Transcript of conversation with Harold (Hal) Prince at the Harold Prince Theater of the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, December 9, 2009.


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What was your life like at Penn before there was a Prince Theater, and before there was a Hal Prince musical?

Well, let me first apologize for all the [bottles of] water. I woke up yesterday morning with no voice at all.  So I’ve been at vocal rest for 24 hours.  Thank God it’s come back some.  In fact I rather like it this way.  I also want to say that I saw the first production of Company here, so that was quite a long time ago.  And I think it’s been an impossible task for someone to play the Elaine Stritch role, the poor alcoholic late-middle-aged wife, and the girl who did it was brilliant.  So I … she’s who I remember.  So the production was really terrific, and that’s quite a long time ago.

Now, what was there at Penn?  It was mostly extracurricular.  It was Penn Players as represented by Kaki Marshall [CW’45] and her gang.  And the only really important educational increment in the process of my theater education at Penn was a Shakespeare course taught by a very famous man, Otto Harvison, who was—dynamic is not enough to express him.  He had classes of 250 people, fighting to go to class, and I was always anonymous, somewhere in the background.  But why don’t I say it:  I did a lot of sleeping in class at school.  But never in the Shakespeare course, which was spectacular.  The rest, I probably put as much into extracurricular activity as courses.  I do believe though, and probably because I’ve had a good career in the theater, that we tend now to underestimate liberal arts educations, and people who want to be in the theater tend to think, ‘Oh, I should only be studying theater.’ Well actually, what they should be studying more than theater is liberal arts, and traveling.  See, traveling was not available to me, because I was here during the war. So certainly, Europe was off-bounds.  But travel, all the liberal arts elements, and then craft and theater of course, and—honestly, I’m getting to the nub of something: I don’t think there’s enough respect for that aspect of theater, either.  I don’t think enough people go backstage and work as either stagehands or stage managers, or any of that stuff.  I think there’s a terrible desire to bypass all that, and be a star. Be famous.  But it’s a trap.

My career took off very quickly, but it’s a different time, almost 60 years ago, and there was much more opportunity.  Theater was much more central to all our lives. Now we have television, film, and theater is one of many potentials.  And so it’s much harder, and it’s much harder for me, too.

In other words, I did a show a year for about 30 of those years.  The shows I did with Sondheim, we did a show a year, for 10 years.  I do a show with Carol Burnett: the first one failed; the second one was the next year, it was a huge success.  Reputations were easier to make.  Now, it will have taken me close to five years to go into rehearsal with my next show.  And that’s all about money and producing, taste, courage.

What was the theater like in your day?

Well, the very first show I ever saw—and the reason it’s sort of interesting right now is there’s a movie called Me and Orson Welles, which maybe is playing in Philly. Well it’s just opening in New York and it’s very successful. And it’s about Orson Welles’ production of Julius Caesar in modern dress.  I saw that, and I was eight and a half.  And Welles was only 13 years older than I when he played Brutus. And I remember it—I think I remember it as vividly as any theater-going experience.  Of course I don’t.  I’ve embellished it.  Apparently they’re doing a big chunk of it in this movie, which I want to see next week, and I’ll see if my memory has been playing tricks on me.  I think it probably has.  

But I went to theater … you went to theater every Saturday, you know.  You didn’t go to ballgames; you went to the theater with your parents.  And then I started to go to theater by myself, or with friends who were interested in theater.  But I went to theater alone from the age of about 12 on. And I’d sit on the top balcony, and I saw everything—absolutely everything.  A show every Saturday afternoon.  And you learn a lot.  And I saw all the great actors.  And we had no mics.  And you’d sit in the top balcony of the Empire Theater, which is since gone, and you’d see Lunt and Fontanne, [inaudible], a whole bunch of great names, many of whom you won’t have heard of. But you’d sit there, and they had great voices, and they had great projection, potential to project. Nevertheless for about three, maybe five, minutes, you’d sit forward in your seat in order to really understand what they were saying, despite all the projecting they did.  And that very sitting forward to hear committed you to the experience in a way that sitting back as I am now doesn’t quite commit you.  It’s like television, it’s amplified, it comes to you, and you either receive it, or reject it, or got distracted, or whatever.  But then you really were complicit with the actors.

Do you think the experience of going to the theater has changed?

Totally, and the audience changed.  Money is in different hands.  Money, when I came into the theater … I preferred the people who had money, because they were probably more educated.  They were certainly better traveled.  Their were always philistines and vulgarities everywhere, always, but there were these people who were patrons, and the theater was a place that wasn’t that unlike a Shakespeare to his patron, Bach and the Elector of Brandenburg, and so on.  Those people couldn’t direct, couldn't write plays, couldn't act, couldn’t write music or lyrics.  But the wanted to be a part of the theater.  Many of them just invested in the theater, but many of them took that creative intelligence and became producers, and those are the great producers of the golden period of theater.  But that’s before television in the 1948s and 50s came into our lives.  But it ran concurrent with film.  

However, I hope I’m not twisting this too much, but if you look at TCM or any of the networks on television that show old films, you’ll notice first that they were written very often by playwrights.  And that they are almost … our great stars in those films were all birthed on Broadway, and went to Hollywood.  And in the course making a film the scenes were much longer because they were more literary, and the acting was projected. You know, Angela Lansbury is as good on film as she is on the stage.  I made a movie with her.  She projected.  I also made a movie with Elizabeth Taylor, and I could never hear her, and I’d have to say to the cameraman, “Did she do it?  Did she say it?”  Because the technique had become whispery, and I found it frustrating and I didn’t care to do it anymore.  But it was … if you turn on an old film made in the ’30s, the ’40s, or even early ’50s, and then you channel surf to a television show, and then you channel surf back to that film, those two stars will probably be sitting at the same table swapping brilliant dialogue, and static, and fascinating, and the television show you moved to will have had 15 different sequences in the same time that that one scene on television, and that’s because of the theater.

I know that you have never been a believer in the star system, but today you have people moving from Hollywood to Broadway with no experience.

Some of them make it, and some of them don’t.  Julia Roberts sold out on Broadway.  And she’s wonderful on film, but she couldn’t be heard and she didn’t know what to do with her hands, and how to move. That’s the bad thing that’s happened to Broadway.  We now, more than ever, because of an audience which has money to spend and very possibly not quite the taste that the old audience did, they will pay and sellout to see two superstars in a bad play that gets bad reviews but sells out every performance, and does a million-something every week, and then those people go away.  And Julia Roberts sold out every week, and Katie Holmes made a hit out of a play in a subordinate role.  That’s what I’m fighting, but I’m of an age where there’s not much point in fighting.  And I’m certainly not going to move over to the commercial standards that have prevailed today.  I just can’t be bothered doing that, and I won’t do it.

You arrived at Penn at 16, graduated at 19, and immediately launched a career in New York where you wanted to be. Tell us about your own career.

Well, it was not as immediate as I would have liked. I graduated in January, and then I was just 20, I think I graduated on my birthday.  But I finished in the end of the previous year.  I went to New York to find work and I was terrified.  I didn’t know how to get a job, or why anybody would pay me.  So I wrote a letter to George Abbott, who was probably as busy a director/producer/playwright … he’d even been an actor.  And in the letter I said, “I just got out of Penn; I want to be in the theater; I don’t know what I can do, but I can make myself useful in your office, and I’m lucky, I live with my parents, subway’s a nickel.  So if you don’t pay me for six months I can afford to do that, but if you discern that you’re not paying me by the quality of what I’m doing, you must promise me you’ll fire me.”  And that letter went off to a total stranger, and someone in his office read it and said, “Well, we’ve never seen a letter like that, and we’d better get the kid in.” And they hired me for nothing, for six months.  And then I graduated to $25 dollars a week, and then finally … he was running a little television outfit, to see if he’d like to work in television, and then he abandoned that and put me backstage as a replacement assistant stage manager, and that was beginning of it, really.

So within a year I was backstage at the [inaudible] and where I really wanted to be, learning the nuts and bolts, and learning about the empty space, black space, that you fill with your imagination.

So you learned by watching?

I was mentored by two people—one knew he was mentoring me, and one didn’t.  George Abbott mentored me.  He thought I had a future.  The other one was the only other director I ever produced for, Jerome Robbins, and he didn’t know he was mentoring me.  But I watched everything.  So I learned one thing from the one man, and quite another thing from the other man, and I produced their shows.  Jerry did West Side and Fiddler, and Abbott did all those other shows you’ve heard about.  And then finally, a partner and I were doing a show called Wonderful Towns, with Rosalind Russell—who’s one of those actors I’m talking about, who was a great stage actor who worked on stage originally, went to Hollywood, and then came back. We were stage managing on either side of the stage.  I was the assistant.  And the show was a huge hit, and we decided that it was not being as produced a well as it might, from the point of view of the investors.  It was a hit, made a lot of money, no question. But we decided to go to Abbott and ask him if we could produce his next show, and he loved the idea.  He had produced, he was working for these other people that he wasn’t 100 percent happy about.  And he said sure, and my partner [Bobby Griffith] read a review in The New York Times of a book called Seven and a Half Cents. And he was producing a television show for the Ford company, he called me and said get that book and read it.  So I read it in two hours, bought it at the bookstore, read it in two hours, thought, “Yes, it’s a musical,” called the agent for the book, made an appointment. And the next day Bobby and I went to the agent.  He said, you know there are a lot of people who’ve read that review and would like to acquire that property.   And we said, “Well, do they have George Abbott?”  And he said, “You really think you can produce George Abbott?”  And we said we’ll do our best, and we went back and talked him into doing the show.  And he gave us the rights over the competition of a lot of very established producers.

We then decided, how could we make a reputation instantly, when there were so many successful musical theater producers?  Theater Guild, [inaudible], Abbott himself, they were all over the place.  And we decided the way we could do that was if we did musicals of top quality at a much lower price than anyone else did.  And so we promoted things, free fabrics, 20 sowing machines for free from the pajama factory in Iowa, and so on.  And so we did the show, we raised $250,000, which you could do a show for, from 175 people, many of whom only gave us $500.  And we opened for $162,000, and it was a huge hit in Boston immediately.  So we took a chance, and when we opened on Broadway with no advance, and buzz or anything, it got extravagant reviews.  It was the end of the season.  If you had been an investor, you’d have opened The New York Times, read the rave review, and then you’d open your mail, and you’d found 20 percent on your investment, in a check, and our reputation was that.  Everybody knew these two kids pulled it off.

And then we never had to look for money again.  I just would write a letter saying, “This year we’re doing a show about baseball; there’s never been a hit show about baseball, but we’re going to do it,” and we got the money within 48 hours, from the same 175 people.  Then the next show was about people killing each other on the streets of New York, and we raised that money in 48 hours—and so it went.  And then we had a bomb.  But first we did Fiorello! which tried out in Philly, and then we had a flop, and then that flop and a strike took place, caused such stress to my partner, that one day he died.  He died on a golf course, and I was 29, 30, and terrified, because I counted on Bobby.  And Abbott looked at me and said, “There’s a play, a comedy I think,” and I talked him into doing Funny Thing on the Way to the Forum.  So I took a summer off, and the next year we did two hits.  And it all sounds so easy.

[Abbott] said to me, “You want to be a director, you know, and the only reason why you haven’t is because Bobby wanted to be a director, too, and he couldn’t.” There’s a piece in the film you saw today where Abbott is actually telling that story, and I didn’t know until Sarah Sheehan, the documentarian, found it and put it on film.  Abbott is quoted as saying he sent his two stage managers out on the road with his shows to give notes and keep them up, and he kept hearing that what I’d done would have made him happy, and so he discerned I wanted to be a director, and he said, “You’ll be a director.”  Now, sadly, Bobby was dead, he said now you’ll make that move, and I made the move a year and a half later, with She Loves Me.  And then soon after, Cabaret.

I’m intrigued by who’s written something, because so many of these things seemed that they were really yours.

There’s a big distinction, though.  I’m not a writer.  I would have loved to have been a playwright; I knew I wasn’t good enough.  So whatever facility I had in writing, it is used when I’m directing.  I’ll need to improvise a line, and then I’ll say to the author, “Improve on that.”  And I’ll be able to do that sort of thing.  But never underestimate writing—it’s paramount.  And too support that, there are hundreds of songs from dozens of great musical scores of musicals that failed.  The great composer Harold Arlen wrote one great musical score after another, but the libretti were not good.  The spine of a successful musical is the book, and oddly enough I suspect you can do a successful musical with a great book and a second rate score.  But I know you can’t do a successful musical with a second-rate book. And they never get any credit, by the way, the guys who write the books.

You’ve worked with the most distinguished choreographers, designers, composers, librettists, and lyricists. Tell us about some of the most exciting collaborations?

Well a lot of them didn’t have careers before, and I was starting as they were starting.  Bock and Harnick, [inaudible], we were all starting.  Steve was the lyricist of West Side Story, and he and I had been great good friends from very early on, looking to make headway in the theater.  Bob Fosse was a dancer in Hollywood who, his first choreography on Broadway was The Pajama Game.  The two fellows who wrote The Pajama Game, Adler and Ross, it was their first show.  That happened a lot—all these people, we were starting, really, together. Not so Jerry Robins; he was a huge star director, and obviously so was Abbott.  There was something I learned from Abbott early on, which was very useful, and that is—and it’s more useful to me now, I’m 82, than it would have been then.  It’s very smart to make the collaboration of someone who’s had a lot of experience and craft in collaboration with someone who’s young, inexperienced, has great talent, and can jolt you into the next decade, the next century, contemporary taste.  Very important.  And I tried … George did that with me, and with Leonard Bernstein, and Comden and Green, and Jerry Robbins, he gave them all their first shows.  I like, always someone around who is new, to keep up my contemporary ante, because I tend to think about the way things were.

I wonder if you might talk a little about favorite actors with whom you’ve worked.

Sure.  Angie.  Angela Lansbury I did a film with, and I also did Sweeney Todd with, and we’re close, and she’s the meaning of a great actress.  She also happens to be a big star.  But I cast her because of her talent, and like so many real, secure talents, she’s utterly uncomplicated, open to anything, courageous.  And, you know, the truth is I edit an actress of that quality.  When you do a musical, you have everything.   You have Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, and then you have someone who just got out of school, so you’re editing those stars, and you’re teaching acting to someone who’s very, very young, and the trick is to make them seem like they’re all in the same damn show, and working at the same level.  And it’s a trick, it’s a [inaudible].

[Lengthy and somewhat inaudible back and forth about Grind and several other works.]

Would you say a little more about something that might have been a hit but didn’t feel rewarding to you, versus something that wasn’t a hit, but may have felt somewhat rewarding?

Well, Grind is an interesting musical to mention, because it pained me.  Which is fine.  I had an idea, a dangerous idea.  First of all, I want to say Grind is one of the scores where the score was brilliant, and the book did not reflect the quality that the score did.  So, very, exactly supporting what I was saying before.  I wanted to do a show, and I talked myself into thinking that piece of material could be twisted to make that point.  It was a time when we had a great deal of violence in our society.  Believe it or not, it was more violence.  But it was every kind of violence—domestic violence, murder in the streets—and I wanted to dramatize, in a musical, all kinds of violence. Not exactly, you know, the most popular subject.  So I started that way, and it took place in a burlesque house in Chicago, where there were white people and black people on stage, but never at the same time.  This was historically accurate.  So that was a good stepping off place to do what I did.  But the theater had become a very expensive place to work, so I started with two producers and I ended up with eight.  And they were infernal.  I was called down to the basement of the theater and given 8-10 pages of typewritten notes that they’d collected, single spaced, and I just walked out so disheartened.  And then I said I’ll never do a show like that again—I’ll never work that way again.  And I never have had to.  I found sympathetic producers who were good collaborators, or I’ve done a show in a [inaudible] Theater for a limited engagement.

Now I’m doing a show, it’s going to open in London first. Rehearse in New York, but open in London—with the man you saw in the musical you admired, Mandy Patinkin. And he’s the lead, and I’ve got a great cast, but it’s taken five years to get it up, and now I’m going to rehearse in April, and then we’re going to London, to a small theater called the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has a very prestigious reputation.  And then hopefully we’ll come back to New York, with the buzz that you get from London.  You get a great buzz from London—with Evita, with Phantom.  I’ve always felt that as successful a Phantom is—and it’s in its 22nd year—if it had opened originally on Broadway, it would have been closed a long time ago, despite the audience response to it.  The two years that people talked about it, and generated all this hype before we came to New York was very important to what’s happened now.  Because the reviews were good, but begrudging.  And reviews are very often good but begrudging, and you have to get over them.

Is that a shift?

Well, a lot of people would love to start in London if they could make it work—I was lucky enough to do that.  But I’ll tell you something, and this is just an example of what reviews could do.  We opened Fiddler on the Roof in Detroit, and there was a newspaper strike, so I asked to read the reviews that I had collected, and Jerry Robbins did, that the newspapers had given us, and they were terrible.  Variety did print a review, and it was not good at all.  I sat down and wrote all my investors, and said, “Don’t believe a word of it, it’s going to be a huge success,” because I knew the audiences were flocking despite the bad reviews.  We got to New York, and we didn’t get good reviews, yet it ran nine and a half years, and made history, and they called it “too commercial” and all kinds of things. And the point is, on the anniversary of the performance, when it became the longest running show on Broadway, I printed all the [inaudible—obituaries?].  On gold paper.  And made them into a little program, and handed them to everybody—very satisfying.

Q & A with audience

[Question about watching taped productions versus live productions.]

Sweeney Todd is unique, because it has most of the original cast and it was not restaged. It was photographed very, very well, but it’s entirely my direction, and our scenery.  And so I had to be happy with that. There’s only one regret I have, and I understand why the cinematographer did what he did.  He never took a long shot of the entire stage, and he probably, from the point of view of the tape, was right.  I always wanted to see the whole thing and then zoom in, so you saw the whole [stage], but after all it was for television.  I think that’s wonderful.  There’s too little of that.

I am, I think, pretty instrumental in a program at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, which is called Theater on Film and Tape, and we now have about four or five thousand tapes of plays—photographed from the auditorium, musicals and plays. The problem for me is that only started in the ‘70s, so we have a good record and it’s more and more sophisticated.  So we started with one camera in the back of Company, where all the little people are stick figures, and it’s hard. And to five cameras, and very sophisticated film. And we put almost anything we can afford on tape there. The problem is, it’s not accessible to everybody.  You can go and see things, but it’s easier if I, say, run a film.  We have 24 instruments showing all day long, to students, to young directors, to actors, and they’re always in front of those machines, seeing those productions.  Some of the stuff is quite brilliant, so I feel quite good about that.  I wish it were made more public.  The reason that we were able to create the program was we had to assure the unions that we would never show them where there would be any income bearing attached to the productions.  So that’s why they’re trapped in the library, but they really are used.

[Question about what it’s like to see revivals of shows he’s not involved in anymore.]  

No, absolutely, and I don’t usually go.  I did see Pajama Game, and I thought it was a lot of fun, but it was such a different animal, because when we did that show I was in charge of the scenery and costumes, because Abbott didn’t care about scenery and costumes.  He cared about where doors were, and where tables were, and that’s all he cared about.  I was very much in charge of that aspect, and I wanted to do picnic—the real middle west—on that stage.  And so the scenery was by the same fellow who designed Oklahoma, and everyone had a little western accent. This Pajama King didn’t bother with any of that stuff.  

I saw Sweeney Todd in London.  It was such a different animal.  I couldn’t affect me very much.  I thought it was…it got great reviews.  I think if you had not seen the show before, you might have had some difficulty following it.  I asked Sondheim that, I said do you think they can follow the second act, and he said yeah, because they’ve seen the show before.  But that’s the truth, it was confusing.  A Little Night Music I’m going to see next Saturday, because of Angie, and I’m going to sit in the last row on the aisle. But honestly, I haven’t seen any of the other revivals, and that’s not animosity.  I just don’t see why I should.  There was a revival of Follies, which is dear to my heart as a theatrical experience, and probably as successful as it was a flop, and I couldn’t see it, nor did I want to see it.  I don’t have to see it.  I can see it up here.

Are there any projects you turned down and wish you hadn’t?  Or vice versa?

 Oh sure.  I’m going to go from [part] 2 [of the question] to [part] 1.  The show that I was enormously proud of, that just simply could not interest an audience for a long time—a sizable audience—was Parade.  It was  a subject that interested me and I thought we did wonderfully by it.  And it just couldn’t garner an audience (and you know what it was about, right?).

I’ve never had a show I’ve turned down that I wish I had done, though I’ve loved the shows.  David Merrick asked me to do 42nd Street, and I thought, “How flattering,” but I said, “I couldn’t do that. I don’t know how to do that.” And I loved [inaudible].  He asked me to do Hello, Dolly!, because my first directing job before I was directing in New York was The Matchmaker, and he’d heard it was wonderful.  So either he’d seen it, or he’d heard, so he said why don’t you do Hello, Dolly! for me?  And I listened to the material, Jerry Herman came into my office, and I said, “It’s swell, but it’s not Hello, Dolly!  She’s not a lady—‘How great it is that you’re back where you belong.  She never went there.”  And I was very didactic and stupid and literal about it. But it’s a show I adored, and I don’t think the musical of Hello, Dolly! is a reflection of The Matchmaker.

And then the most fun story I’ll share with is after I did Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber asked me to come to the apartment to play his next score—to hear his next score—and it was Cats.  And I heard it, and I said, “Andrew I’m the wrong guy to direct this.  It’s very English, right?  I said, I mean, Grizabella is Queen Victoria and Mumblejumble [Munkustrap] must be Gladstone, and another one must be Disraeli.  And he just took the longest sigh in the world, and said, “Hal, it’s just about cats.”  So I don’t regret … I would have ruined it.

About who?  Oh sure.  By the way I was told on my way here that a lot of people know who Jason Robert Brown is, and that’s the best news I’ve had.  Because I think he is one of the few futures of the American musical theater. And even though I did Parade with him, it’s my daughter who discovered him. My daughter, who did Songs for a New World, my daughter who did The Last 5 Years, it’s my daughter who introduced me to him.  And I think he’s spectacular, and it’s my daughter who’s directing now, which is good.  Lenny, anecdotally…the first show I did was Wonderful Town, I was a stage manager, so I just knew him as this huge force of nature, a great talent.  And then when I did West Side I was the producer, not, you know, intrinsic to what he was doing.  So we didn’t to know each other very well.  When I did Candide, I visited him in Boston when he was doing the Norton lectures and told him what I wanted to do and he said, “Go do it.”  And I threw the whole book out, and Hugh Wheeler wrote the new book, and that meant that Lillian Hellman had to step aside, and she very generously said sure, but you can’t use a word of mine, of my original libretto. Because we thought she and Lenny had written two different shows.  They were very close, but she had written a very political show.  She was talking about the black lists, and all this sorts of stuff, and Lenny was writing a bubbly operetta, and one of the best.  So Hugh Wheeler wrote the book, but the only way we could get it on was in Brooklyn, at the Chelsea Theater Center, with 13 instruments, and an audience of 150.  And the word got out, and it was a huge hit, and then we moved it to Broadway.  And we never implemented the orchestra, so I always knew that Lenny regretted the loss of 30 instruments, and so some years later Beverly Sills talked me into doing it at City Opera, and there he got to hear 70 musicians, and I put the whole thing on stage.  So we came full circle when we got that.  But it was very successful, and he was [inaudible].  And when he died, sadly enough we were talking about doing an opera, a serious musical, an operatic musical.  He wanted to write about the Holocaust, and I wanted to work with him.  But anyhow.

Could you talk about your upcoming show?

Yes, it’s called Paradise Found.  It’s based on a book of a man named Joseph Roth.  Joseph Roth was a great writer in Vienna, and he wrote political [pieces] for the newspapers.  And then he wrote a great novel called The Radetzky March, which maybe someone here has read.  If not, read it.  And then he wrote a novel in Paris.  He was Jewish, he’d been chased out of Vienna, and he was in Paris in 1939.  Hitler came in, and he died of alcoholism.  But really it was a kind of suicide.  The novel was published posthumously, some years later, and I’ll make this brief … the plot is very simple—my wife would kill me, telling the plot, but I know you’re going to like it.  It’s about the Persian monarch Shah-of-Shahs at the turn of the century, turn of the 19th century, who had 139 wives and no sex life. And his eunuch, played by Mandy Patinkin (and the shah, by the way, played by John Cullum, and has also in it Shuler Hensley, Judy Kaye, who you may know, a marvelous girl named Emily Skinner.  It’s a great company, I can’t wait to work for them).  But his eunuch suggests they go to Vienna.  And they go to Vienna to find inspiration, and they’re given a big ball in the city palace by Franz Joseph.  And they go to the ball, and the Shah-of-Shahs behaves very rudely.  He walks down the stairs, having been announced by the majordomo, and he yawns, and he sits down, and he curls up in a fetal position, and he just shows every kind of arrogant boredom you can show, and all the court is bowing and starting to mumble about themselves.  And then he opens one eye, and he spots inspiration in the most beautiful women he’s every seen.  And he starts to bellow, and lets terrible, fearsome animal noises out, and points to her, and he is pointing to empress of the Austro-Hungarian empire. And he says to the eunuch, “I want her in my bed tonight,” and leaves the party.  

So the rest of the first act is how do you fob off another girl, and how do you make the room dark enough, and how do you make the room look like a palace which isn’t the palace.  And all those things they conspire to do, and the shah arrives, and goes upstairs with his girl who doesn't remotely look like the empress, and he’s inspired.  And the first act curtain is the noises of his inspiration above, and the four conspirators singing gorgeous music below.  The second act is, he’s leaving—it’s immediately after the first act—and he gives the girl a million dollar string of perfect pearls, and he goes. And the rest of the musical is about what happens to people when a million dollars is plunked in their laps. What happens to the conspirators, what happens…where does the venality express itself, and what happens to that poor young girl who was used, and so on.  And we see it all, and it ends happily.  But along the way it’s pretty melancholy, tragic ... somebody goes to debtor’s prison.  A bunch of them end up in the Prater in Vienna, doing a cheesy Vaudeville show about the story you saw in Act I, and so on.  And the end, finally, it’s happy.  At core, it’s about a baron who’s using this girl, who is his girlfriend, and who’s given the task to fool the shah, and he has this girl, and he has a mistress, and he’s really a … no good.  Maybe what we would equate with a [certain] golfer.  And what happens, at the end of the show, the girl and the baron realize that they’ve always loved each other, and so that’s how we get a happy ending.

What kind of book makes a good musical vs. a straight [non-musical] play?

 Sure, it’s different from a straight play.  But playwrights, like Terrence McNally and Hugh Wheeler have been willing to write musicals, and they’ve written them brilliantly. Lots of playwrights won’t do it, and it’s because, I said—they’re the least celebrated, and the most important. It’s a paradox.  No, what I think happen—I would love to simplify the answer and say a good musical has a good story.  But Company didn’t—it was totally anti-linear, and it became a hell of a musical.  So I don’t there are any rules, but I think quality writing is very important, and the ability to write scenes that can really be acted with authority and authenticity.  It’s literary.  And in that regard, I don’t think there’s that much difference between directing a musical, and a play, or a musical, play, and an opera.  They all deal with the same basic tenets. Good writing, and either tell a story, or tell something so abstract, that isn’t story, but holds the attention.  And metaphor is a huge part of the kind of theater that I love.  Not everybody.  But if I can find a metaphor, I’ve found an anchor for a musical.  And a metaphor is not always jolly. It’s very often political, and I like that.

What about your production in Las Vegas?

No, no it’s Phantom.  And I’ve done an hour and thirty-five minute version of Phantom at the Venetian, and see it if you go to Vegas, because I’m very proud of it.  No intermission.  And I’ve cut the book, but made the story completely clear.  And then when you work in Vegas they want you to spend money, which is the only place in the world where they want you to spend money on production values.  So, I mean, they spent $40 million doing a musical. So I spent it for them.

When does Paradise Found open?

We start previewing the 26th of May in London, in this small theater.  Very small theater.  150 seats again.  I’m doing that again. And we play for a week of previews and then six weeks of performances, and then we close and hopefully come to America.

  ©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 2/23/10