors. Not all directors love actors, you know. I do. I love the process with the writers, and designers, and then I love rehearsal. I never am happier than I am in rehearsal. I used to say, despite the fact that I adore my family, and I’m very grateful for them and their support and the fact of family, I still love to work. As much as I ever did.
Which is why I did not want anybody to mistake Prince of Broadway as my valedictory. My wife said to me, “I hope when Prince of Broadway opens you know exactly what you’re going to do next year.” I said, “Well I don’t think I’m going to make that date, but I’ll make it fairly soon, and I think I will within the next month or so.”
Your mentor George Abbott directed his last Broadway show at over the age of 100. Do you want to beat him?
Oh, I’m not in competition with him. You know what? People are living longer. George was a phenomenon. He lived to 107. I’m going to be 90. I feel around 45. For as long as that is maintained I’ll keep working. Ultimately I suppose I’m going to slow down, but I have no impulse to slow down at this point because I don’t need to.
All photos from Prince of Broadway credited to Matthew Murphy ©2017
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