EXCLUSIVE: Hal Prince has two shows opening this season, both off-Broadway. One, a musical adaptation of the charming indie film The Band’s Visit, will play 20 blocks from Times Square. The other, Prince Of Broadway, will play 14 hours by jet from Times Square, before you catch a taxi to the theater — it’s in Tokyo, though the plan is to bring it to Broadway next spring.
The two shows say almost all you need to know about the 87-year-old director: One is brand new and risky; the other is brand old … and risky. Indeed, as a brand, “Hal Prince” would be hard to match, let alone beat: He directed the longest-running show in Broadway history, The Phantom Of The Opera. His association with Stephen Sondheim, beginning as producer of West Side Story (for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s music) and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum evolved into a director and composer/lyricist partnership that began with Company, in 1970 and ended with Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. In between came Follies and Sweeney Todd, among others. The shows propelled Broadway into the future much as Jerome Kern’s and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s had done in earlier eras.
Of course there’s more, as there necessarily would be to account for Prince’s unprecedented 21 Tony Awards — 10 for producing, eight for directing and three for the hell of it (they were Special Tonys). In 1966, Prince staged the original production of Cabaret; prior to that, he’d made the full transition from producing, under the tutelage of the legendary George Abbott, to directing, with She Loves Me, which is being revived this season along with Fiddler On The Roof, which he also produced. And his association with Andrew Lloyd Webber preceded Phantom with his killer production of Evita. Take Hal Prince out of the picture, and there basically would be no post-WWII Broadway, or at least one that, for better (and perhaps a small bit worse) would look very different.
“I like a heightened reality. There’s so much bullsh**t about the Actors Studio and about Brando mumbling. Come on. He’s the largest, most dynamic actor that ever lived. Mumbling, my ass.”
And like any power hitter, Prince has had his share of strikeouts, many of them also legendary: Following the spectacular collapse of Merrily We Roll Along (closed after 16 performances) came three more failures: A Doll’s Life (1982, closed after five performances), Grind (1985, closed after 71 performances) and Roza (1987, closed after 12 performances). Take Hal Prince out of that picture and the wall of Joe Allen’s restaurant, famed as the Louvre Of Lousy Shows with its posters from flops, would have a lot of empty spaces.
Prince Of Broadway, co-directed by Prince with Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact), is and is not a “best of” show, as the director explained in a rare sit-down during the show’s New York rehearsals. I had done a series of interviews with him over 30 years ago, when he was working on the ill-fated Doll’s Life with longtime pals Betty Comden and Adolph Green, so we had a lot of catching up to do. But we started with the present: Prince of Broadway is scheduled to run at the Umeda Theatre from October 23 through November 22. What happens after that is anybody’s guess — except Hal Prince’s: He’ll be working on The Band’s Visit for the Atlantic Theatre Company.
DEADLINE: One of your lifelong mantras is Don’t look back.
PRINCE: Absolutely. So why am I doing this? It wasn’t my idea. This gang in Canada asked me to do it, and I thought, I haven’t done anything and I haven’t been offered any work. I had a stroke seven years ago now and, I don’t know, I was a certain age, so move on.
DEADLINE: The original push came from Canada and then was picked up by an American producing team. Your budget was $13 million, which is modest these days.
PRINCE: Yes, and they couldn’t raise all the money. But among the original investors were these Japanese people who are a huge conglomerate in Tokyo. They own the railroads, they own a lot of stuff. It’s called Umeda. They wanted to get to New York and be a player, and so they invested, and [when the American financing failed to come through] I thought, Well, the show just blew up, it’s never going to happen. And instead, the next day they called and said, “We’d like to take over.” I said, “Well, come on in and let’s talk.” And they said, “We want to open it in Japan, and then we’ll bring it to Broadway.” I said, “Well, what’s your audience going to make of any of this?” and they said “They’ll make everything of it, don’t worry about it. They love musicals, and what they don’t understand they’ll figure out.”
So I said, “Okay,” and they took over immediately. The New York Times’ [Broadway reporter Patrick] Healy decided not to report it accurately. I went to an evening honoring the American Theatre Wing at the Plaza Hotel. Someone said, “Healy’s out there and would like to talk to you,” and I said, “Oh, good.
He said, “Tell me, is your show dead?” And I said, “No, actually the Japanese picked it up 48 hours after it was available.” And he went right to the typewriter and wrote a headline saying Hal Prince can’t raise money for a show, which I found immoral, really, and it infuriated me. I thought it was monstrous. If it had happened the way he said I would’ve lived with that, but it didn’t.
[Note: The story, published in the Times on September 26, 2013, ran under the headline — which Healy didn’t write — A Prince With No Fairy Godmother — Hal Prince Is Still Short of Investors for ‘Prince of Broadway’. The story characterized the show as having been “derailed” and arched an eyebrow at the idea of a Tokyo opening. Asked about the Plaza Hotel exchange, Healy responded via email: “I made repeated interview requests to Prince, in order to learn and report about his journey with Prince Of Broadway, but he declined. I was able to ask him a question at the Plaza about the fate of the show, and he said: ‘Everything’s going very well with developing the show, and we’ll have the financing, and we’ll do four weeks in Tokyo and then open on Broadway in early 2016.’ That quote was included in the article.”]
DEADLINE: Look, you’re a Broadway producer…
PRINCE: I was…
DEADLINE: We’ll get to that. In the process that you just described between the Umeda people saying, “We’d like to take it over,” and the step before that with [prospective American producers], do you think there was some reluctance? Was there some feeling about…
PRINCE: No! They simply couldn’t raise the money! There were no hard feelings. But the solution is something I didn’t cook up, it just was there already. So I thought, Sure, I’ll do it.
DEADLINE::And you started thinking about what would be in it.
PRINCE: What I mostly thought is, I have to try to do a show that people want to see, and so it just can’t be an out and out revue. I can’t just, number after number after number after number.
DEADLINE: Can we use Jerome Robbins’ Broadway as a starting point?
PRINCE: Not really. I use it as a warning. When I saw it, I thought, It’s good, but it isn’t fresh, there isn’t the sense of Jerry’s creative mind, which I know so well, and which was unequalled. The first thing was, I can’t remember anything I’ve done yesterday, much less 60 years ago. So I thought, I don’t want to see the archives, I don’t want to see any footage, I want to approach the material as if I hadn’t staged it. I know I once staged it and it worked, but I have to do it again. So that’s what’s happened. Nothing is staged exactly as it was, because I can’t remember — and I consider that an advantage.
DEADLINE: You can’t remember or you don’t want to?
PRINCE: No, I really can’t remember. And that folds in with your first question. I have a terrible memory because I’m not interested in the past. It’s done, it’s done. When I was a producer, the fun of the show was waking up with a hit and enjoying the period after the show opens. The fun of a director stops the day it opens. No matter if it’s a success or a failure, it’s not a whole lot of fun anymore.
DEADLINE: Can you give me an example of a scene that’s dramatically different from the original?
PRINCE: Well, I have absolutely no idea how “Waiting For The Girls Upstairs” [from Follies] was staged. Steve [Sondheim] writes so eloquently and so correctly that it must be similar, but I didn’t pay any attention to who went where or why. I started differently, because that was Follies and this is an excerpt.
DEADLINE: It becomes a kind of one-act musical?
PRINCE: Yes. And I think that’s true of a lot of what we’ve done.
“In 1974 I said, ‘Someday, Broadway will be a stop on the road.’ Well, these 10-, 12-, 14-week limited productions are really the equivalent of that. You’re hedging your bet. You’ll get your money back because the name over the title is so big it doesn’t matter how good it is. I don’t know what that has to do with the theater.”
DEADLINE: In Prince Of Broadway you’re including the number “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” which was probably the most controversial song in Cabaret, in which the Emcee, played by Joel Grey, sings a love song to an actor in a gorilla suit. The final lyric was “If you could see her through my eyes, you’d see she isn’t Jewish at all.” After audiences in Boston and at the New York previews responded angrily, you convinced Fred Ebb to sanitize the line. It became mieskeit, which is Yiddish for ugly.
PRINCE: What happened was very simple. Everything about the show is difficult and, people thought, crazy. When we did the first performance on Broadway a couple of hundred people stayed in the audience, half to fight and say, “Was that the most disgraceful thing you’ve ever seen?” totally misunderstanding what it was. And the other half stayed to explain to them how wrong they were.
And I thought, I like controversy more than most people, but I don’t want this show going down the drain because people hate it. And so I took a very unilateral position. Freddy [Ebb] was hard put to forgive me, but I figured It’s got to run, and so I said no. By the time the movie was made there wasn’t any shock about anything. I’m a pragmatic man. I’ll veer on the dangerous side, because I love dangerous subjects, but I won’t shoot a show in the foot.
DEADLINE: What else was dangerous about Cabaret?
PRINCE: It’s hard to believe that Cabaret was a brave show to do when we did it, but it was. I knew we were dealing with Nazis. I got offered it a couple of times as an idea, but they always wanted just Gwen Verdon to dance on a table, and we do decadent Berlin. I didn’t want to do that, obviously. And so finally when I really got interested in it, it was about the rise of Nazism. [The Emcee] is a man of very little taste and acumen and a whole lot of energy and vulgarity, and he represents the Weimar Republic, Germany after the Depression, which was profound, and their solution was National Socialism. That’s the trajectory. That’s been ignored. Bob Fosse ignored it in the film. He did a swell film, but he ignored the point.
DEADLINE: How did you deal with the shows that didn’t work?
PRINCE: I did a bunch of flops, and I chose them. I did them, sometimes I did them badly. And the next day I was on to another show — leaving behind my wife and two children, who’d been to an opening night that was poisonous and read a bunch of terrible reviews. And they’re still there, and I’m on the next show.
DEADLINE: After Oklahoma! opened, Oscar Hammerstein took out a full-page ad in Variety listing all the flops that preceded it, and his quote: I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again.” Did you think of taking out an ad after Phantom opened in London and then Broadway?
PRINCE: I’d had eight flops. But I also had Evita running. I think I missed two years and two months of Broadway seasons, that’s all, in 60 years. So I’ve been on Broadway for 58 years or something, and that’s amazing. I mean, amazing, I’m grateful.
DEADLINE: But certainly Phantom changed everything.
PRINCE: Phantom did change everything in that it’s lasting forever, and I’m very grateful. I pay a lot of attention to the show, I’ll tell you. I rehearse them regularly, and pick our replacements very carefully.
DEADLINE: How many versions of it are out there?
PRINCE: London, Moscow, Denmark coming up again, Copenhagen, I think, Hamburg.
DEADLINE: The Las Vegas production seemed to suddenly disappear, though I thought it was quite successful.
PRINCE: [Producer] Cameron [Mackintosh] closed it, after six years. He’s a good producer. I have no complaints whatsoever. I know he loves Les Miz more than Phantom, which God knows is his right. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who love Les Miz more than Phantom. That’s okay.
DEADLINE: What was the impact on you of Phantom, creatively?
PRINCE: Andrew and I both wanted to do Phantom for exactly the same reason — it was a romantic musical. The thing that’s so peculiar is how few romantic musicals there are. That’s funny, because you’d think singing “I love you” is what a musical’s about. But they’re not. Given the setting, you wanted the trappings to be exquisite, everything exquisite. Minimalist, but exquisite. A black shiny enamel wall, but in it things that you know are not sham, first-rate furniture, first-rate details. And Maria [Bjornson] was a great designer. She is a huge part of the success of that show. And I did a good job. I loved what it was about.
DEADLINE: What else did you take away from the Phantom experience?
PRINCE: Prepare. I believe in prepare, you bet. This show we’re working on now has undergone four drastic restructurings. What I synthesized for you is where we are now, not where we were a year ago. So I feel much more comfortable working on it.
DEADLINE: You talked earlier about fun.
PRINCE: I like to play with empty space, and I like larger than life, and I like performances the way Angie [Angela Lansbury, the original Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd] acts. I like a heightened reality. There’s so much bullshit about the Actors Studio and about Brando mumbling. Come on. He’s the largest, most dynamic actor that ever lived. Mumbling, my ass. And I love that about the theater. I love that people project everything.
DEADLINE: One thing I always associate you with is the cinematic techniques you brought to Broadway. I think of the iris effect you used in Kiss Of the Spider-Woman, for example.
DEADLINE: Yes, and wipes and pans.
PRINCE: You can do close-ups, and people now realize that that technique is available to you in the theater.
DEADLINE: I know you keep up with what’s going today. What have you liked?
PRINCE: I liked Hamilton very much, and Fun Home I admired. I hoped that Fun Home would win the Tony, and it did, because it aspired. I like things to aspire. I’m crazy about all the guys at Hamilton. They’re all friends. I think Thomas Kail is a nifty director. And obviously Lin-Manuel [Miranda, the creator and star of the show], terrific guy. Ground has been broken, and that’s very important.
No work is flawless that’s dangerous and good. Do you remember 1776? The last five or 10 minutes are like the first five or 10 minutes of The Lion King — never see another five or 10 minutes like that as long as you live, and that’s all they owe you, as far as I’m concerned. I saw Something Rotten!, and I had an interesting appreciation of it. It reminded me exactly of a George Abbott musical. I thought, that’s the first George Abbott musical I’ve seen in 40 years. George could have directed it.
DEADLINE: What trends on Broadway scare you?
PRINCE: I think I touched on it there all those years ago, in ’74. I said, “Someday Broadway will be a stop on the road.” Well, these 10-, 12-, 14-week limited productions are really the equivalent of that. And of course I don’t like that. And of course there are too goddam many revivals. You’re hedging your bet. You’re putting your money into something that is going to be around for 14 weeks, and you’ll get your money back because the name over the title is so big it doesn’t matter how good it is. And so you’ll get your money back. I don’t know what that has to do with the theater. Too much business.
You see, I do really remember, and you remember, the time when people were exceedingly proud to put money in musicals that did not return their investment. What we tried to do over the years is do enough hits to return the investment and make a profit, and then say, “Okay, let’s do Pacific Overtures.” God knows, don’t anybody expect to see that money get back. And all my investors in those days were so proud to be part of it. That’s what counts.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the future — The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian police marching band that gets sidetracked on a journey and ends up having to stay overnight in a Jewish settlement. The score is by David Yazbek and the book is being written by playwright Itamar Moses.
PRINCE: It’s a movie I saw with Judy [Prince, Hal’s wife]. We adored it. We’re sticking very close to it. Itamar Moses is a very talented fellow. And Yazbek’s writing the score really well.
DEADLINE: It didn’t surprise me at all that you would be attracted to that material.
PRINCE: I wouldn’t think so. I find very, very appealing a show which is half Arab and half Jewish. It’s all very brutal and shouldn’t be happening. And you know I’m a political animal. I don’t understand what’s going on in Netanyahu’s head at all. I think he’s driving the country right down the toilet for no reason. And well, for every reason. But it’s so wrong-headed. What a waste of time, and lives. Amazing. So that’s why I’m doing the show. It’s just a lovely story.
DEADLINE: Are you prepared to say goodbye to Phantom, for it to close after 27 years?
PRINCE: No. Should I be? Do you know something I don’t know?
PRINCE: No, I don’t think it’s going to close for quite some time. I’m ready for it to outlive me. I certainly hope so.