on a Show,
these mostly young theater-makers and their septuagenarian sage have embarked
on is Three, a trio of one-act musicals that begins a two-week
run on November 4 at a certain theater in Philadelphia. That theater company
used to be called the American Music Theater Festival, but when it got
itself a home in a remodeled movie theater in Center City, producing director
Marjorie Samoff threw caution (and the lucrative naming rights) to the
winds and named it the Prince Music Theater after her mentor. That, along
with the one in the Annenberg Center, gives Prince the signal honor of
having two theaters named after him in the city where he spent all of
four yearsalbeit pretty important ones, both for his purposes and ours.
opening rehearsal this bright September morning, and though the curtain
wont rise for another six weeks, a lot of work has already gone into
the production. Prince is famous for his attention to detailcall it craftand
his ability to keep a project moving from idea to opening night, a process
that often takes years. (What spills out of Hals mouth at a meeting,
Stephen Sondheim once said, could fill 67 songs and 87 scenes.) The
scripts have been worked and reworked. Detailed costume sketches are taped
on the walls. A model of the theaters stagea talismanic black box the
size of a portable TVsits on the table in front of Prince. It looks like
a dollhouse, with three sets of tiny furniture and props. Since Three
consists of three totally unrelated musicalsThe Mice, Lavender Girl
and The Flight of the Lawnchair Man, which Prince himself is directingthe
staging logistics are daunting. Especially since he wants to bring a sense
of Occasion to the production.
was: Do we have one unit set that we move adroitly around to accommodate
three pieces, or do we do three full productions? Prince delivers those
last three words with extra inflection, making it clear that there was
only one acceptable answer. We went with something that occurs to me
all the timewhich is theater, performing arts, as a sense of occasion.
I miss it. In the golden years of Olivier and Gielgud and Richardson,
there was a sense of occasion about attending theater. There still is.
Now, there are
three one-acts. But there will be more of a sense of occasion, because
the scenery is different. The style of each play is totally different.
So why should they be hobbled by a unit set, which is what you expect
when you go to that kind of theater?
The plays also
have different authors and directors, so trying to link them all thematically
is out of the questionalthough Prince gets a good laugh when he notes
that somebody had suggested that theyre really three hilarious musicals
about death. Thats a reductio ad absurdum, of course, and yet in a way,
it captures the artistic legacy of Hal Prince: take deep and sometimes
dark subjects, add a sense of occasion and a fresh vision, and somehowimpossiblyturn
them into great entertainment.
he was 13 years old, Hal Prince already had a recurrent daydream: that
one day Id have an office in Rockefeller Center in which I wrote
and directed plays.
didnt take him long to get there, though he did more or less abandon
the writing part. I started here when I was 20, so its 52
years of coming to Rockefeller Center, he says. I am the only
living human being who has never worked in a different venue. Pretty peculiarbut
wonderful. However, it gives you such a distorted view of the world.
is sitting in his office on the 10th floor of 10 Rock, as the locals call
it, wearing a loose black sweater-jacket over a gray tee-shirt and managing
to look both elegant and slightly rumpled at the same time. Hes
an old pro at interviews, voluble and frank and instinctual, and though
he sometimes interrupts himself, he edits himself very lightly. One doesnt
so much interview him as toss him a question or two and let him talk until
the curtain drops on his time. The glasses are, as usual, perched up on
his dome, and at one point I have the odd notion that theyre actually
being used by his hidden third and fourth eyes, the ones that are always
looking around for new ideas and ways to do things. The other eyes, pale
blue and slightly protuberant, are focused and intense.
below the name Harold Prince on the door to his suite of offices
is the name George Abbott. Abbott, the legendary Broadway producer/director
who died in 1995 at the age of 107, gave Prince his first job soon after
he got out of Penn and worked with him for many years. A better mentor
is hard to imagine.
Ill always have it there, says Prince. He had everything
to teach. And he was very generous. And what was it he was teaching? Not
essential taste, your taste vis-a-vis my taste. No: discipline,
craft, how-toand how to be honest. Even when he was doing farce
comedies with people slamming doorsthey never slammed a door
because it was funny to hear a door slam. You cant make an
audience laugh. High jinksit has to come out of character and a
situation. Well, that prevails if youre doing Sweeney Todd.
So I learned all those lessons from him. Because, I venture to say, he
was so generousand he was generous because he was so secure.
Prince pauses briefly. And of course, he was the first person to
tell me, You can direct, he adds. Everybody else
told me I couldnt. Nobody encourages you very much when youre
starting. Its a lesson that he has never forgotten.
himself had a nervous breakdown in his mid-teens, a year or so before
he came to Penn. During that dark period, his earlier fantasies about
directing great actors suddenly seemed insane, he told an
interviewer some years ago, and scared the hell out of me, cause
you start thinking youre never going to come back from that place.
ask him if hed care to speculate what his career might have been
like had that not happened. He thinks for a moment.
wouldnt be able to guess, he says finally, with a Tevye-like
shrug. I literally came out of it a different person. Maybe braver;
maybe falsely braver. More ambitious, certainly, and determined. I sort
of positioned myself in a place where I said, If I dont have
the life that I want, I dont know how Im going to live.
got itand then some. Its hard to describe the influence of
Hal Prince on the American musical theater without sounding like a hyperventilating
flack, so for now, just the facts: He has won 20 Tony awards, some for
producer, some for director, some for both, starting with The Pajama
Game and running through Damn Yankees, Fiorello! A Funny Thing
Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company,
Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Phantom
of the Opera, Show Boat and, just last year, Parade. That list
doesnt include West Side Story (co-producer), Pacific
Overtures (director), Kiss of the Spider Woman (director),
and quite a few others. He has directed two films: Something for Everyone
and A Little Night Music. He has directed 11 operas and was a 1994
Kennedy Center Honoree. His autobiography, Contradictions, was
published in 1974, but he has no plans to write a sequel for the very
sensible reason that two good biographies have already been written about
him, and both are being updated by their authors. He is, as one of those
authors (Carol Ilson) wrote, perhaps the first star
producer-director in Broadway musical history.
yet for all the astonishing artistic and commercial success, he is still
very much involved in discovering and encouraging new talentand
putting on such relatively risky productions as Three.
it fabulous that a man in his seventies would choose, after his production
of Paradewhich won a Tony for best music and best book, and
was also a collaboration with a young composerthat his next project
would be to work with three young teams? says Marjorie Samoff. That
really says it all. That commitment to new and innovative work,
she adds, is one of the hallmarks of his career, and the reason
they named the theater after him.
see why, dont you? says Prince. I mean, Abbott did it
with me. Its not generous; its selfish, if you look at it
really carefully. Abbott used meunconsciouslyand everyone
else he ever worked with. Comden and Green and Bernstein and Robbinsthey
were all decades younger than he, and he loved working with them. He preferred
working with thembecause guess what? It was a terrific exchange:
what he knew for this younger interpretation of things. Well, seeing that
firsthand, why wouldnt I do that for myself?
the core of his being, he believes in the theater as a mentorship system,
says Brad Rouse, Princes young assistant, who is directing The
Mice. He knows hes got an incredible resource in his
experience, and hes trying to make sure people know the process
that works in creating musicals. Its the best. As long as Im
in the business, his process will forever ring in my ears.
is also very conscious of the fact that he came of age at a time when,
as Shakespeare said, the stars all came together to provide for him a
wonderful time to be producing and directing in American musical theater,
says his old friend Catherine S. (Kaki) Marshall CW45,
who directed Prince as an undergraduate in Penn Players. That today,
a young man with all the same talents and drive would not be able to do
it because of the economic climate and the culture.
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