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Star Power

This issue’s cover is both a take-off (sorry) on the subject of the one-act musical play, “The Flight of the Lawnchair Man,” that Hal Prince C’48 Hon’71 is directing in Philadelphia this month and an apt visual representation of his preeminent position in the American musical theater.
        In the opening of his profile of Prince, senior editor Samuel Hughes refers to him as “the oracle.” With some 50 years of experience as a producer and director and 20 Tony Awards to his credit, Prince is better-positioned than almost anyone to pronounce on the state of the musical—from the Golden Age that began in the years after World War II, when he was starting out, to our own tarnished era of “predominantly crappy” popular music, in which musical theater is increasingly divorced from the mainstream culture.
        But, while more than capable of the long view, Prince is anything but above it all. Like his mentor, George Abbott, who kept working almost up to his death (at 107!), Prince—a comparative youngster at 72—continues to be actively involved in producing new work, never happier than when, as our story’s title has it, he is “putting on a show.”
        The latest example of that is “Three,” a trio of one-act musicals he is producing at the Prince Music Theater in Center City this month. The show—which, Prince says, one observer described as “three hilarious musicals about death”—marks the first time he has mounted a production at the other (non-Annenberg Center) theater that bears his name.
        Prince seems to have known what he wanted to do with his life from an early age; even before coming to Penn at 16, he imagined himself working in theater, with an office at Rockefeller Center—where he began at 20 and is still. For Dr. David Koerner, the route to his passion was a more roundabout one.
        An assistant professor of physics and astronomy, Koerner has participated in some of the major discoveries providing evidence of planets orbiting other stars and how planets are formed. But he was raised in a strictly religious household—an early interest in dinosaurs prompted the boy’s father to press a creationist text on him as an antidote—and he actually considered becoming a minister before turning to science. An accomplished pianist, he also flirted with a career in music.
        Reading associate editor Susan Lonkevich’s profile of him, I was expecting that Koerner would have become anti-religious, but he rejects the neat dichotomy between science and faith. Rather, his experience seems to have made him especially aware of—and on guard against—the tendency to project our own biases and desires onto the heavens. (Koerner’s musical background, meanwhile, has made him a sought-after companion at remote observatories for his extensive and eclectic CD collection.)
        The view from the Park Avenue penthouse home-office occupied by architect Wendy Evans Joseph C’77 is as heady as any you might get from a balloon (not to mention a great spot for a telescope), but the architect has made a name for herself by getting involved in projects on the ground-floor. Joseph worked for nearly a year virtually without pay as architect for the Women’s Museum in Dallas before the project secured funding.
        When she first came to Penn, Joseph planned to major in physics and math, until she visited a studio class and thought: “This is it.” In her essay, “Coming Home,” Beth Kephart C’82 describes a similar revelation. Better than any piece of writing I can think of, Kephart captures the first excitement of intellectual endeavor—what real learning feels like.
        The essay is also a tribute to one faculty member in particular, Dr. William Kohler, Kephart’s senior thesis advisor, who passed on a piece of advice that has been central to her subsequent career as an award-winning memoirist. “Coming Home” is actually a variation on the theme of her new book, Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter (which, by the way, is wonderful).

—John Prendergast C’80


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